By Stephen D. Bowling
February 1, 1875 – Many Breathitt County servicemen and women have distinguished themselves and our community with devoted attention to duty while serving in the military. Many brave servants continue to fulfill these ideas of commitment and duty. While many have been highly decorated, only one has risen to the rank of Adjutant General for the State of Kentucky.
Jackson Morris was born in 1875 about a mile from the Crockettsville Post Office on the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River in Breathitt County. The exact date of his birth varies depending on the source, but many cite February 1 as the most likely date.
His parents, Nacy W. and Louisa (Spicer) Morris, descended from long lines of Breathitt County pioneers who cleared and tamed the fertile banks of the Middle Fork for more than 100 years before his birth. He was the grandson of Richard and Jane (Garrison) Morris of Virginia and Andrew J. and Mary (Watts) Spicer.
Jackson attended the one-room school at Crockettsville and later schools in Jackson County after the family moved to Moore’s Creek in 1884.
He completed the first eight grades and the required curriculum to sit for the Kentucky Teacher’s Exam. Instead, he changed his plans and enrolled as a Freshman at Lees Collegiate Institute in Jackson under the tutelage of Dr. John J. Dickey. Morris completed three terms at the school and with Dickey’s help, went on to Williamsburg College.
Morris returned from college to Jackson County. In 1896 at the age of 21, he was elected Secretary and Treasurer of the Jackson County Republican Party. He remains the youngest person elected to that post. He served for five years at that position and was nominated at the age of 26 for the Kentucky State Legislature in 1901.
His opposition, incumbent William H. Clark, understood the operations of the Jackson County Republican Party. Morris ran a personal campaign and visited many of the county’s leaders to ask for their support. On April 17, 1901, when the ballots were counted, Morris won by 476 votes in Jackson County alone. He did not face any opposition in the general election and he was seated in January as a member of the State Legislature representing Clay, Jackson, and Owsley.
He immediately went to work and introduced several bills to equalize the distribution of state funds and also supported several school textbooks efforts. None of the bills saw the light of day and died in committee. Despite his fervent efforts, his influence grew in the first months of the General Assembly. Former Governor William O. Bradley and John W. Yerkes, Commissioner of Internal Revenue at Washington, D. C. approached Morris and offered him a lucrative opportunity in the revenue service but noted that he would have to resign. The pair had approached Morris shortly after this nomination and made the same offer hoping to return William Clark to the House of Representatives.
Frustrated with what he saw as “indolence and inaptitude” in Frankfort, Morris accepted the position. On April 17, 1902, he submitted his formal resignation after less than four months in office. He moved to Washington, D.C. to work for the Revenue Service.
Jackson Morris started his job at the Revenue Department and found a house on DeSales Street. He settled into the day-to-day task of his office. Morris enrolled in classes at nearby George Washington University. He focused on the field of law and worked his way to the top of his class. He was an active participant on several debating teams and excelled at sports. The Washington Times identified Morris as “one of the brilliant foot-ballists of Washington.” He was recognized as the top tackle in the league.
While he studied law at George Washington University, Morris joined the National Guard in Washington D. C. to help pay for his expenses. He was commissioned Second Lieutenant by President Theodore Roosevelt and later promoted to Captain.
While in the D. C. National Guard, he attended rifle competitions as a member of the team in Sea Grit, New Jersey, and won numerous awards including the individual rifle national championship in 1906.
Commissioner Yerkes detailed Morris to several places around the country including a prolonged stay in Greensboro, North Carolina where he worked to prosecute revenue law violators. In October 1907, Jackson Morris graduated from George Washington University with a Bachelor’s of Legislative Law and later with a Master of Laws degree. He returned from North Carolina to receive his degree in person in the ceremonies held in Belasco Theater.
Soon after his graduation, Morris accepted the request from Governor Augustus E. Wilson returned to Kentucky. He tendered his resignation as a Revenue Officer effective December 9, 1907, to accept a post as Assistant Secretary of State in Kentucky. He “stood his examination” for a license to practice law on Monday, April 26, 1908, and was sworn in before the Kentucky Court of Appeals as a member of the Kentucky State Bar four days later.
Just as he had in Washington, D.C., Morris was active in the military circles in Kentucky. Morris was commissioned as a Captain by Governor John C. W. Beckham. He served as the captain of the first Kentucky Rifle Team as an expert with the rifle and pistol.
On February 12, 1908, Jackson Morris married his long-time sweetheart Mona Christian of Newark, New Jersey. He and Mona were married in Newark at the home of Mona’s parents, Dr. M. Osborne and Harriett (Gorris) Christian. She was described as one of the “most cultivated and charming young ladies on the East” and most thought a good match for an up-and-coming politician who would “someday be Governor of Kentucky and maybe more.” The couple would eventually have several children.
The promising political future of Captain Jackson Morris was severely hampered and possibly destroyed on June 13, 1908. Morris and Roy Wilhoit, of Ashland, were sent to Georgetown on a special mission by Governor Augustus Willson. Wilson had made a very controversial decision to grant pardons to Caleb Powers and James Howard for their alleged roles in the assassination of Governor William Goebel in 1900.
Caleb Powers, former Secretary of State, was being held in Georgetown pending trial. When the duo from the Governor arrived by train the Jailer was out of town and Deputy Jailer Moses Rogers and County Attorney R. E. Robert made a typewritten copy of the pardon. The group walked to the Jail accompanied by more than a hundred curious onlookers who had gotten news of the pardon and came to see the release. Powers was released after eight years, four months, and three days of confinement awaiting a trial and after a petition signed by “more than 500 thousand signatures of which 240,000 were from Kentucky.”
The people of Kentucky hotly debated the guilt or innocence of Caleb Powers and his associates. The Governor’s decision to pardon Powers and Howard caused both joy and outrage depending primarily on party affiliation. Morris felt the brunt of both, especially those who saw the release as “a political hack by a Republican Governor to release a Republican Murderer of a Democratic Governor delivered by Republican lack (Morris).” His reputation never fully recovered.
In August 1910, Morris lead the Kentucky Rifle Team to competitions in Camp Perry Ohio. Two days into the competition, medics rushed him to the infirmary with an acute case of malarial fever. After several months, recover his health and announced a run for Railroad Commissioner in the Third District in February 1911.
He traveled around the state and became known as an “efficient and eloquent speaker.” Halfway through the campaign, his fever returned and he was forced off the campaign trail. He was soundly defeated in his bid.
Morris received a promotion to the staff of General William H. Sage, Commander of the 38th National Guard Division of the Army, in September 1911.
He served one term as the City Attorney for Pineville from 1914 to 1916 but continued his commitment to the Kentucky National Guard. While in Pineville, he was appointed Inspector General for Kentucky and received a promotion to the rank of Major in the Quartermaster Reserve Corps. He was in charge of the Camp Commissary at Fort Thomas, Kentucky during the Mexican incursion when Kentucky troops were deployed to the border in 1916. He was ordered to Camp Shelby, Mississippi as assistant construction quartermaster to oversee the transformation of a “pine forest into a hustling camp” for soldier training in less than a month.
Governor August Stanley placed him in charge of registration in Kentucky after the passage of the Selective Service Act at the start of WWI. Morris served as a member of the 38th (Cyclone) Infantry Division. As a member of the United States Army, he was assigned to the General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces in France and Germany as chief distributing quartermaster for 8 months. He served in capacities in the United States and in Europe during World War I.
After the war, he worked for the Republican National Committee making 25,000 miles in 38 states where he was known as “one of the best speakers in America” In 1920, he toured the county and spoke on behalf of the Republican national ticket which included Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. He was one of the headliners on the “Governor’s Special” when the train toured the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Governor Calvin Coolidge, then the nominee for Vice-President, gave a rousing speech for about 20 minutes at the L& N Depot at Jackson on October 18, 1920.
Governor Edwin P. Morrow announced on November 1, 1920, that Jackson Morris would succeed Major James M. DeWeese as the Adjutant General of Kentucky. The Jackson Times announced in its November 5, 1920 edition that the “appointment by the governor will meet with general; approval of person connected with the military affairs of the states as well as with the soldiers of the World War.”
Coal mine strikes in Eastern Kentucky and lingering issues in western Kentucky related to the “tobacco wars” dominated Morris’ time as Adjutant General. He personally commanded men during the “Bloody Harlan” era of coal mine unionization strikes and was labeled by locals as “Hard Hand” Morris for his strict enforcement of trespassing laws.
After his retirement as Adjutant General, Morris remained in the spotlight. In 1922, he served as the Chairman of the Kentucky Disabled Ex-Servicemen’s Board to advocate for medical treatment and compensation.
He served on the State Executive Committee of the American Legion and was active in the Masonic Lodge and the Baptist Church. He continued to practice law in Louisville but never fully regained his health after the 1910 attack of the malarial fever.
He was admitted several times to the hospital with lung ailments and sought relief at several Kentucky springs. His mother died in January 1939 at the age of 86 and Nacy Morris, his 91-year-old father followed in March 1943. By then Jackson Morris’ own health had deteriorated to the point that he had to sit for most of his father’s burial at the Morris-Gambill Cemetery on Moore’s Creek in Jackson County.
In 1943, he traveled to the Edward Hines, Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital at Hines, Cook County, Illinois, and died there on August 17, at the age of 68.
He was buried in the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky. His wife, Mona, died on June 24, 1955, and her cremated remains were interred with him in Louisville.
Jackson Morris was once a rising star in both political confidence and promise. The combination of his pure ability and intelligence mixed with his friendly personality set him on a course for future leadership until his involvement in a controversial pardon. He and his reputation never recovered. He is remembered today as a prominent man who loved Breathitt County and gave more than 41 years of his devoted service to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
© 2022 by Stephen D. Bowling