•Jurist • Military Officer
Modern observers can find in the career of Thomas Goode Jones both the promise and failings of a troubled state. There is no doubt that he was one of the state's most influential leaders.
Jones was born in Macon, Ga., to railroad builder Samuel Goode Jones and Martha Goode Jones, and moved with his family to Montgomery, Ala., in 1849. Educated at Virginia Military Institute on the eve of the Civil War, Jones rose through quickly as C.S. Army officer, was wounded several times and surrendered at Appomattox at the rank of major. Military service apparently agreed with Jones, for he went on to help organize and lead the Alabama state militia. He also maintained a military officer's sense of responsibility for subordinates.
Jones returned to Montgomery after the war, and through the period of Reconstruction, gradually transitioned from farming to law and politics, sustained by work as official reporter of the Alabama Supreme Court. In fact, by 1870, Jones had less choice in the matter as he lost his farmland due to a poor cotton economy and crushing debt. He soon made a name in the practice of law.
Jones served the Louisville and Nashville railroad, and other clients both in private practice and public service, building great respect for his legal expertise. It is a measure of his personal and professional reputation that he is credited with creating the first code of ethics for U.S. lawyers. Perhaps because of his father's business experience and his own experience as a military officer and failed cotton farmer, Jones recognized the promise of industrialization as well as the hardships of the South's fading agricultural economy, especially its toll on the individual citizen. Accordingly, he took some unpopular stands as he rose in state political power—a legislator by 1884, speaker of the house by 1886 and governor by 1890.
Although Jones was a white supremacist and benefited from racist politics, he is considered a racial moderate in the context of the region and era. He supported the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and alienated powerful forces by opposing the creation of a de facto slave system on the state's farms. He developed a positive relationship with Booker T. Washington, and opposed lynch mobs and the corrupt, brutal and racist convict lease system as fervently as he opposed the organized labor movement that promised the economic liberation of poor blacks and whites.
Jones' respect for law and order above all and evenhanded application of the law—including for black citizens—led to his appointment as U.S. district judge for Alabama's Northern and Middle Districts in 1903. He died in that final public role.
Thomas Goode Jones exerted a powerful influence on the state of Alabama at a critically important time in its history. A career that to modern eyes appears contradictory and even offensive in some particulars must be understood as the price of that influence—a post-Reconstruction realpolitik that echoes loudly in the halls of state government even today.