James D. Richardson, prominent turn-of-the-century Democratic leader, U.S. congressman, and nationally recognized historian and editor, was born in Rutherford County on March 10, 1843. His grandparents, James and Mary Watkins Richardson, had moved to Jefferson in 1814, and his father, John Watkins Richardson, was a Murfreesboro physician who served in both the Tennessee Senate and House and as the president of the Tennessee State Medical Society. James Daniel Richardson’s mother, Augusta Mary Starnes, was from a politically prominent family of Georgia.
Richardson attended schools in Murfreesboro and Franklin Academy before enlisting as a private in the Forty-fifth Tennessee Infantry (C.S.A.) during the Civil War. While serving as adjutant-general, Richardson rose to the rank of major and was wounded in the battle of Resaca during the Atlanta Campaign of 1864. This wound crippled his hand for life.
In 1865 Richardson married Alabama R. Pippen, daughter of a prominent Eutaw, Alabama, planter and they had five children. After the war Richardson studied law with Judge Thomas Frazier, gaining admission to the bar in 1866. He and General Joseph Palmer of Murfreesboro practiced together for twelve years. At Palmer’s death, he opened a partnership with his brother, John E. Richardson.
During these years, Richardson became a leader of the state Democratic Party, serving as Speaker of House in 1871 and in the state Senate for two years. In 1884 Richardson entered national politics when he was elected as the Fifth District congressman from Tennessee to the Forty-ninth Congress. Richardson was elected to the next five succeeding Congresses (1855-1905), becoming the Democratic minority whip for an interim in the Fifty-third Congress in 1894. After serving as a delegate in 1876, 1896, and 1900, Richardson was named the chairman of the National Democratic Convention in Kansas City. He was chairman of the National Democratic Congressional Committee in 1900. While serving in Congress, Richardson introduced a bill for appropriation of $125,000 to purchase land for a military park and national cemetery at the site of the Stones River battlefield.
In 1894 Congress passed a resolution requesting Richardson, a scholarly gentleman, to begin the compilation and editing of The Messages and Papers of the Presidents and, later, The Messages and Papers of the Confederacy, both valuable reference sources. Other published works by Richardson are “Tennessee Templars” and “The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite.”
In October 1867, while still in Alabama, Richardson was inducted into the Scottish Rite Masons. In the 1870s he served as Grand Master of the Masons of Tennessee. Richardson accepted the position of Sovereign Grand Commander of Scottish Rite Masonry in 1901 and remained in that position until 1914. Richardson purchased land for building a new temple in Washington, D.C., and approved plans for its proposed facade and its interior. Unfortunately, he died before its completion, but the temple remains as a memorial to Richardson’s vision of the future.
When Richardson died on July 25, 1914, a Knight Templar Kodosh funeral ceremony was held at midnight at the Central Christian Church in Murfreesboro. The next afternoon, a traditional service, attended by over one thousand people, was held at the Central Christian Church. Richardson was interred in Murfreesboro’s Evergreen Cemetery in the family plot.