Governor and President of Peabody Normal School James D. Porter was born in Paris, Tennessee, on December 7, 1828. An 1846 graduate of the University of Nashville, Porter was admitted to the bar in 1851 and elected to the state legislature in 1859. After Tennessee seceded, he helped organize troops for the Provisional Army of Tennessee. With the transfer of these forces to the Confederacy, Porter was appointed to the staff of Benjamin F. Cheatham, a post he held throughout the war.
After the war Porter resumed his law practice and reentered public life in 1870 as a delegate to the state constitutional convention. Shortly afterwards, he won election as a circuit judge but resigned from the bench in 1874 to seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He handily defeated Republican opponent Horace Maynard in the election and won a second term in 1876. Porter served as president of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad from 1880 to 1884. He was assistant secretary of state under President Grover Cleveland in 1885, and during the second Cleveland administration, he was appointed minister to Chile in 1892. He later served as president of the Tennessee Historical Society.
During Porter’s first gubernatorial term, he secured use of the University of Nashville campus for a normal school funded through the largesse of financier and philanthropist George Peabody. In 1901 he was appointed chancellor of his alma mater and the next year as president of the Peabody Normal College. Early in his tenure, he began efforts to turn over assets of the University of Nashville to trustees of the Peabody Fund, a transfer which occurred in 1907. Porter’s Herculean efforts in securing funds from local and state sources proved indispensable when the Peabody Education Fund liquidated its assets and granted a million-dollar bequest for the creation of George Peabody College for Teachers. Porter felt embittered and betrayed when fellow Peabody Fund trustees decided to abandon the University of Nashville site and locate the teachers college near Vanderbilt University. He resigned in 1909 and retired the next year to Paris, where he died May 18, 1912.