REALIZED HIS AMBITIONS
One beautiful evening in the spring of 1912, which all nature had exerted itself to create
ideal, when the red-fingered tapers of twilight arching gently from the west, cast lingering shadows across the
Big Sioux Valley, a quiet, dignified jurist with a kindly face and pleasing mannerisms, stepped out of a cab at
the Great Northern depot in Sioux Falls, stole almost unnoticed across the platform in the semi-darkness, and
boarded a passenger train on that line, headed for Yankton. Arriving at the latter place late in the evening,
this dignified, courteous gentleman stepped off the train quite as unnoticed as he had entered, walked hurriedly
across the depot platform to a hackman and said, "Drive me at once to the home of Senator Gamble."
Upon reaching the senator's home, he lost no time in alighting from the cab and entering the
house. Senator Gamble, throwing open the door in response to a sharp ring of the bell, said: "Come in, my dear
Judge, I'm so glad to see you," bowing the meanwhile in polite recognition of the caller's presence, and
extending to him a most cordial hand-clasp. "Remove your coat," he continued, "while I call Mrs. Gamble who will
be equally pleased to see you."
During the felicitations which followed, Mrs. Gamble detected beneath the accustomed smile on
the jurist's face a peculiar expression of anxiety which bespoke to her in silent but impressive language that
something unordinary was either happening or else about to take place. Therefore, without lingering in the
room beyond twenty scant minutes, she excused herself and retired for the night.
It was in the midst of Senator Gamble's campaign for renomination to the United States senate.
The room was beautifully lighted. The Senator, himself, was clad in a salt-and-pepper frock suit; and when his
friend arrived, he was sititng at a table pondering meditatingly over a chart of South Dakota election
statistics. Once by themselves the Judge hastily disclosed his errand. He said: "Senator, I have come over voluntarily to see you with regard to your renomination. Would you
mind if I should speak very plainly to you about the situation, as I see it?"
"Not at all," responded the Senator, "I shall be greatly pleased to have you do so."
"We11," said the learned judge and wise political prognosticator, as he drew his chair much
closer to that of Senator Gamble's and placed his hand affectionately upon the latter's knee, "the present
campaign is going to hinge itself on the Lorimer scandal. It is no doubt true that the election of many other
senators is tainted with fraud but that doesn't make any difference; in my judgment he is going to be made the
'goat' of the senate and be driven to the mountains for refuge. The public is excited and are demanding his
removal. I am sure it will be done, and if you continue to support him, you are as sure to go down to defeat as
day follows night, but if you will oppose him you can sweep the state, and in all probability go back to the
senate as often as you desire. Personally, I have not had time to review the evidence in the case, so of course
my suggestions are not based upon the merits of it. You will, of course, pardon this outspoken declaration from
me. Now, what is your opinion?"
"Judge," said the senator slowly and with a look of deep concern upon his face, "what you say
may he true, but in supporting Mr. Lorimer, I am simply doing my duty as I see it. From boyhood it was my ambition
to occupy the position of a United States senator. It is the highest legislative body on earth. I have not only
taken my oath as a member of that holy but I have also taken a solemn oath as a member of the special committee
appointed to investigate the scandalous charges concerning Mr. Lorimer's election. I am sitting there as a
juror or a judge. I am sworn to determine the matter on the evidence. Look at it! There isn't enough real
evidence to convict a dog. It was mostly given by bar-room criminals and leeches of the under-world. Look at
the testimony that has been given by substantial citizens to offset it." Then, rising from his chair, that
sturdy senator, Robert J. Gamble, with tears trickling down his manly face, said in a trembling voice but with
an approving conscience: "A senator's salary is comparatively small. I haven't saved a dollar out of mine. No
senator can save money unless he is dishonest. I have never accepted a dishonest dollar in my life. On the
other hand my law business is gone; I know less law than I did twelve years ago when I entered the senate.
Under the circumstances I should like very much to remain at least another term in the senate. But, Judge, in
determining this Lorimer matter, I am going to do my sworn duty as I see it, and as God, Himself, gives me light to see it, with absolutely no thought
of my own political welfare; and then if I go down to defeat, you'll never hear me whimper."
To whom was the senator speaking? Who was this night messenger that had called at his home? Who
was the judge? the jurist? the counsellor? who had come to see him as his benefactor? Ah! read slowly
don't miss a wordwhile I disclose to you that it was his life-long friend, his former office boy, his
campaign adviser in days gone by, the most astute politician South Dakota has ever produced, Judge James D.
Elliott, of Sioux Falls.
But Judge Elliott is no longer in politics. He was not in politics, directly, when he made his
night call upon Senator Gamble. He had simply gone there as a former neighbor and friend to get the Senator to
change his viewpoint on the Lorimer matter. Nevertheless when he was active in politics, he was never known to
err in judgment or in prophecy. He was identified with the old wing of the Republican party until 1906, and until
that time they never tasted total defeat. His judgment in politics was infallible. But when the practices of the
old organization became intolerable to him, he promptly left them and became one of the leaders in the reform
movement. Momentarily a new chapter was written in our political history.
Born at Mt. Sterling, Illinois, October 7, 1859, of Scotch parentage, he was, nevertheless,
while yet a mere babe, taken by his parents to Ringgold county, Iowa, where he spent his early childhood. His
father served two enlistments in the Civil War. Although but a mere child at the time, Judge Elliott remembers
seeing his father bid the family farewell, mount his horse and ride away to the service of his country. He also
remembers the assassination of Lincoln. After the war, the family removed to Guthrie county, Iowa. Here young
Elliott attended a district school and later took up work in an academy. He would have graduated from the latter
institution in June, 1872, had not his parents, in April of that year, moved to Clay county, South Dakota.
This brought a new chapter into his life. Here was a boy who had entered school at four years of
age and who had practically completed an academic course at thirteen. Once in Dakota, conditions changed. He
lingered along at the old home on the Missouri bottom, for several years, getting such help in his studies as he
could from intelligent settlers here and there. Finally, when the Vermillion city schools were organized he went
there and took a four-year course in two years; that is, he took the two-year high school course which was
established and a special two-year course beyond it, in half time. Yet this achievement was not accomplished
without one of the most severe struggles in the history of a man. His parents were exceedingly poor. James hadn't
a dollar. He slept in the rear of a vacated building, with no fire. Night after night he shivered himself to
sleep. For food he hadn't a bite except that sent to him now and then in a rough wooden box by his loyal mother.
He piled sticks in the alley, set them on fire, thawed out his food, ate it and underwent hardships that would
make even Dr. Cook blush in his quest for the north pole. The second year was easier, he got janitor work
to do to pay for his board.
Upon the completion of his school work at Vermillion, he taught schoolone year in Clay
county, one in Yankton county, and one term in Nebraska. During this time, he saved his money and invested it
in cattle which he turned into his father's herd, and which he hoped to sell later to raise money with which
to put himself through the law school at Ann Arbor, Michigan. But the great flood of 1881 swept away his
father's property, drowned all their cattle and destroyed everything they had, leaving the family penniless,
and young Elliott to lay the foundation for his destiny all over again. Accordingly the next year he entered
the law offices of Gamble brothersJohn R. and Robert J.at Yankton and began to read law for
himself, while for a livelihood he slept in the office and kept books at night, dividing his surplus earnings
with his parents and five sisters. In this connection it may be well to state that no boy ever had a better opportunity to read law, for, without casting any reflection
upon any other man, it is safe to state that John R. Gamble, who at one time was our congressman, was the
brainiest and most brilliant attorney that has ever graced either of the Dakotas. It was a rare privilege for
a young man of Elliott's temperament to have known him and to have studied under him. So thorough and so broad
was his instruction and that of his brother Robert's to their devoted law student that today their young
protege occupies the leading bench of the state, with no other legal preparation, save that secured under their
AN HONEST ATTORNEY
Young Elliott was admitted to the bar in 1884, and he at once settled at Tyndall, where for twenty-seven years,
he was on one side or the other of practically every case that was tried in court, or else associated with the
lawyer who did try it. His learning was so broad, his conception of duty so high, that more than a hundred
times during his Tyndall practice, aggrieved parties came into his office together, constituted him judge and
jury, stated their grievances, took his verdict, abided by it and went home without going into court at all.
This confidence arose from his noble manhood, from his exemplary life, and from the fact that he was never
known to stoop to low scheming in order to win a case. Forgetful of self, he never urged litigation, but
invariably sought to keep his clients out of court.
POLITICS AND IDEALS
In politics he is a complete master of the game. During those long years at Tyndall, he handled the politics of
Bon Homme county in a masterly way, yet nobody fought his leadership; in fact they all sought it. He was made
chairman of the republican state central committee in 1896. A number of his friends begged him to run for
governor or for congress, and on one occasion the leaders of the state legislature urged him to leave Pierre
and return to Tyndall, so that they might on the morrow elect him to the United States senate. But James
Elliott emphatically refused. Unlike most politicians who always have "an axe to grind," Judge Elliott was in
politics only for the good he might do his party and his personal friends. He never sought preferment for
himself; rather, he incessantly refused it.
Now, there was a reason for this. When young Elliott was reading law in the Gamble brother's
offices at Yankton, the only court in those days was the federal court which convened in Yankton which was the territorial capital. Here the lad saw federal court conducted, and saw the United States
district attorney in action. It appealed to him and it gave birth within him to some day become our United States
district attorney and later on to sit on the bench as federal judge. With these two ideals before him, he never
swerved from his realization of them. The percentage of men who realize their ambitions in life is so small that
it perhaps does not exceed one in every ten thousand. Elliott is one of them.
REALIZED FIRST AMBITION
For the good work which he did in 1896 as chairman of the republican state central committee,
in stemming the tide of populism that was sweeping the state, President McKinley, almost immediately after his
inauguration in the spring of 1897, appointed Mr. Elliott United States district attorney for South Dakota.
His first ambition was realized. This position he held for ten years.
Then he became general attorney for the Milwaukee railroad company in the two Dakotas. Elliott
named his own salary; the company accepted it. There was but one stipulationhe refused to do their
political work. They exempted him from it. This new legal department out in the west for a great corporation
needed organization; Eliott undertook it. So well did be succeed that the company raised his salary several
thousand dollars before the end of the first year.
REALIZED SECOND AMBITION
But, what about that second ambitionthe federal judgeship? Strangely enough, in the
winter of 1910-11, a vacancy was created on the federal bench at Sioux Falls, by reason of Judge Carland's
promotion to a position on the new Commerce Court created by special act of Congress. A scramble took place at
once among politicians for this federal judgeship. One dignified lawyer looked calmly on and awaited the
verdict, while his friends remained busy in his behalf. And in June, 1911, President Taft appointed to the
vacancy that poverty-stricken lad from the Missouri bottoms, the early teacher in the Dakotas, the lawyer who
had mastered law outside of a law school, the Honorable James D. Elliott now Judge Elliott, if you
At last his cherished ambitions were realized. They had been harbored in his soul for
twenty-nine years. Perseverance wins. In order to accept the honor he took a reduction in salary of $5,000 per
year. But he could do this. Those early days in Dakota had taught him the art of saving. At present he owns sixteen farms in Bon Homme county, containing six
sets of magnificent buildings. His income is sufficient for life without his judge's salary. If it had not been,
he could not have accepted it, for the salary of the position is not commensurate with the financial obligations
which it entails.
Immediately upon his appointment, Judge Elliott sold off every dollar of his bank stock and as
far as possible liberated himself from all corporate influences. He also withdrew from polities and has isolated
himself from all entangling matters, so as to make a great judge one whom the people might love and revere
as they did the young Tyndall attorney in days gone by. Thus far he has already adjudged some of the most
important cases in the history of the state, yet not a single newspaper or individual has found fault with his
verdicts. In the one large case from Pierre which was carried to circuit court of appeals, he was sustained on
every point, even though some new law had been written into it.
Said he to a friend not long since: "When I was sworn in as federal judge, I also registered a
secret oath with my God that I would never knowingly misjudge or wrongly sentence any man, and that every person,
rich or poor, black or white, accused of crime, would have to stand before me and have his guilt or innocence
weighed in the same scales of justice, and I shall never break that oath." He never will!
Let us all unite in congratulating him on the achievement of his ambitions, and in hoping that
the boys of the rising generation may emulate his noble example!