Biography of General Luke Edward Wright

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The consensus of public opinion accorded General Luke Edward Wright the foremost position among the citizens of Memphis and many there are who regarded him as first among the citizens of the state of Tennessee. A lawyer of pronounced ability, ex-governor of the Philippine Islands, ambassador to Japan, secretary of war in President Roosevelt’s cabinet, builder and promoter of the growth and greatness of Memphis, he left the impress of his individuality and ability upon the history of city, state and country in a manner that time cannot efface. He was born in the town of Pulaski, Giles county, Tennessee, on the 29th of August, 1846, a son of Judge Archibald Wright, who was also a distinguished member of the Tennessee bar and at one time a member of the supreme court of the state. He was born in Maury county, Tennessee, in 1809, his father being John Wright, a farmer by occupation, who was a native of North Carolina and represented an old family of Scotch lineage. John Wright removed from the Old North state to Maury county, Tennessee, where he became a well-to-do farmer as well as an honored pioneer settler of the state. After a time he took up his abode in Giles county, where he lived to an advanced age, lacking only a few months of being a centenarian at the time of his death. His son, Judge Archibald Wright, removed to Memphis in 1850 and for many years was recognized as one of the leaders of the bar of this city, both prior to and subsequent to the Civil War. In young manhood he wedded Mary Elizabeth Eldridge, who was born in Giles county and was ten years his junior. She was a daughter of Dr. Elisha Eldridge, a practicing physician, who was graduated from Dartmouth College. He was a native of New Hampshire and of English lineage and he wedded a Miss Dillon, who was of Irish descent. Their daughter, Mrs. Wright, was seventy-seven years of age when she passed away in Memphis, while the death of her husband, Judge Archibald Wright, occurred in this city in 1884, when he was seventy-six years of age.

Luke E. Wright made his home in Memphis from 1850, or from the time when he was a lad of four years. He attended the city schools and with the inauguration of the Civil War his elder brother, Eldridge, enlisted, becoming an artillery officer, while Luke, then about fifteen years of age, joined his brother’s battery. He enlisted June 4, 1861, in Company G, One Hundred and Fifty-fourth Senior Tennessee Regiment, and later became lieutenant of artillery attached to Breckinridge’s and Bates’ divisions. He participated in many hotly contested engagements and at Stone River he saw his brother Eldridge fall, giving his life for the cause in which he believed. General Wright participated in the battles of Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and other sanguinary conflicts and was in the fighting from Dalton to Atlanta, being wounded in the last named engagement. He was in the battles of Franklin and Nashville and was in the defenses at Mobile.

General Luke E Wright
General Luke E Wright

When the war was over General Wright became a student in the University of Mississippi, pursuing the literary course, and later he read law in his father’s office, having the benefit of a great teacher, for Judge Wright was familiar with the law in all its branches and made his son read Coke and Blackstone, grounding him in the philosophies and principles that are the essence and the heart of the legal system of the English speaking people. Following his admission to the bar he became a partner of his father and at a period following the war when the republican vote was due to carry Memphis, he became a candidate for attorney general on the democratic ticket and was elected, being but twenty-four years of age at the time. He served for eight years and it was this service that won for him the title of general, by which he was ever afterward known, despite his efforts to shake it off. In both hemispheres he was called General Wright, notwithstanding his frequent protests against the use of the term. With his retirement from office he resumed the practice of law in connection with his father, being for many years a partner in the firm of Wright, Folkes & Wright, composed of Judge Archibald Wright, Hon. William C. Folkes and Luke E. Wright. Mr. Folkes was a son-in-law of Judge Wright and thus the partnership was maintained by members of the family. He afterward became one of the supreme judges of the state and was regarded as a distinguished jurist, as well as a prominent attorney. Following the death of his father Luke E. Wright became a law partner of the Hon. Thomas B. Turley, a former United States senator, and the firm of Turley & Wright existed for a dozen years or more, after which Luke E. Wright admitted his eldest son, Eldridge Wright, to a partnership. The latter was a graduate of the University of Virginia and before his untimely death in a railroad wreck in 1910, when he was forty years of age, he had become one of Tennessee’s foremost lawyers. The name of Luke E. Wright is associated with some of the most important litigation that was tried in the courts of the state and with the exception of the periods of his service in the Philippines, in Japan and in Washington he remained in the active practice of law in Memphis until a few weeks prior to his demise. In this connection one of the local papers at the time of his death wrote: “Until he went to his home never to return, a few weeks ago, his legal mind was as keen and as supple as that of an inquiring youth. He kept up with the development of the law. He was as familiar with new decisions as he was with old ones. But when he discussed law with friends or with other lawyers it was the findings of the mind of a man, trained in the school of My Lord Coke, and not one merely filled with cases. It might be said that as a lawyer General Wright, more than most men, knew what the law ought to be. But the law was merely one of the activities of this many-minded man. He was distinguished in other avenues where the brain is the ruling force. General Wright’s public service as a private citizen is unique. We do not overstate it when we say that he did more for the city of Memphis than any other man that ever lived or died in it. When the fever of 1878 and 1879 swept over this city General Wright remained in Memphis. The story of his service is well told by Keating and Judge Young. It was a time when strong men went to pieces. Nothing like that epidemic ever struck a modern city. General Wright became a member of a citizens’ committee and later a relief committee. Before long he dominated both committees. He directed the affairs of the city, he looked out for doctors, nurses supplies and occasionally he visited the bedside of a dying friend. In the full vigor of young manhood he went up and down the streets of the stricken town by night and by day. He never lost his nerve. Through hospitals, among the dead and among the dying he went serenely about the tragic work. The forces of lawlessness in these terrible times occasionally attempted to break loose. One day, when rations were being served, a bully in black, instigated by a white ruffian, attacked a colored sentry at the commissary entrance. Young says it was probably an attempt of a general rush to overcome the small force and loot the stores. The sentry shot his assailant; then arose a wail of women, then a mob began to gather. It looked as if there was going to be trouble. General Wright came from a building, stood on a box and publicly commended the black sentry for discharging his duty. He commended the black soldiers for their good behavior. He then told the mob that any depredations of thieves or any attempt at mob violence would be stopped and that sufficient military men would be brought into action to destroy the whole force. The historian says there was no more trouble. The white ruffian who inspired the attack disappeared. From that time on the lawlessly inclined remained quiet. We of the present generation have forgotten many of the splendid men who served Memphis in 1878 and 1879, but so long as Memphis has traditions the great work that General Wright did in those days will be recalled. In 1879 there was talk of abandoning Memphis. A call for a meeting for all refugees was sent out. They gathered in St. Louis. General Wright went from Memphis to Nashville and from Nashville to St. Louis. Many men were cast down. Others thought of establishing themselves in other cities. There was some speech making of a pessimistic sort. General Wright interrupted the proceedings with a resolution which ran as follows: ‘Resolved that Memphis will be recreated and rebuilt by the people of Memphis.’ The terseness of the resolution and its sharpness startled the crowd into action. The previous question was put. It was carried and the men in the convention became enthusiastic. They returned to Memphis. The work of rebuilding began. A new and greater Memphis was reborn. General Wright, Colonel Gantt and other lawyers assisted materially in framing the charter of the taxing district. They cooperated in the adjustment of the city’s debt. Through the several years that followed General Wright often directed the legal work necessary to the proper functioning of the very unique charter that the taxing district worked under. All this he did without fee. General Wright was not a rich man. His family was large. He might then have reaped more from his private practice had he given all of his time to it, but his splendid wife and he were willing to make every sacrifice for the welfare of their city and for their fellow citizens. Historians like Judge Young and men who know Memphis, looking back over fifty years, would say that Luke E. Wright did so much in his capacity as a private citizen for the welfare of this city and its people in times of peril that rightly he could be acclaimed the first citizen of Memphis, if citizenship is to be measured by the standard of unselfish service.”

Not only did General Wright serve his city and state but became a national figure when in 1900 President McKinley appointed him a member of the Philippine commission, of which Judge William Howard Taft was chairman. This commission, composed of five members, reached Manila in June, 1900, and on the 4th of July, 1901, Mr. Taft was made governor of the Philippines. In October of that year he became ill and soon afterward returned to the United States, at which time Mr. Wright was made acting governor of the Islands. Upon Judge Taft’s return to the Philippines in 1902, Mr. Wright returned to the United States on leave of absence and at the conclusion of his visit to his native land resumed his post of duty in the Philippines and soon afterward was appointed governor general of the Islands by President Roosevelt as the successor of Governor Taft, who had been made secretary of war. Mr. Wright served in that position for two years and four months. Returning home again on leave in 1905, he was then appointed United States ambassador to Japan by President Roosevelt and served in that position in the Flowery Kingdom for about fourteen months. Upon the resignation of William Howard Taft as secretary of war in order to become presidential candidate in 1908, Mr. Wright was appointed his successor in the cabinet position and served as such until the close of the Roosevelt administration, when he returned to Memphis and resumed his law practice. His work in the Philippines was of a most important character. America knew little of her colonial possessions and the Filipinos not only spoke a strange language but many languages. The civil law of Spain was the rule in the Islands and the cultured people there had been trained in a university older than that of any in America. It was necessary for the commission to reconcile conflicting systems of law, to break down racial and national prejudices and to rule wisely and well a people, some of whom loved order, while others were in all degrees of savagery. There were also conflicts between the civil power and the army that was already established in the Philippines and it was here that General Wright’s previous experience as a soldier served him in good stead, as he proved a mediating force between the civil and military authorities. When he left the Islands to become ambassador to Japan he had succeeded in establishing a stable government and he left a peaceful land and a prosperous treasury. No civil administration over a colony was ever more successful than his. The love that Theodore Roosevelt had for General Wright was manifest in the way he addressed him as “Good Old Luke,” and through his appointment of his friend as first ambassador to Japan. He was also in that country at a trying period, when Japan, flushed with her victory over Russia, had become a world power and was demanding equal rights with the great powers of the world and a recognition of equality with the Aryan race. The question of Japanese immigration in California had already become acute. The Japanese insisted that if the people of the United States should bar out their people, it should do the same to the immigrants from western Europe. It was General Wright who finally evolved a plan providing that wherein we did not admit certain classes from Japan that country need not admit similar classes from America. Thus the Japanese had the principle, while America had the practical privilege of the agreement. General Pershing was aid to General Wright during his service as Japan’s ambassador. On the conclusion of his service in that position President Roosevelt invited General Wright to become the successor of Taft in his cabinet as secretary of war and again his early military training proved extremely useful for him, enabling him quickly to come to an understanding with army officers and to meet military problems, both from the civilian’s and from the soldier’s viewpoint. It was during this time that the aeroplane was in its infancy and General Wright furthered the flying machine, recognizing much of what its value might be to the country. At the close of the Roosevelt administration General Wright returned to Memphis and again became head of the law firm of Wright & Wright, so continuing until the death of his son Eldridge, after which the firm became Wright, Miles, Waring & Walker.

Not only did General Wright figure conspicuously and honorably in connection with the history of the Tennessee bar and with the annals of the nation but in many ways furthered the welfare and upbuilding of Memphis. When the Mercantile Bank, of which he was one of the directors, failed, General Wright said: “I am going to see to It, if it is humanly possible, that all of the poor people, at least, who had money in this bank, get it.” Without any legal responsibility, even without a moral responsibility, he contributed from his own private resources a large sum for this purpose and impressed his views on others with the result that depositors who had as much as one thousand dollars received the amount in full, while the larger depositors were reimbursed to an extent that made their losses practically negligible. It was also General Wright who saved the Memphis Street Railway when in the fall of 1890 it seemed that it was bound for destruction. A loan from A. M. Billings of Chicago had formerly financed the enterprise, and about the time when railway systems were being converted from mule power to electric power and Mr. Billings had made up his mind to accept part loss for the money he had loaned and close the transaction, General Wright induced him to visit Memphis, where he spent several days, making a thorough survey of the city and surrounding territory. Although he was then a very old man, he decided that if General Wright would look after legal matters he, Billings, would buy the Memphis street car system outright, reconstruct and rehabilitate it, which he did, and thus the railway system of Memphis was electrified in advance of many systems in other cities of the country. Another important public act of General Wright was his supervision of the first big drive to secure funds to erect the splendid Y. M. C. A. building of the city. He was also a stockholder and director of the Commercial Publishing Company from its organization until he went to the Philippines and he again became a director after his return from service abroad and in Washington.

In 1868 Mr. Wright was married to Miss Katherine Middleton Semmes, a daughter of Admiral Raphael Semmes of the Confederate States navy. Three of their children survive: Anne, who is now Mrs. John H. Watkins of New York city; Raphael Semmes, a farmer of Mississippi; and Katrina, who is the wife of Colonel Charles D. Palmer, also of New York.

In his later years General Wright largely found recreation in golf and recognized the value of outdoor exercise in keeping physically fit. His service to his government was of most important character and he was regarded as the peer of the ablest statesmen of the country, yet he felt that the pursuits of private life were in themselves abundantly worthy of his best efforts and was content to be known as an able representative of that profession in which advancement depends upon individual effort, industry and capability, becoming recognized as one of the foremost lawyers of the south. When he passed away The Commercial Appeal of November 18, 1922, said editorially: “Few other men in this country engaging in so many activities as General Luke E. Wright, discharged their duty with such eminent ability. He was a man of great common sense and splendid poise. He was direct, but he was never untactful. He was a wise man. Through all the years of his life General Wright’s career was one of public and private service. * * * In the politics of Tennessee, General Wright, when he was active, stood always for what was decent and clean. He insisted that if his state incurred an honest debt it must be paid to the last cent. This has to do with the famous fight in Tennessee when many people favored a repudiation of certain obligations, but a strong group in the state insisted that Tennessee should repudiate nothing that was a lawful or moral obligation. General Wright’s national career is part of the history of this country. He went to the Philippines as one of the first five commissioners. He was active when the control of the Islands was passed from the military to the civil forces. Later General Wright became chairman of the commission. Under a change in the method of government, General Wright was the first governor-general of the Islands. When he left the Islands there was behind him a splendid record of constructive work. More than any other man he brought about a state of order among the people and prosperity in the Islands’ commerce. Going from the Philippines to Japan, as first ambassador, following the Russo-Japanese war, General Wright found many difficult questions pressing for solution. With the same tact that marked everything he did as a private or public citizen, General Wright soon brought about a friendly understanding between the two countries. Leaving Japan, General Wright went into the cabinet of President Roosevelt. His career as secretary of war was brief, but the imprint of things he did is definite and clear, even today. General Wright was a man of commanding intellectual powers. His ability to analyze was great. It was easy for him to reduce the most difficult questions to their simple dominant parts. The element of surprise never threw him off his feet. In no crisis did he lose his poise. In the court room, before a witness and a jury, General Wright was alert and farseeing. He had a way of getting along easily with hostile witnesses. Before a jury he was simple, direct and forceful. He made facts plain. In courts of chancery and in high courts, before great judges, he was serene, convincing and always courteous. The philosophy of the law delighted General Wright. He was proud of the profession. The nearest to anger we ever saw him was when some lawyer was unfaithful to the canons of equity. One of the secrets of General Wright’s great success as a lawyer and a counsellor was his absolute freedom from prejudice, his willingness to see the merit of the opposite side of the proposition and his ability to measure it at its real value. In conducting a lawsuit he had more of the manner of a man summing up than that of an advocate for one side. As a statesman General Wright’s record is a part of the splendid history of this country. He knew world history and world politics. He knew the notions, the weaknesses and the prejudices of nations. That he succeeded in the larger affairs of international diplomacy is due greatly to that superb common sense which marked everything he did. As a scholar General Wright was unique among men. Always a busy man, he found time to read. He read law; he read history; he read novels. Until this autumn he kept in touch with the latest literary movements. The World war interested him and it was illuminating to hear him sum up after reading all the post-war criticisms that were worth attention. Since the days of the founding of the Commercial, General Wright was a stockholder and most of the time a director. At the time of his death he was vice president of the Commercial Publishing Company. He looked upon the paper as an institution apart from any business interests he may have had in it. He was interested in its success. He wanted it to be of service. He wanted it in all transactions of journalism always to be free and always to speak its own voice, uninfluenced by outside opinions and undeflected from the right course by any selfish motive. As a lawyer General Wright had much to do with public utility corporations and other large public enterprises whose activities make news, but never in his whole career did he suggest that anything be omitted or anything be written that might favor the cause of any client or any institution that he represented as attorney. And thus it was throughout the entire life of the man. Everything that he did was done under ybe impulse of the highest probity. Summing up his career a few days ago, a lifelong friend said: ‘General Wright is the wisest man I ever saw. He has more common sense than any other man I ever met.’ In his personal relations General Wright was kindly. Outwardly he was serene and even tempered. If he had troubles he bore them in the inner recesses of his heart. If a burden bore heavily on him, General Wright gave no outward sign. Worldly honors did not make General Wright proud. Despising arrogance himself, he resented it in others. He was not austere. The humblest man could come and talk freely to him and just as he was gentle and kind with these he bore himself firmly and steadily before the great ones of the earth. He was generous. Money meant little to him except to use it for those close by ties of blood, for friends in need and for the unfortunate about whom he may have known little except that they were unfortunate. Luke E. Wright, W. B. Mallory and W. J. Crawford were in the days of the hard struggles of The Commercial Appeal its towers of strength. Captain Mallory in the full ripeness of old age passed away two years ago. General Wright now goes down into the valley of mysteries. Mr. Crawford is the sole survivor of that splendid trio. It can be said of General Wright that no other man gave more of his great talent to his city, to his neighbors and to his nation than he did. As a citizen his place will not be filled in Memphis. He goes down to death measuring up in all things to the full standard required of a gentleman, a citizen, a friend and the father of a family.”


Moore, John Trotwood; Foster, Austin P.; S. J. Clarke Publishing Company; Tennessee, the volunteer state, 1769-1923, vols. 1-4; Chicago, Nashville : The S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1923.

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