Jerry Summers: David Key - Chattanooga's 1st Federal Judge

Monday, June 21, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

David McKendree Key (January 27, 1824-February 3, 1900) was a Democratic United States Senator from Tennessee from 1875 to 1877.  He was also a state Chancellor (judge) as well as the United States Postmaster General under President Rutherford Hayes.

            From 1880 until 1895 he served as the United States District Judge for both the Eastern and Middle Districts of Tennessee as the first federal judge from Chattanooga.

            Key was born in Greene County in upper East Tennessee but the family moved to Monroe County in 1826. It was there he was raised and graduated from Hiwassee College in 1859 and read with another attorney to be admitted to the practice of law.

            He and his family moved to Chattanooga in 1853.

            Key entered the Civil War on the Confederacy side and eventually rose through the ranks to become a Lieutenant Colonel prior to the end of hostilities.

            Returning to Chattanooga he re-entered the practice of law.

            In 1870 he served in the Tennessee state constitutional convention and that same year was elected as a Democratic Chancellor.

            He ran unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives in 1872 while a sitting judge but resigned his judgeship in 1875 to accept an appointment to the United States Senate by Tennessee Governor James D. Porter created by the death of former President Andrew Johnson.

            Key was closely aligned with President Rutherford B. Hayes and, after he was defeated in the next election in the Tennessee General Assembly to retain his Washington Senate seat, he was appointed Postmaster General by the president and served from 1877 to 1880.

            It was during this period of service that Key received strong criticism for his performances as postmaster general by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) in The Autobiography of Mark Twain published in 2010 after Twain had directed it not be released to the public until he had been dead for 100 years (1910-date of his death).

            In spite of Twain’s criticism Hayes nominated Key to a federal judgeship in both the Middle and Eastern District of Tennessee at Chattanooga upon the death of Connally F. Trigg in 1880.

            After he was confirmed by the Senate he served in that capacity until 1895 and died in 1900.  He is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery.

            On August 8, 1885, Chattanooga conducted a memorial service for Ulysses S. Grant who had successfully led the Union Army to victory at the Battle of Missionary Ridge in November, 1863.

            The main address was given by Judge Key and he regaled the audience by alternatively paying tribute to the character of Grant as both general and president and by also telling numerous anecdotes about Grant.

            As a final compliment to his former war opponent Key stated, “My friends, the brightest star has fallen from our nation’s firmament but the story of its luster and beauty shall live as long as history shall last.”

            During his tenure as judge Key was noted for seeking justice rather than for adhering to the strict letter of the law.

            Of his 24 years of public service Judge Key spent 20 years on the bench either as a state or federal judge.

            Judge Key handled many cases involving violations of the liquor laws in the illicit manufacturing of liquor (moonshine) which was produced in substantial quantity by the mountaineers of East Tennessee.

            Applying his practical sense Judge Key, after a defendant was convicted, would often allow them to return home to finish harvesting their crops in exchange for his promise that the offenders would return to the next term of court for sentencing.

            Judge Key was fond of saying “that not one offender had ever broken faith with him!”

            He had married Elizabeth L. Lenoir in 1857 and they had eight children.  She was the daughter of General Albert S. Lenoir of Loudon County, Tennessee for whom Lenoir City is named.

            In 1967 David Abshire wrote a book entitled “The South Rejects a Prophet: The Life of Senator D.M. Key,” which was published by the F.A. Prager Company in New York which describes in greater detail the interesting life of the first federal district judge from Chattanooga.     

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Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

           

David Key
David Key

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