Chief Justice Logan E. Bleckley: Hair Like Moses, Self-Taught in Law and Decisions with Wit and Poetry

Standing a lanky six-feet-five, Logan E. Bleckley was not known to frequent barbershops. His hair hung loosely around his shoulders, and his generous beard flowed down his chest. When asked about his appearance, he replied that Moses also wore his hair long, which also had the benefit of protecting his neck.

Bleckley was a student of philosophy, mathematics and a serious poet, although one of his poems pays homage to cucumbers, said to be his favorite vegetable. His resemblance to an Old Testament prophet and the cucumber stanzas aside, the Rabun County native is renowned as Georgia’s greatest jurist of the nineteenth century. As an Associate and later Chief Justice of the state’s Supreme Court, he became one of the most quoted judges in America. He accomplished this despite being completely self-educated in the law…and just about everything else.

“Destitute of Real Learning”

Born in 1827 near Clayton, Bleckley, like most children at that time, had virtually no formal education. Itinerant teachers passing through Rabun County accounted for his only schooling several months out of the year. Later in life, he said “while not illiterate, I was destitute of real learning.”

His father was clerk of Rabun County’s Superior, Inferior and Ordinary courts, and Bleckley began working in his office at the age of 11. Copying legal documents gave him an early love for the law. In addition to borrowing law books from traveling circuit lawyers, he studied Blackstone’s Commentaries, an eighteenth century treatise on British Common Law that formed the basis of the American legal system. The self-taught Bleckley was admitted to the Georgia bar at 18 under a special act of the Georgia legislature since he was not 21.

Bleckley opened a law practice in Clayton in 1846. During this time, he was outraged at seeing a Clayton woman imprisoned for not paying a debt. He drafted and then helped pass a bill in the Georgia legislature that exempted women from arrest for non-payment of debt. This effort culminated in the Georgia Constitution of 1868 that banned imprisonment for debt.

Annual Income of $45

After two years of practicing law with an annual income of only about $45, he moved to Atlanta in 1848 to pursue a better living. Bleckley took a job as a bookkeeper for the Western and Atlantic Railroad. Then in 1851, he became one of the governor’s secretaries in then-capital Milledgeville. He resigned a year later to open a law office in Atlanta.

In 1853, he ran for a four-year term as Solicitor-General of the Coweta Circuit, which encompassed eight counties and the city of Atlanta. He later wrote, “The office was believed and reputed to be the best-paying office in the State, and so was an object of desire by nine other gentlemen as well as myself.” After several ballots by both houses of the Georgia legislature, Bleckley was elected to the post.

Learning the Art of Homicide

After completing his four-year term, Bleckley returned to private practice in Atlanta. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the Confederate army. He said he went through training “at a camp of instruction, endeavoring to acquire some skill in the mobile art of homicide.” A pacifist by nature, Bleckley said at the time, “I loved my friends, but I did not hate my enemies.” Before Bleckley could commit homicide as a Confederate soldier, he was honorably discharged due to poor health. However, he continued to serve the Confederacy as a legal advisor for the duration of the war.

He resumed his private law practice after the war, but in 1875 the governor appointed Bleckley an Associate Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. Serving on an overburdened court, Bleckley resigned for reasons of poor health in 1880. He was summoned back to service in 1887 when named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Decisions with Wit, Common Sense and Simplicity

On the Supreme Court, Bleckley did not enunciate any groundbreaking constitutional or legal principles. However, his opinions were widely read for their wit, common sense and ability to distill complex legal issues into simple, understandable language. The chancellor of the University of Georgia once commented that Bleckley’s wit was “continually bubbling up in his driest decisions like a fountain leaping from sawdust.” And many opinions contained stanzas of his poetry. As Bleckley once said, he had “a strong and unaccountable propensity to metrical transgression.”

He labored over his court decisions. “I reconsider, revise, scrutinize, revise the scrutiny and scrutinize the revision.” In so doing, Bleckley strived “to make plain that which was confused and to make simple that which was difficult.” Many of his Supreme Court decisions (and poems) were written at his cabin retreat on Screamer Mountain in Clayton.

Some examples of his court rulings include:

  •  The true law everywhere and at all times delighteth in the payment of just debts…the best possible thing to be done with a debt is to pay it.”
  • “To be too drunk to form the intent to kill, he must have been too drunk to form the intent to shoot.”
  • “Fun is rather energetic even for Christmas times when it looks like a disposition to indulge in a little free and easy homicide. Shooting powder guns at a man as a practical joke is among the forbidden sports.”
  • “It is unjust to do justice by doing injustice. A just discovery cannot be made by an unjust search. An end not attainable by just means is not attainable at all; ethically, it is an impossible end.”
  • “To do as one pleases, even when he pleases, is his business. To act absurdly, or from low impulses, is a very precious right.”
  • “Some courts live by correcting the errors of others and adhering to their own.”

Hated Demagogic Appeals to Juries

Bleckley hated the intrusion of emotion into his courtroom. He condemned not only lynchings and mob violence, but also demagogic appeals to juries. “A jury swayed by passion is a moral mob.”

His insistence on impartiality is revealed, along with his subtle wit, in a letter he wrote to the general counsel of a railroad in 1887. “Sir: By this morning’s mail, I received your letter enclosing an annual pass over your railroad. Of course, you did not know that yesterday I was elected Chief Justice of Georgia, for if you had known it, you could not possibly have sent me this pass. I herewith return it”

Swinging on Grape Vine Into Clayton

In 1894 at the age of 70, Bleckley retired as Chief Justice, again citing poor health stemming from the court’s crushing workload. However, he continued consulting on legal matters with colleagues and delivering speeches around the country. Once, when returning by train to Atlanta from New York with a group of attorneys, Bleckley was asked where he was from. He replied “Clayton.” The lawyers said they never heard of the place and asked how he got there. Bleckley answered, “You ride the Southern Railway as far as it will go. You get off there (in Cornelia) and take a buggy or surrey and go as far as the road goes. There, you stop and hire a horse and ride up a trail as far as the horse can go. When you get off the horse, you will see a long grape vine, and you grab it and swing into Clayton. That’s the way I always get home.”

Bleckley attended the University of Georgia to study higher mathematics at the age of 73. However, he spent most of his time in retirement at his home in Clarkesville writing poetry and essays. He died at his home in 1907 at 79 and was buried at Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery. Clayton erected a stone memorial to Bleckley in 1937, and his bust can be viewed in the foyer of the state’s Judicial Building in Atlanta. Bleckley County, established in 1912, was named in his honor.

Bleckley’s widow, Chloe, donated property and contributed $7,000 in 1911 for a high school in Clayton on Pinnacle Knob facing Screamer Mountain, the site of her husband’s cabin. Logan E. Bleckley Memorial Institute opened in 1913.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia magazine in March 2022.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.