Stories Behind the Portraits: James Sidney Rollins

George Caleb Bingham, Major James Sidney Rollins, 1855-6
Oil on canvas, 53 x 45 inches
McClain Collection, Independence, Missouri

James Sidney Rollins was George Caleb Bingham‘s “warmest personal friend.”  This re-discovered Bingham portrait descended in the Rollins family to a great-granddaughter who had always been told it was the work of an unknown artist.  She wanted the people of Missouri to have it.  When the painting arrived in the Midwest, I immediately recognized the artist as George Caleb Bingham.  Other experts and conservators all concurred.  But, a question remained: when it was painted?

Men’s clothing lends itself particularly well to dating because then, as now, successful men paid careful attention to the latest styles and widths of collar, neck cloth, and, “turn of the collar.”  Dating the portrait was made easier when staff at the State Historical Society of Missouri provided an image of a daguerreotype of Major Rollins, dated circa 1855. The most striking difference between the daguerreotype and the painting is beard length. Another is the gold pocket watch. The two images contain many similarities. The subject’s hair is still dark without the grey of aging. Hair curls above the ear. The suit is similar: single-breasted with wide collar. In the painting, the upper lapel of the notched collar appears to be of a richer fabric, perhaps velvet. Both daguerreotype and painting show comparable waistcoat cut and collar height, each un-turned. Only the width of the neck cloth can be seen in the painting; the subject’s beard obscures the neck cloth.

George Caleb Bingham, Mrs. William Price (Mary Ellen Sappington), 1845 (165)
Major James Sidney Rollins, May 1855, Daguerreotype, State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri. Image courtesy of State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri.

Due to the length of the beard, I thought at first that the daguerreotype and oil painting were from two different periods, but clothing styles indicate a comparable time frame and members of the gender more familiar with beard growth informed me that the difference in beard length could be a matter of less than six months. The heavier fabric on the upper lapel in the painting suggests a portrait painted in cold weather.  Bingham was known to have painted Rollins’ portrait in 1834, 1845, and 1871, but no one seemed to notice the large gap between 1845 and 1871. This portrait can be dated late autumn, 1855 or winter 1856 through an existing daguerreotype taken in May 1855.  The date of 1855/1856 fills the gap in Bingham’s depictions of his best friend.

The portrait of the James Sidney Rollins, Father of the University of Missouri, is now in its home state where, as his descendant desired, the people of Missouri can view and appreciate it.

James Sidney Rollins: Warmest Personal Friend

(From an article previously posted by Patricia Moss December 2012)

“From early youth to manhood’s ripened years, [they would be] the warmest personal friends, and next to their own kith and kin, each by the other has been the best beloved.”((A. J. Conant on the occasion of the dedication of a Bingham portrait of Rollins commissioned by the curators of the University of Missouri in The Rollins Portrait: Proceedings and Addresses on Its Presentation to the Board of Curators of the University by the Citizens of Boone County, June 24-26, 1873 (Columbia, Missouri: Statesman Book and Job Office, 1873), 13. The portrait was destroyed in a fire in 1892.)) So said Alban Jasper Conant, a mutual friend of both George Caleb Bingham and James Sidney Rollins, some 40 years after Bingham and Rollins  met.  Rollins was the man, who at the behest of Abraham Lincoln, gave a stirring speech that persuaded his colleagues to pass the 13th amendment, the bill that abolished slavery. Rollins was also the man who helped artist George Caleb Bingham achieve fame.

When James Sidney Rollins was born in Richmond, Kentucky, on April 19, 1812, to Dr. Anthony Wayne Rollins and Sarah [Sallie] Harris Rodes Rollins, he inherited his father’s cleft chin and his mother’s aristocratic nose. His parents reared him to be a gentleman of principles. They shared their love of education with him. In 1830 he graduated as valedictorian from Indiana University.((James Sidney Rollins also attended Richmond Academy and Washington College (now Washington and Jefferson College) in Washington, Pennsylvania.)) That same year his family moved to Boone County, Missouri, for his father’s health. James joined them there but soon relocated to Fayette, Missouri to study law under attorney – and later state Supreme Court justice – Abiel Leonard. When the short-lived Black Hawk War erupted in 1832, Rollins served as aide-de-camp to General Richard Gentry, one of the most famous military men of his day. After six months of service Rollins was discharged with the rank of major, a title he used the rest of his life.

Major Rollins left Missouri again to attend law school at Transylvania University in Louisville, Kentucky. After his graduation as valedictorian in 1834 he started a law practice in Columbia. He defended a slave, Conway, accused of murdering a white man, Judge Israel Grant.  “Although a young man, [Rollins] delivered an argument of great eloquence and ability and one which is yet remembered for its remarkable power and beauty.”((Felix Eugene Snyder, History of Boone County, Missouri…, (Ramfire Press, 1882), 206.)) Unfortunately, Rollins’ defense was no match for the era’s prejudices. Conway was convicted and hanged [and later perceived as innocent.]

By 1836 Rollins and college friend Thomas Miller had purchased two newspapers, the Boon’s Lick Advertiser and the Missouri Intelligencer, and combined them into The Columbia Patriot. He chaired the state’s first railway convention and drafted a petition to Congress for railroad land grants for Missouri. He was 24.

In 1834, in the building that housed the law office of James Sidney Rollins, a young. self-taught artist, George Caleb Bingham, opened a studio in Columbia, Missouri. The two men quickly became friends.

(169) George Caleb Bingham, Mrs. William Barclay Napton (Melinda Williams), 1845
George Caleb Bingham. Major James Sidney Rollins. 1845
Oil on Canvas. 29 x 25 inches
Private Collection

On June 6, 1837, Rollins married Mary Elizabeth Hickman (1820 -1907). That same summer, he provided George Caleb Bingham with the financial help the artist needed to travel east to study art formally.

in 1838. although Missouri was predominantly a Democratic state, voters elected Major Rollins to the state legislature as a Whig. The Whig Party evolved from the American System developed by Henry Clay (1777-1852), a long-time friend of the Rollins family. His American System consisted of three mutually reinforcing parts: a tariff to protect and promote American industry; a national bank to foster commerce; and federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other “internal improvements” to develop profitable markets for agriculture. Whigs abhorred political patronage and executive privilege and advocated for public education. On slavery, the national party officially deferred to the Constitution, which made the peculiar institution a states’ rights’ issue.((“The Whigs and Slavery.” The New York Times. October 3. 1854)) Many northern Whigs. however. were abolitionists.

(214) George Caleb Bingham, Judge John Ferguson Ryland, 1849-1850
George Caleb Bingham. Mary Elizabeth Hickman. (Mrs James Sidney Rollins). 1837
Oil on Canvas. 29 x 25 inches
Private Collection

For his time, James Sidney Rollins was an enlightened man. Even though he believed people of color to be inferior, he hated slavery. Like many, he blamed the peculiar institution on the British, who foisted it on the colonies to solve a labor shortage. Two hundred years later, that short-term solution cursed Missouri and every other post-colonial state that had not had the foresight to prohibit slavery, with complex economic, social, and moral problems.

For Rollins, slavery was also an economic issue. He owned 34 slaves. Emancipation would cause him to lose between $20.000 and $40.000 ($250.000 – $500.000 in today’s dollars). And, like many slave owners. he worried for the safety of white families if slaves were freed. Eventually, he settled on gradual emancipation as the proper course of action.

His beliefs aligned enough with the voters of Boone County for them to return Rollins to the state legislature in 1840 and again in 1846. He wrote legislation for railroad construction, river improvement, and for the establishment of a state university. He corresponded with Dorothea Dix and introduced a bill to establish a state mental hospital.

George Caleb Bingham, Mary Elizabeth Rollins, 1849 (201)
George Caleb Bingham. Mary Elizabeth Rollins. 1849
Oil on Canvas. 23 x 19 inches
Private Collection

In 1848, Rollins lost a bid for Missouri governor but was elected to the state senate. In the same election, voters elected his friend George Caleb Bingham to the state legislature. But in a matter of weeks, Bingham’s wife Elizabeth  died of consumption and their nine-month-old son died a few days later. So grief-stricken was Bingham that he wanted to resign from public service. Rollins convinced the artist /politician that work would ease his sorrow. Bingham took his seat in the statehouse.

During the summer. when the legislature was in recess. Bingham, his three-year-old daughter, Clara, and his seven-year-old son, Horace. visited the Rollins home in Columbia. Missouri. James and Mary Elizabeth then had four children: James Jr.. 8. Laura. 5. and Mary. 3. and Sarah. an infant. Rollins took time to introduce his friend George to a cultured young woman. Eliza Thomas (1828-1876). the eldest daughter of a professor at Columbia College. Before the end of the year, and a year after the death of Elizabeth, Bingham married Eliza. One can presume James Sidney was best man.

Rollins ran again for governor in 1857. Again, he lost.  But as the Civil War approached. the state’s voters found his moderation appealing. James Sidney Rollins ran successfully for a seat in the United States Congress as a Constitutional Unionist. He served throughout the Civil War years from March 4. 1861 – March 3. 1865.

In his time in the United States Congress, James Sidney Rollins:

  • Introduced a bill to build a railroad and a telegraph line from Missouri to California that eventually became the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862
  • Voted in favor of the Morrill Act of 1862 that provided funding for state agricultural college
  • Voted against allowing African-Americans and Native-Americans to enlist, reasoning that moderate Southerners would be offended and more likely to join the rebel cause

Rollins objected to the Emancipation Proclamation on the grounds that it was legally void and defensible only as a military necessity. Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation on January 1, 1863. But the end of slavery in the United States needed to be formalized in the Constitution as the 13th Amendment. Passage of that amendment was the most pressing issue in Congress in 1864. 

On April 8, 1864, the Senate passed the constitutional change on the first vote. But the House of Representatives defeated the bill twice. Rollins was among the dissenters. Shortly before the third vote, Abraham Lincoln called Rollins to his office. Both were railroad attorney and long-time Whigs who had known one another for years. The President asked Rollins to support the 13th amendment in order to help preserve the Union. For the sake of Union, Rollins gave a rousing speech on the floor of Congress on With his support, the amendment passed with the needed two-thirds majority.

George Caleb Bingham, Major James Sidney Rolllins, 1871, Oil on Canvas, 30 x 25 inches, State Historical Soceity of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri

Following the Civil War, James Sidney Rollins declined to campaign for federal office. In both 1866 and 1868, regional voters elected him to the state senate. The Democratic Party drafted him as their gubernatorial candidate in the 1872 election. He lost and retired from political life.

Throughout his political career, Rollins supported free public education and the University of Missouri. He served as president of the board of curators for nearly 25 years, from 1861 until 1886. He also was a businessman. He had extensive agricultural interests in central Missouri. He invested in the Santa Fe and California trade, in mining in Montana, and in the North Missouri Railroad. He was a director of both the Union Pacific and the North Missouri Railroads.

In 1870, Rollins invested in Bingham’s business venture of producing engravings of his painting Martial Law or Order No. 11. When Bingham could not repay the loan, Rollins accepted copies of the finest prints as payment. Rollins was influential in having the University of Missouri appoint Bingham the school’s first professor of art.

Supporters of Major Rollins commissioned George Caleb Bingham in 1871 to paint a full-length portrait of his friend for the University of Missouri. In preparation, Bingham painted a head study, a maquette, and then the life-size image. The large portrait was dedicated in July 1873. (images)

Injured in a train derailment in 1874, Rollins never fully recovered. He died in Columbia, Missouri, on 9 January 1888 at the age of 76. He is buried in the Columbia Cemetery. He and Mary had eleven children, but “he always claimed he fathered twelve children, one immortal – the University of Missouri.” One of his contemporaries remembered him as one of the finest public speakers in the nation.((A. J. D. Stewart, The History of the bench and bar of Missouri: with reminiscences of the the prominent lawyers of the past, and a record of the law’s leaders of the present, (Legal Publishing Company, 1898), 388))

Seventeen years before the death of Major Rollins, his friend Bingham wrote:

As to your own chances for immortality, they are certainly good…Your name is identified with too much that is to be permanent in our state to render doubtful the certainty of its reaching posterity, and when you leave it, as I hope and believe for a better land, you will not be “unwept unhonored and unsung.”((Letter to James Sidney Rollins from George Caleb Bingham dated June 4, 1871, Kansas City, Missouri, in Lynn Wolf Gentzler, ed., Roger E. Robinson, compiler, “But I Forget That I am a Painter and Not a Politician”: The Letters of George Caleb Bingham, (Columbia, Missouri: State Historical Society of Missouri and Friends of Arrow Rock, Inc., 2011), 305.))

In Missouri, James Sidney Rollins is remembered as the “Father of the University.” As a nation, should we remember him as a man who put the good of the nation over his personal interests and helped put an end to slavery?


Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress, “Rollins, James Sidney (1812-1888),”

Bloch, E. Maurice, George Caleb Bingham: A Catalogue Raisonné (Berkeley, California: University of California Press), 1967

Bloch, E. Maurice, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist, (Berkeley, California: University of California Press), 1967

Bloch, E. Maurice, The Paintings of George Caleb Bingham, (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1986)

Gentzler, Lynn Wolf, ed., Roger E. Robinson, compiler, “But I Forget That I am a Painter and Not a Politician”: The Letters of George Caleb Bingham, Columbia, Missouri: State Historical Society of Missouri and Friends of Arrow Rock, Inc., 2011

Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005, 687

Mering, Clay, “James S. Rollins,”

Mering, John Vollmer, The Whig Party in Missouri, Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1967

Shoemaker, F. C., Missouri’s Hall of Fame: Lives of Eminent Missourians, Missouri Book Company, 1918

Smith, William Benjamin. James Sidney Rollins. New York, 1891

Snyder, Felix Eugene, History of Boone County, Missouri…, (Ramfire Press, 1882)

State Historical Society of Missouri, Rollins, James S. (1812-1888), Papers, 1546-1968

Stewart, A. J. D., The History of the bench and bar of Missouri: with reminiscences of the the prominent lawyers of the past, and a record of the law’s leaders of the present, Legal Publishing Company, 1898

Winn, Kenneth, “James Sidney Rollins,” Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits.