MATHENY, JAMES H., was born at Lebanon, St. Clair County, Ill., in 1818, the year of the admission of the State of Illinois into the Union. When about two years old his father moved to Springfield. He attended the village schools and at the age of fifteen began to assist his father in the work of the Courts. When he was a young man he became an ardent politician of the Whig School and an enthusiastic admirer of Henry Clay. IN 1840 he was one of a party of nine young men from Sangamon County who went overland to Nashville, Tennessee, to hear Clay at a great meeting, in the Harrison-Tyler Presidential Campaign. This pilgrimage attracted much attention. They were received with great honor in some localities and with much opposition in others.
For the next thirty years - the Golden Age of political oratory in America - James H. Matheny was an active and effective political speaker in every campaign and an earnest student of public questions. In recognition of this, in 1847 he was elected as a member of the Convention that formed the Constitution of 1848 of the State of Illinois.
He was admitted to the Bar when a young man and until he retired in 1873 was active in the Courts of Sangamon and adjoining counties, particularly Menard, Logan and Christian. In a sketch of "The Springfield Bar in the 'Seventies," published a few years ago, there occurs the following description of him;
"James H. Matheny was among the most interesting figures in the Courts at this time. He had come out of the army in 1864 and from that time till elected judge of the County Court in 1873 he appeared in a great number of causes. Like Robinson, his specialty was to address the jury. He left the preparation of the case to his associates and except when circumstances made it absolutely necessary he did not examine witnesses nor argue points of law. In a long trial he would sit patiently, taking no note, but fixing in his memory the very words of every vital point of testimony and the manner and appearance of every important witness. He was short and portly, with a dignified and most expressive face. When fully aroused, as he always was in addressing a jury, his eloquence and magnetic power were remarkable. Out of court he was one of the most genial of men, but a trial seemed to transform him, and his arguments were characterized by the deepest earnestness, and when the case called for it, by biter and most effective denunciation. He was especially strong in homicide cases, and during the last ten years of his practice he appeared in nearly all cases of that class that were tried in Sangamon County."
In early life he was a close personal friend of Abraham Lincoln and was groomsman at Lincoln's marriage.
In 1863 he was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of the One Hundred Thirtieth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry and went to the front. He was in active service until after the Siege of Vicksburg, when he was made Judge Advocate, and held military courts until late in 1864. In that year his regiment and another were consolidated and he resigned and returned to Springfield.
In 1873 he was elected County Judge of Sangamon County by a majority then unprecedented and until his death in 1890 he held the office by successive re-elections, generally without opposition from either party.
He was married to Maria L. Lee, daughter of Samuel Lee, of Carrollton, Ill. Mr. Lee was a relative of the Lee family of Virginia and is said to have had the first collection of law books in Illinois worthy of the name of library.