Judge Robert A. Hill served in the federal judiciary during one of the most challenging times in Mississippi history—Reconstruction after the Civil War. Hill was born in Iredell County, North Carolina, on 25 March 1811, the grandson of Scots-Irish immigrants. His father, David Hill, and mother, Rhoda Andrews Hill, were well-read for their time. When Hill was young, the family moved to Williamson County, Tennessee, to farm.
Hill was the only son among four daughters, and at age ten he began to support the family after his father’s declining health precluded the heavy labors of farming. He attended school when not tending crops, but the balance of his education was gained at home with his father. In 1831 he taught at a county school in addition to farming. In 1833 he married Mary Andrews.
Hill was elected a constable in 1834 and later became a justice of the peace, thereby acquiring legal training. He resigned in 1844 to take up the practice of law. He practiced law in Waynesboro, Tennessee, until 1847, when the legislature selected him as a state district attorney general. He held that position until his defeat in an 1855 popular election. That year he moved to Tishomingo County, Mississippi, to form a law partnership with John F. Arnold. In 1858 he returned to public office when he was elected probate judge of Tishomingo County, a post he held until 1865.
Hill opposed secession but did not take a side during the Civil War. A Whig before the war and a Republican after it, he favored the Lincoln-Johnson plans for constitutional measures for the restoration of the South. He served as a delegate to the 1865 Mississippi constitutional convention, which was charged with undoing the work of the 1861 constitution.
In 1866, Pres. Andrew Johnson recognized Hill’s dedication to a reconciled government by appointing him to the federal judiciary for the two districts (northern and southern) that comprised Mississippi. The court moved from Pontotoc to Oxford, where Judge Hill took up residence. With Hill’s support, the state rescinded its legislation that conflicted with federal laws, and as a federal judge he was the only one with jurisdiction to intercede with the military command of the state. In Ku Klux Klan prosecutions during 1871 he ruled regarding the constitutionality of certain congressional acts while preserving the peace. In the fall of 1875 he publicly called on the voters of Mississippi “of both races and all parties” to peaceably register and vote in congressional elections and thereby show “to the world that, though composed of different races and entertaining different opinions, we are capable of self-government and can live in peace.”
Mississippi’s 1868 constitutional convention invited Hill to prepare the part of the Mississippi constitution concerning the judiciary. Calling on his earlier experience in the chancery courts of Tennessee, he drafted the article blending probate and equity into the chancery court system as a separate court for each county. His work was so well received that the judiciary article was not changed in the new constitution of 1890.
Hill was elected president of the Mississippi State Bar Association in January 1889 while a sitting federal judge. He retired from the federal bench in 1891 and continued to live in Oxford, where he served as a trustee of the University of Mississippi, until his death on 2 July 1900.
- Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Mississippi (1891)
- Judge Billy G. Bridges and James W. Shelton, eds., Griffith’s Mississippi Chancery Practice (2000)
- Frank E. Everett Jr., Federal Judges in Mississippi, 1818–1968 (1968)
- Robert A. Hill Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History