John D. Phelan

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This article is about the Alabama Supreme Court justice. For his son, the Civil War veteran and businessman, see John Phelan.

John Dennis Phelan (born 1810 in New Brunswick, New Jersey - died September 1879 in Birmingham) was a justice of the Alabama Supreme Court from 1852 to Reconstruction.

Phelan was the son of John and Priscilla Oakes Phelan. His father was a native of Queen's County, Ireland who settled at New Brunswick and became cashier at the bank of that city. He moved the family South after the War of 1812, first to Richmond, Virginia and then to the Alabama Territory.

John graduated from the University of Tennessee in Nashville in 1828 and read law under B. W. Leigh of Virginia. He was admitted to the bar in 1832 and lived briefly in New Orleans, Louisiana before returning to Huntsville to serve as editor of a Democratic newspaper.

He was elected to the Alabama Legislature in 1834 and served for six years. In 1836 he also served as the state's attorney general. He moved to Tuscaloosa in 1838 and was re-elected to the legislature from there, becoming Speaker of the House in 1839.

Phelan was elected circuit judge for the first circuit in 1847 and moved to Marion. He was elected to the Supreme Court in 1852. At the conclusion of his four-year term he was appointed Clerk of the Court, filling the vacancy left by the death of Thomas Mays. He was considered a candidate for Governor in 1857, but lost the Democratic nomination over his unpopular support for the construction of a railroad connecting North and South Alabama (the South and North Railroad was later constructed virtually along the line Phelan had proposed).

Phelan was present at the swearing-in of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Montgomery and inscribed the fly-leaf of the 1853 Bible used in the ceremony. The volume is now the "Official State Bible of Alabama", used in the inauguration of all Alabama governors since.

He returned to the Bench in 1864 and remained for less than a year until the state's government was reorganized on a provisional basis. He was re-appointed clerk for three years until the Reconstruction government disqualified him.

Phelan ended his career as a professor of law at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He died while visiting Birmingham in 1879. He and the former Mary Ann Harris of Tennessee were married in Huntsville in 1836 and had four sons, including Ellis and John, and three daughters.


  • Owen, Thomas McAdory and Marie Bankhead Owen (1921) History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography. 4 volumes. Chicago, Illinois: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co.