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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Rorer, David
(May 12, 1806–July 7, 1884)

–lawyer and legal author—was the son of Abraham Rorer, a farmer, and Nancy (Cook) Rorer. He was born on their farm in Pittsylvania, Virginia, and attended country schools. He studied law under Nathaniel H. Claiborne and Henry Calaway for two years in Virginia. In 1826 he was admitted to the bar and went to practice in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1827 he married Martha Martin, a Georgia-born widow. They had four children.

    Rorer was appointed county judge and then prosecuting attorney. Despite a successful legal practice in Little Rock, Rorer, after manumitting his slaves, moved to Burlington, Iowa, in 1836. There Rorer became the principal architect of Burlington's first town government. In 1837 he was a town trustee and wrote the articles of incorporation, drew up the first ordinances, and helped lay out and name the streets. On November 6, 1837, delegates from seven Wisconsin Territory counties west of the Mississippi River met at Burlington. Rorer chaired the committee that drafted a petition to Congress for a separate territory west of the Mississippi. The following year, the territory of Iowa was born.

    Early in 1838 Martha Rorer died. Later that year, Rorer ran to be the Iowa territorial delegate to Congress. In campaigning, he spoke of "a damned Pennsylvania faction," apparently aiming at a rival candidate, Peter Hill Engle, and the latter's fellow Pennsylvanian supporter, Cyrus S. Jacobs, a journalist, politician, and lawyer. Jacobs was livid. Ten days after Rorer lost the election, the pair met on a Burlington street. Jacobs drew a pistol and hit Rorer on the head with a cane. Rorer reeled and fired his own pistol, with fatal results. The examining justices found that Rorer had acted in self-defense. Rorer concluded: "I will never again campaign for election."

    In 1839 Rorer married Delia M. Viele of Scott County. They had three daughters. That year Rorer gave the nickname "Hawkeyes" to Iowans. He wrote four long and controversial letters to Iowa newspapers, signed "A Wolverine among the Hawkeyes."He complimented Iowans as "hospitable Hawkeyes" and lauded "the enterprise and industry of the Hawkeye farmer"The name stuck.

    Rorer was a busy lawyer. He appeared before the territorial supreme court in 35 cases and—after statehood in 1846—before the Iowa Supreme Court in 128 cases. His two most famous cases involved slavery. The first territorial supreme court case in 1839 was In the matter of Ralph (a colored man) on Habeas Corpus. Ralph was a Missouri slave whose master had agreed he could go to Iowa to earn $550 to buy his freedom. When Ralph did not pay, his master tried to take him back to Missouri by force. When the case came before the Iowa Supreme Court, Rorer, appearing for Ralph, argued that he was not a fugitive slave because he had come to Iowa with his master's consent. Crucially, under the Missouri Compromise (1820), slavery was prohibited in the area that included territorial Iowa. Hence, Ralph was automatically freed when he came to Iowa with his master's consent. The court accepted Rorer's arguments and freed Ralph.

    In Daggs v. Frazier in the U.S. District Court at Burlington in 1850, Rorer was on the other side, representing a Missouri slave owner in a case of runaway slaves. Rorer convinced the jury that under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, some of the Iowa Quaker defendants had rescued, concealed, and harbored the fugitives, and assisted in their escape. The jury awarded the slave owner $2,900 in damages.

    The Civil War showed Rorer's true views about slavery. He immediately switched from Democrat to Republican and advocated emancipation of the slaves. As a Unionist, he spoke in public for provisioning troops. One of Rorer's daughters recalled his hospitality: "The Cavalry Regimental Band serenaded us. Pa invited them in & gave them cherry bounce."

    Rorer had been a prime mover and incorporator of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad Company in 1852. The following year he became its attorney and continued in that role when it merged with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in 1872. Rorer the railroad lawyer appealed 24 cases on behalf of his clients to the Iowa Supreme Court between 1855 and 1876. Late in life, Rorer wrote three legal tomes: The Law of Judicial and Execution Sales (1873), American Inter-State Law (1879), and The Law of Railways (1884).

    A contemporary lawyer said of Rorer: "He was a ceaseless worker... who seemed to love work for its own sake.... He was a very good and a very successful practitioner, but his success, I think, was attributable more to his industry and application than to any unusual share of natural ability."As to Rorer's books, he added: "I have no doubt that he wrote them quite as much to employ himself as for the reputation he may have hoped to acquire."
Sources include Edward H. Stiles, Recollections and Sketches of Notable Lawyers and Public Men of Early Iowa (1916); Jacob A. Swisher, "Eminence at the Bar," Palimpsest 26 (1945), 275–88; and Philip D. Jordan, Catfish Bend: River Town and County Seat (1975).
Contributor: Richard Acton

Cite as: Acton, Richard. "Rorer, David" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 17 November 2018