Samuel Sewall

11 Mass. 496 (1814)

A Sketch of the Character of the late Chief Justice Sewall, as Delivered in an Address to the Bar of the County of Suffolk, July 12, 1814. At the opening of an adjourned session of the preceding March term.

By the Hon. Judge Parker

This adjourned session of the Court was intended to be holden by the chief justice, and the two justices now present, for the purpose of hearing and deciding those questions of law which were necessarily postponed at our last March term, and of deciding many which had then been argued, but which, for want of time, had not been determined by the Court.

The lamented death of the chief justice has defeated these purposes. The two absent justices of this Court living at opposite extremities of the commonwealth, having just finished a laborious circuit, and being also in an infirm state of health, it cannot be expected that they will attend here upon a duty voluntarily assumed by those judges whose residence in and near the town would have rendered the proposed session convenient to themselves, and probably useful to the public.

I feel sensibly the awkwardness of again, and so soon, undertaking to speak of the merits and virtues of the dead. Indeed, I had determined to bury my feelings in silence, and to leave the community to their own sense of the greatness of the bereavement, without any attempt on my part to increase or direct it.

But to let this session of the Court pass over without any memorial of him who, but for his decease, would have directed its proceedings, would be ungrateful to his memory; and, unhappily, death has made such ravages among us, that it falls upon me to be the organ of the Court upon this occasion. Within eighteen months, three out of five of the members of the Court have been numbered with the dead; three most distinguished and eminent judges; men who lived in both political ages of our country, and who were able to expound our new system of government and laws, in some measure, by a personal knowledge of the old. The loss of such men to the community is incalculable. Parsons, Sedgwick, and Sewall! Their names will recall to your minds their excellences; various, but great and indisputable. Of the two former, opportunity has been taken to describe their characters, and recount their merits. The latter must not pass to the grave unnoticed. Though his modesty may have concealed his merits in a degree when living, it only strengthens the motive for developing and displaying them when dead.

He was born in Boston, December, 1757, being the grandson of the venerable Dr. Sewall, whose name is still eminent among the churches of New England. Having been prepared for the University at Dummer school, under that celebrated preceptor Samuel Moody, Esq., who formed the minds of many of the luminaries of this state, he was graduated at Cambridge in the year 1776. He was esteemed by his contemporaries at college an excellent classical and belles-lettres scholar; and he retained his attachment to the delightful pursuits of his youth through life. He read law with the late Chief Justice Dana, a most accurate and able lawyer; and in that connection he derived much advantage from the manuscripts of Judge Trowbridge, which remained with his relative and pupil.

He began his professional life in the town of Marblehead, and continued his practice in the county of Essex, until his public employments interrupted his professional business. At the bar he was distinguished among his brethren for sound learning and laborious research, for fair and honorable practice, and perfect integrity. If he was less known as an advocate than some of his contemporaries, it was owing altogether to that invincible diffidence which, through life, shrouded half his merits from public view.

In times when talents and moral worth were passports to popular favor, he was chosen, for a succession of years, to represent the town of Marblehead in our legislature. There he soon acquired the influence due to his talents. It was a time of innovation and visionary experiment. On more than one occasion, when a learned but eccentric statesman1 attempted to introduce a popular but dangerous change into the criminal code of our state, and seemed to carry the multitude along with him, the forcible reasoning and unanswerable arguments of Sewall arrested the course of experiment, and preserved things in their tried and safe channels.2

In the year 1797, he was elected a representative to Congress for the South Essex district, and was re-elected for the next Congressional period. No man ever understood better the general interests of his country, and the particular interests of his constituents. The citizens of Marblehead used to acknowledge the great benefits derived from his attention to their peculiar business, and the improvements introduced into it by his exertions. His commercial information was much valued, and much used in Congress. Having been two years a colleague with him, I am able to declare that no man in the House of Representatives was more relied upon for useful knowledge, or more esteemed for power of debate, than he was. Although ardent in his feelings, and inflexible in his political opinions, whenever he addressed the chair, members of all descriptions listened with an expectation of being informed, and an assurance that they should not be deceived.

In the year 1800, while a member of Congress, he was appointed to a seat on this bench. Some of you have witnessed his labors for fourteen years past; and it is unnecessary for me to state his acknowledged qualifications for the seat he occupied. In some points of importance, his venerable colleagues, Dana, Strong, and Bradbury, seemed to feel and admit all his preëminence, -- I mean particularly in commercial law, and in the probate system of our state. On these subjects, also, the late Chief Justice Parsons was known to place great reliance on his opinions.

On his succession to the first place in this Court, he felt, with all his native diffidence, the public expectations from the man who took the place of Parsons; and without believing he could approach so near his eminence as those who knew him best expected, he bent the whole force of his faculties to the accomplishing of his great object -- that of filling with respectability and usefulness so conspicuous and important an office.

I am convinced that his entire devotion to this object, and his unremitted endeavors to attain it, increased his fatal disease, and probably hastened its victory over his constitution. In March last, the labors of this Court, especially those of the chief justice, were uncommonly great. Every afternoon and evening, until a late hour, was passed in consultation; and the opinions delivered by him were often the result of labor in those hours which ought to have been devoted to rest. This ambition to do more than duty requires, in offices of distinction and trust, may be laudable, but it is dangerous. A long life of continual exertion in public service is certainly more beneficial to the community than a few years of overstrained effort to produce more than duty requires. Enough was exhibited, in the short period of his exercise of the chief judicial office, to prove his native ability to sustain it, and to warrant the assertion that the public loss is now indeed irreparable.

In all his public functions, he was remarkable for his devotedness to the cause in which he was engaged, for his assiduity and earnestness, for research and depth of thought, and for an extraordinary ingenuity of reasoning which sometimes appeared to border on refinement, but which ended in the most just and satisfactory conclusions.

In his style of writing and speaking, he was uncommonly nice and elegant, generally pruning and polishing his sentences until they became suited to an ear made almost fastidious by an early classical education, and a copious and reiterated reading of the best authors in English literature.

His mind was originally that of a poet, in which fancy predominates, and ornament is the great desideratum. But business, deeper study, and the judgment of manhood, had substituted a firmer and more durable basis for his compositions, leaving enough only of the former character to adorn and beautify them.

He viewed the system of law as a system of justice, considering its technical forms and rules as its guards and securities; always exercising his ingenuity to adapt them to the substantial merits of the case, and yet cautious not to break through those approved precedents and formularies which the experience of ages has proved to be useful and necessary. He conducted the business of a nisi prius court with great ease to himself amid the bar, exhibiting that happy medium of promptness and deliberation which constitutes the perfection of that system of trials; and in the discussion of questions of law, both in court and in our chambers, his recollection of arguments, his power of weighing them, and his talent of discrimination were of unspeakable advantage to those who took part with him in the decisions.

In his private life and manners, it may be truly said he was faultless. A more affectionate head of a family, or a more sincere friend, never lived. The companions of his college life, several of whom I have conversed with since his death, felt an attachment to him stronger than friendship; they indeed loved him as a brother. He was of a most kind and affectionate disposition, and uncommonly inoffensive in all his intercourse with society. "In wit a man, in simplicity a child." He was of a reserved, although not an unsocial disposition; seldom assuming the rank in conversation to which his powers entitled him, but always adding to the harmony and good humor of a company by the benevolence of his countenance and the sociability of his smiles.

He had a deep sense of his accountability to an all-wise and merciful God, for the deeds done in the body. Although educated in the Congregational form of worship, he chose for himself the Episcopal, having a strong attachment to a stated form of prayer, and not believing the peculiar tenets of any church essential to the character of a Christian. The suddenness of his death prevented him from giving that dying testimony to his belief in Christianity which is so generally sought for, and so much relied upon. But he lived the life of a Christian; which is at least as good evidence of his belief as any dying declaration. He did justly, loved mercy and walked humbly with his God. I trust he has gone to reap the rewards of as pure, innocent, and useful a life as has been passed by any human being; and may God, of his infinite mercy, grant that our commonwealth may be preserved amid his judgments; and that the children may rise up, instead of the fathers, to guard her interests and promote her welfare.


1 The late John Gardiner, Esq., who for the years 1790 to 1793, inclusively, represented the town of Pownalborough, in the county of Lincoln.

2 On one occasion, a bill was introduced for punishing perjury, committed by witnesses in capital trials, with death. He then exhibited in so clear a light the mischiefs that would result from such a change, particularly by the fear and constraint that it would produce in witnesses, as to prevent the passage of the bill. At another time, an attempt was made to abolish special pleading, by allowing the party always to plead the general issue, and to give any special matter in evidence. Then, too, he opposed the career of innovation with such strength of argument, and so happily demonstrated the advantages of adhering to long-established rules, that, in the result, only five hands were raised for the bill.