Lemuel Shaw

Retirement as Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court

The Honorable Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, resigned his office on the 21st of August 1860. At a meeting of the bar of the county of Berkshire at the court house in Lenox, on the 7th of September, the following resolutions were adopted, and were presented to the court on the same day by Mr. Rockwell, who moved that they might be placed on the records of the court, and the motion was supported by Mr. Dawes.

Resolved, That as one of the most interesting events in the judicial history of Massachusetts occurred in this county, at the September term of this court in the year 1830, when the Honorable Lemuel Shaw entered upon his duties as Chief Justice of this court, and as the present is the first term of the court since his voluntary resignation of that high office, there seems a peculiar propriety that some suitable notice of the latter event should here and now be taken.

Resolved, That as we have been accustomed for the best reasons, during the long period of thirty years, to acquiesce in the decisions of Chief Justice Shaw, as the just and legal adjudications of the rights of parties; so we now, though with great regret, acquiesce in the propriety of his decision to resign this office, while in the full vigor of his intellectual faculties, with his vast experience in the investigation of questions of law and equity at the bar and upon the bench.

Resolved, That as we now recall the acuteness and power of his intellect, his sound and varied learning, his patient and faithful investigation, his sensibility to the natural justice and equity of particular cases, and yet his inflexible regard to the uniformity of established legal principles, we desire to place these recollections upon record, and while actuated by feelings of personal respect, we find an additional inducement to this proceeding in a sentiment, which we adopt in the very language of the Chief Justice addressed to us from the bench: "The character and virtues, the just sentiments and useful actions, of distinguished men, preserved in the annals and cherished in the recollections of a grateful people, constitute their richest treasures."

Resolved, That these resolutions be presented to the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court, with the respectful request that they may be placed upon the records of the court.

Mr. Justice Dewey, in behalf of the court, responded as follows:

We most cordially and sincerely unite with the members of the bar of Berkshire in expressing our profound regret that our venerated friend and brother, Chief Justice Shaw, has felt himself constrained, by his advancing age, to vacate the place so long and so honorably filled by him. Thirty years of unabated devotion to the public, in the discharge of duties like those that devolved upon him, have more than discharged those obligations which every true and loyal man owes to the Commonwealth. Gladly would his associates have seen his term of office yet extended many years. The loss of such a man from our judicial forum is irreparable to the public. But by us, his late associates, it will be most deeply realized.

His fame will not be evanescent. The enduring monuments of his judicial learning, his intellectual grasp, his sound judgment, and his unceasing labor, will be found in the published reports of the judicial decisions of this court. To these he will be found to have contributed to an amount much beyond any one of his associates, far more than his illustrious predecessors, Parsons and Parker. To Parsons was permitted a judicial life of only seven years, and his opinions extend over only nine volumes of our reports. Parker's was that of sixteen years, and sixteen volumes of reports; whilst our late venerable chief has had the singular fortune of a judicial life protracted to thirty years, continuing in his full vigor of mind and entire capacity for the duties of his office; and the results of his labors are to be found in forty nine already published volumes, to which will soon be added seven more to complete the series.

This period of thirty years has been prolific in great changes in all that appertains to the great business relations of men. In these ever varying changes, and the adaptation of legal principles to them, he has always been found adequate to the occasion. Many questions of constitutional law of grave import have been solved. The judicial construction of all the various portions of the Revised Statutes of 1836 has been under his supervision. Upon every branch of the law he will be found to have touched, and how fully he illustrated and exhausted whatever judicial questions he touched, we all well know.

His legal opinions have always been received with the highest respect, for all felt that they were the result not only of patient legal research by a master mind, but emanated from one distinguished for his stern integrity and impartiality.

In his intercourse with his brethren of the bench he will be remembered for his kindness and benevolence, and his entire readiness to assume his full proportion of the arduous labors that devolve upon this court; indeed at times he has voluntarily assumed much more than this. He leaves us with the unabated affection, esteem and reverence of all his associates.

By myself personally his withdrawal is peculiarly felt, inasmuch as it removes from the bench the last as those honored and worthy public servants who composed the highest judicial tribunal when I had the honor to be called to a seat on this bench. Putnam, Wilde and Morton, all men to be remembered, have long since vacated their places, and are now followed by Chief Justice Shaw.

We rejoice that we are not called to mourn his loss from the land of the living. Long may he be spared to enjoy a serene old age; an example to a younger generation of a life which has accomplished the noble purposes of our being; leaving a reputation world-wide; alike known as a distinguished jurist from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and most respectfully held in estimation by the Judges in Westminster Hall.

With great satisfaction we receive a copy of the resolutions of the Berkshire bar, now presented to the court, and direct that they be placed on the records of this court.

At the request of the bar, the reply of the court was ordered to be recorded with the resolutions.

A meeting of the bar of the Commonwealth was held in the Supreme Judicial Court room in Boston, on the 12th of September 1860, and the following address adopted, which, after being signed by a committee appointed for the purpose, was presented by Mr. Lincoln as their chairman, accompanied by the rest of the committee, to Chief Justice Shaw at his house on the 19th of September.

To the Honorable Lemuel Shaw, late Chief Justice of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Supreme Court Room, Boston, September 10, 1860.

Sir: At the age of nearly eighty years, you have recently closed a judicial career of unexampled honor and of almost unequalled duration, while yet in the full enjoyment of health and in the undiminished vigor of your intellectual powers.

This rare felicity, accorded to few of the distinguished magistrates who have left a lasting impression upon the jurisprudence of their times, has been vouchsafed by a kind Providence to you. In your voluntary retirement, you are permitted to feel at once the public regret and the public acquiescence; for all admit your well earned title to repose, and all deplore the arrival of a period when your right to that repose has become superior to the claims which have so long held you in the service of the State.

Freed from official cares, you may now survey the fruits of your labors; may estimate their influence upon this age and upon future ages; and may know the magnitude of a debt which your contemporaries acknowledge, which posterity will admit, but which neither can pay.

Deputed by the bar of the Commonwealth, we come to thank you in their name, and we venture to add, in the name of the people of Massachusetts, for your long and beneficent public services; for your wise, firm and enlightened administration of justice; for your untiring devotion to the duties of your high station; for the commanding influences of your mind and character upon the great interests of the State; and for the distinction which you have conferred upon the tribunal over which you have presided.

Called in middle life to a seat which had been made conspicuous to the whole country by the great men who preceded you, you were summoned to administer the law at a period when society had already begun with rapid strides to advance in new and untried paths.

It was the task of those who went before you, to show that the principles of the common and the commercial law were available to the wants of communities which were far more recent than the origin of those systems. It was for you to adapt those systems to still newer and greater exigencies; to extend them to the solution of questions, which it required a profound sagacity to foresee, and for which an intimate knowledge of the law often enabled you to provide, before they had even fully arisen for judgment. Thus it has been, that in your hands the law has met the demands of a period of unexampled activity and enterprise; while over all its varied and conflicting interests you have held the strong, conservative sway of a judge, who moulds the rule for the present and the future out of the principles and precedents of the past. Thus too it has been, that every tribunal in the country has felt the weight of your judgments, and jurists at home and abroad look to you as one of the great expositors of the law.

We beg you, sir, to believe that we appreciate and thankfully remember the high qualities which have always distinguished you as a chief justice. Integrity, on which the community leans with absolute confidence; learning and industry equal to all occasions; the faculty of assisting the tribunal to speak the consenting voices of several minds, as if they were the conclusions of one; the power of maintaining amid the conflicts of the bar the supremacy of the bench: these are the essential means by which a chief justice secures the usefulness of a court. For more than thirty years the people of Massachusetts have known that they had all these great qualities in you; and we are sure that you will find their gratitude in some degree commensurate with what you have done, and what you have been.

While we are obliged to part with the magistrate, it is a consolation that the friend remains to us. You will still be near us, will be among us. Still your counsels will be open to us, and on your wisdom and your ready sympathy with all that concerns the progress and the welfare of society, we feel that we can rely. For the residue of your days we invoke the blessings of that power, whose rewards are for the faithful and the just. "All that should accompany old age" is yours; and that you may experience the happiness with which such a life should close, is the earnest wish with which we subscribe ourselves,

Most respectfully,
Your affectionate friends and servants,

  • Suffolk Bar: S. Barlett, B. R. Curtis, B. F. Hallett, GEO. T. Curtis, Charles G. Loring,
  • Essex Bar: Stephen H. Phillips,
  • Middlesex Bar: Benj. F. Butler,
  • Worcester Bar: Levi Lincoln,
  • Norfolk Bar: John J. Clarke,
  • Hampshire Bar: Osmyn Baker,
  • Hampden Bar: R. A. Chapman,
  • Berkshire Bar: Julius Rockwell,
  • Bristol Bar: John H. Clifford,
  • Plymouth Bar: WM. Bayles,
  • Barnstable Bar: N. Marston,
  • Franklin Bar: GEO. T. Davis.

Chief Justice Shaw then read the following reply:

Gentlemen of the Bar of Massachusetts:

Your presence on this occasion, at the close of a judicial life, now somewhat extended, and the very kind and warmhearted expressions in which you have felt justified in communicating your approbation of my judicial course, offered in this hour of parting, are most welcome and acceptable. It affords me an opportunity which I have long desired and now readily seize, to express to the government and people of the Commonwealth, and more especially to the entire bar of Massachusetts, my hearty thanks for the kind and marked respect with which they have uniformly honored and cheered me personally from the first moment of my appointment to the present time; and more especially for the confiding and indulgent, I might almost say the forbearing spirit, in which my professional brethren, have regarded all my efforts towards the performance of the great duties with which I have been entrusted.

Be assured, my friends, this is no new or sudden feeling awakened by strong expressions of regard incident to the close of a career of judicial administration; it has rather resulted from my recollection of constant intercourse which has actually existed between judge and advocate in trials, sometimes involving the most interesting and exciting topics, and leading to earnest and animated debate. If, upon such or any similar occasion, a momentary spark of resentment was excited at any supposed wrong, I am happy to believe that the feeling was but momentary, yielded to any reasonable explanation, and was forthwith forgotten. This abiding reliance upon the good will of my professional associates, the advocates at the bar, to do justice to my motives and to think favorably of my judicial acts, was early and deeply impressed upon me; impressed indeed with so much force and effect, as to become a practical ground of relief and comfort in the performance of responsible duties, the weight of which would have otherwise been almost too oppressive to be borne.

But now that my judicial labors are finished, and the responsibilities attending them have terminated, nothing could be more consolatory to my feelings, than the deliberate approval of my judicial course, by those most conversant with the contests and struggles of the forum, most concerned in maintaining the justice and efficiency as well as the honor and dignity of our jurisprudence, most capable of forming a true estimate of judicial character.

Gentlemen, in this slight retrospect of my judicial course, indeed in reviewing the whole course of my life, I desire in this solemn hour to express my sincere and devout gratitude to that benignant and overruling Providence, who has crowned my days with innumerable blessings, without whose sustaining aid all human strength is but weakness, and the highest human exertions but vanity. May the smiles of that Divine Providence ever rest on the administration of justice, and on all the great civil and social interests of our beloved Commonwealth, to invigorate the minds, to warm the hearts, and to enlighten the consciences of all those engaged in their administration.

Gentlemen of the committee, my brethren, associates and friends, as I recognize in you the representatives of the bar of Massachusetts, and in meeting you for the last time, I feel that it is no meeting of strangers. In regard to most of the members of our profession, indeed all of them who approach my own position in point of age, I have been associated with them not only in the labors of a common and honorable profession, in the interesting connection of judge and advocate in the actual administration of justice, but in the relations of friendship and social attachment. It is in a consciousness of this relation, and not, I hope you will believe me, in any feeling of arrogance, that I receive with grateful satisfaction the very strong expressions of commendation, in which you sum up your estimate of my official course. I know the source whence it originates, and the feelings which clothe and accompany it, and the purpose it is intended to accomplish; and I have yet to learn that an approving judgment is less the true exponent of the mind that utters it, or less dear to one on whom it is bestowed, because conveyed in expressions tinged by the colors and warm with the glow of affectionate feeling. The termination of the interesting relations which have so long and uninterruptedly continued, seems a fit occasion for laying aside reserve, and speaking from the fulness and sincerity of the heart.

Gentlemen, pardon me in glancing a moment at the future, so far at least as to express a hope and prayer for the continued prosperity of institutions to which our lives have been dedicated. My hope rests on the enlightened character of the people of Massachusetts. I have already, from my own experience of the habitual respect of this community for the judiciary and its officers, spoken of the support and encouragement, which it has afforded me under the weight of judicial responsibilities.

You will not, I am sure, ascribe to me the vanity of believing these favorable regards to proceed from any consideration personal to myself. No, gentlemen, I believe, and I rejoice in the conviction, that a noble veneration for the judiciary department of the government, and respect for those to whom it is entrusted, is the pervading sentiment of the great body of the freemen of Massachusetts; that it nourishes and sustains an abiding conservative principle, favorable to the independence and stability of the judiciary, as the foundation of public peace, and the security of private rights. Much, very much, was done by the wise founders of our Commonwealth to give force and effect to those principles and to maintain the just power of the judiciary, as among the essential elements of good government. If amidst the gusts and whirlwinds of political violence, of personal rancor and party rage, passion and force for the time bear rule, may we not still well hope that the calm reflection, the abiding reflection of the sober men of the Commonwealth will resume their sway, and enable a trustworthy judiciary to maintain the safety of the State. Above all, let us be careful how we disparage the wisdom of our fathers, in providing for the appointment to judicial office, in fixing the tenure of office, and making judges "as free, impartial, and independent as the lot of humanity will admit." Let no plausible or delusive hope of obtaining a larger liberty, let not the example of any other state, lead you in this matter to desert your own solid ground, until cautious reason or the well tried experiment of others shall have demonstrated the establishment of a judiciary wiser and more solid than our own.

Gentlemen, in terminating a long course of professional and judicial life, and in taking leave of those with whom I have so long labored in the study and practice of the law and in the administration of justice, I am happy to bear a strong testimony to my high sense of the influence and power of the legal profession, when honor, integrity and a conscientious regard to duty are its true characteristics. On you, gentlemen, and your associates and successors, as the professed ministers of the law, it depends to maintain this character. From your ranks, subject to your training, must be drawn all those who are called to the office of judges; in truth, the value and efficiency of the jurisprudence of Massachusetts is committed to your charge. And my last earnest hope and prayer for yourselves and successors, and for all the people of our beloved Commonwealth, is that through an honorable practice of the law, and a faithful administration of justice, they may long continue to enjoy the inestimable blessings of liberty, safety and peace.

Lemuel Shaw.
Boston, 19th September 1860