George Augustus Sanderson

Associate Justice memorial

281 Mass. 559 (1933)

The Honorable George Augustus Sanderson, an Associate Justice of this court, died while still a member of the court on June 11, 1932. On February 11, 1933, a special sitting of the full court was held at Boston, where there were the following proceedings.

The Attorney General addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors: The Bar of this Commonwealth have prepared a Memorial to the late Justice George Augustus Sanderson of this court, which Memorial has been prepared by a Committee composed of members of the Middlesex and Suffolk Bars, who are as follows: Frederick N. Wier, Augustin J. Daly, Felix Rackemann, Joseph Wiggin, Harold S. Davis. I present the Memorial.

George Augustus Sanderson: A Memorial.

The Bar of this Court desire to place on record their appreciation of the upright life and distinguished attainments of George Augustus Sanderson, late justice of this court, whose death is both a personal bereavement to them and a loss to the Commonwealth which he served so well.

Justice Sanderson was born July 1, 1863, in Littleton in the county of Middlesex. His family had been residents of that county from the time when Edward Sanderson, his progenitor, came to this country in 1645 and settled in Watertown. In 1750 Moses Sanderson, the great-grandson of Edward, purchased the home and farm in Littleton which have been in the possession of the family ever since. Here Justice Sanderson was born. His father, George Webster Sanderson, was a man of great public spirit whom his fellow-citizens honored with election as selectman and representative and senator to the General Court and in many other ways. Because of the interest which the son took in the formation of the probation system in Massachusetts, it is interesting to note that the father was at one time probation officer and clerk of the First District Court of Northern Middlesex. The maiden name of the Justice's mother was Charlotte Elizabeth Tuttle; her family had likewise been identified with Littleton for a long period, having settled in Ipswich in 1635 and having moved to Littleton early in the eighteenth century.

Justice Sanderson was educated in the public schools of his native town, in the Lawrence Academy of Groton and in Yale University, from which he graduated in 1885. Two years later he graduated from the Law School of Boston University. In 1893 he married Annie Sarah Bennett. They had five children -- two daughters and three sons. The older daughter died in childhood.

For several years after his admission to the bar in 1887 Justice Sanderson practiced in Boston. In January, 1893, he was appointed assistant district attorney for the northern district, which includes the entire county of Middlesex. He held this office until he was elected district attorney in 1901. He was reelected in 1904 and continued to be district attorney until April, 1907, when he was appointed by Governor Guild a Justice of the Superior Court. In October, 1924, he was appointed by Governor Cox a Justice of this court and he continued to discharge the high and laborious duties of this position until his death on June 11, 1932.

Notwithstanding the exacting demands of his profession, Justice Sanderson took throughout his life an intense interest in the affairs of the community in which he lived. At different periods he was a member of the school committee of Littleton and chairman of that committee; moderator of the town; a trustee of Lawrence Academy and president of the board; a trustee of the public library of Ayer and a trustee of the North Middlesex Savings Bank. He was senior warden of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church of Ayer.

Sanderson's work in the office of district attorney was efficient and successful because he brought to its duties the qualities that later characterized his work on the bench. Those who came before him felt that their cases had been passed upon by a just and sympathetic official. It should especially be recorded that the probation system as now administered in this Commonwealth was established by legislation during this period. Justice Sanderson was one of the pioneers among our prosecuting officers who, before this legislation was enacted, made use of the principle of probation with the means that were then at hand. He was a strong believer in this system, which made it possible for many to regain their self-respect and confidence even after -- or sometimes because -- they had been brought before the court on criminal charges.

As a nisi prius judge his sense of fairness was strong and it was his constant aim that justice be accomplished in every case coming before him. He was firm in his rulings, but patient and courteous toward counsel and witnesses. Every question of law or fact coming before him was considered with thoroughness and impartiality. His handling of the many matters resting in judicial discretion displayed a rare soundness of judgment. Throughout the seventeen years during which he sat in the Superior Court he won the high esteem both of the bar and of the public.

As a member of the court of last resort, Justice Sanderson manifested the traits of character which had given distinction to his service in the Superior Court. His industry, his judicial temperament, his logical mind, his scholarly attainments and his power of lucid expression caused his work to meet in full measure the exacting requirements which the traditions of this court have established and to make for him a most worthy place in the long succession of its members. That the final summons should have come while he was in the midst of his judicial labors was not unfitting in the case of one who gave of himself so unreservedly in the public interest.

This appreciation would not, however, be complete if it did not emphasize two of the controlling influences in his life. These were his religious convictions and his love of family. Every one who knew him recognized something of the depth and sincerity of his religious life; it was not ostentatious, but real and constant; it permeated and gave tone to all his other interests. His family life was ideal. His home was a place of love and hospitality and in it during his latter years much of his work was done; it was at once his centre and his inspiration.

Justice Sanderson was a man of intellect, unfailing courtesy, moderation and sincerity -- qualities whereby he gave to the Commonwealth invaluable service in high judicial office. He will be remembered by those who knew him best for his faithfulness to all the duties of the positions he was called upon to fill, for his high ideals, for the firmness of his convictions, for his wide sympathies and for his sterling character.

I present this Memorial and ask that it be incorporated in the permanent records of this Honorable Court.

Frederick N. Wier, Esquire, addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors: My acquaintance with Mr. Justice Sanderson began when we were in law school. Later we were associated for nine years in the office of district attorney for the northern district. This intimacy ripened into a friendship which lasted during the remainder of his life. Hence I am able, I think, to speak from full knowledge of those personal qualities of the man that are noted in the memorial.

He was a man of the finest, most genuine character. Every one who came in contact with him was impressed by his intelligence, his courtesy, his moderation, his patience, his industry and his sincerity, but much more were those closest to him conscious of his faithfulness to his friends in sickness and in health and to his convictions. In our nine years together I was much interested in watching his growth not only in self-reliance but also in the willingness at all times to aid and assist others. His was a steady growth in well balanced character, which was reflected, of course, in his career first as a prosecuting officer and then as a judge.

Because of the intimacy which resulted from our years of work together, I was privileged to know something of his early married life. I have never known a home which was ruled by a finer hospitality. It was a great pleasure to observe the affection and the loyalty which controlled all members of the family and made the life in that home ideal.

One characteristic which always impressed me was his interest in things of the spirit. He was distinctly and deeply a spiritually minded man. There was no ostentation in this on his part. "A man of affairs all his life, the rare boon seemed bestowed on him to go through life unspotted from the world." There was nothing in his attitude which implied any sense of superiority; but throughout life he realized his ideals more than most men, because of the inner vision. He was a modest man who wore his honors as a badge of service.

This word "service" is peculiarly appropriate to Mr. Justice Sanderson. What I have said of him refers both to his personal character and to his public life. In both he was exceptional in just this quality of service. He was helpful to others, and he was devoted heart and soul to the work to which destiny called him. As was said of another of our great judges, "He lived constantly under a solemn sense of the high responsibility of his office and surrendered himself to its demands with utter and complete self-abnegation, in the single desire to faithfully perform the duty in hand."

This combination of the highest character and of devoted service in public office is, fortunately, not rare in the history of our courts, but I think I may say that in the case of Mr. Justice Sanderson the union was complete. The life of every one of his friends is better through the memory of this good man, and Massachusetts has lost a true-hearted servant of the people.

Augustin J. Daly, Esquire, addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors: Mr. Justice Sanderson spent his home life in the beautiful region in which he was born in Middlesex County, where his family had resided for generations. Here his character was formed under the influence of home, church and school, and here was inculcated that love for his Creator and his fellowman, which was the controlling influence in his life. Here he also acquired that habit of patient, diligent application, which contributed so much to the success of his distinguished career.

His daily life among his neighbors was a shining example of that temperate, kindly living, which has left a memory revered by all, who had the privilege of its influence. He loved and was loved by the people of his native town. He knew them well and was ever ready to help them in their difficulties by his advice and counsel. They expressed their appreciation of his worth by bestowing upon him the highest places within their gift, trusts which he fulfilled with distinction.

In this spirit of loyalty to the interest of those about him, he served his native town in its public offices, in its institutions for the advancement of learning and in the preservation of a knowledge of its history.

In this sacred spot, hallowed by all the memories of a long line of ancestors, by the intimate human relations of youth and young manhood, he established his home. It was distinguished by its simplicity, its hospitality, its atmosphere of perfect harmony and understanding. It was one of the bright spots in this New England village shedding its influence not only into the social, but also into the spiritual life of the community about it. In this home, with his devoted wife and children about him, Justice Sanderson enjoyed a domestic happiness which inspired him to face the trying problems that confronted him in the high places to which he was called.

A few years after he was admitted to the Bar, he was appointed assistant district attorney for the northern district. This opportunity, which came to the young attorney almost on the threshold of his professional life, was the beginning of his long years of steady progress in the profession which he so dearly loved. Into the performance of the duties of this office, and later as district attorney, he brought not only courage and firmness, but also that native kindliness and sympathetic interest, which so characterized his whole attitude towards life. He exercised the most careful consideration for the interests of the Commonwealth upon the one hand, and the just treatment of the citizen upon the other. He had inexhaustible patience. He was approachable by all. His thorough investigation into each of the cases which was presented to him during his incumbency of the office of public prosecutor for the largest county in the Commonwealth stamped him as an ideal public servant. All who came in contact with him in the performance of the difficult duties of this most exacting office recognized that he possessed that quality of good judgment which he so successfully applied to the solution of its problems.

It was his high privilege to serve as a Justice of the Superior and also of the Supreme Judicial Court. These honors came to him as a just recognition of the eminent qualifications which he possessed for the proper discharge of the duties pertaining to the administration of the law as applied to the intricate cases which come before our courts.

His was a truly unblemished private and public life fully lived. No thwarting circumstance prevented him from using all the fine faculties of his mind, heart and soul. The lofty ideals of private and public duty to which he lived so closely will be an abiding influence for all that is best in our Commonwealth.

Joseph Wiggin, Esquire, addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors: Probably the principal impression Mr. Justice Sanderson produced on those who came into his court in the twenty-five years of his service in this and the Superior Court was that he was a gentleman of unfailing courtesy and patience, who, in his capacity as a judge, intended to get at and at least to understand, exactly, the point of view of every party before him. That he was quite capable of carrying out that intention you had no doubt. His manner and his prompt determination of the incidental questions which necessarily arise in a trial inspired confidence.

He produced another strong impression on us all. It was evident that he had somehow acquired and retained an understanding and an appreciation of what we term the everyday people, their habits of thought, their ways of expressing themselves and the manner in which they conduct their affairs. It is not difficult for a Judge, or a lawyer for that matter, who of necessity spends much of his life in the intensive study of books and the written word and of legal principles and their application, to have crowded out of his life some of the experiences of his younger days with everyday people and some of the practical knowledge gained from those experiences. And yet such people, going about their daily work with no thought of courts or of judges somehow find themselves, all too frequently, entangled in some quarrel or controversy which results in litigation. Much of the business of our courts arises in just that way. And such is human nature that usually the facts and the intentions of the parties as urged upon the courts in such cases differ materially from the facts and the intentions of those same people as viewed by them a few short minutes before the trouble arose and while they were still pleasantly engaged in some piece of commonplace business. On such occasions, what Mr. Justice Sanderson unquestionably had to an unusual degree, namely, a knowledge of people and how they think and behave in their common affairs under normal conditions, is of great importance if the truth is to be discovered and justice done. Without such knowledge, the happenings of life may well be subjected, if litigation arises, to standards of analysis and adjudication which seem sound in a court room but are quite foreign to the thoughts and habits of men engaged in ordinary business.

And some of us, who knew that this Judge must, like all who occupy similar positions, live largely the life of a student of the law, used to wonder a little when he had acquired this insight into people and how he had kept it.

The answer is found in a single paragraph in the memorial which recites what he did and what he was in the New England community in which he lived. He was long a leader in semipublic and public affairs, trusted and esteemed by his neighbors and frequently placed by them in charge of community affairs of importance.

He was a leading citizen at home before he was a Judge and he continued to be a leading citizen throughout his life. He knew and understood his neighbors and they knew and understood him. It is not surprising that when they, or others like them, came with their troubles he saw few things that were new or strange and few that he could not comprehend.

I am thankful for the opportunity to pay my small tribute to this man.

Frederick H. Chase, Esquire, addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors: This room is used for the discussion of principles and not of men. But on an occasion such as this, which centres on a personality, we are permitted to speak of things which are not in issue when the court sits in judgment. When we meet to honor Judge Sanderson's memory we are all thinking of him not only as a magistrate but as a man, and our minds dwell upon the qualities which he showed outside the court room as well as those which we esteemed so highly when we came before him here. The few words we are privileged to say are not enough to describe the reasons for the warm affection we had for him. Generalities count for little unless they are supported by the instances from which they are made up. Each of us could recall a detail or circumstance about him which would be full of significance, and yet the sum of them all would not suffice to show the moral excellence and fineness of the individual. It would be best, perhaps to let our reflections rest for a moment upon a single trait which was both obvious and admirable.

Every one who knew him would agree that one of Judge Sanderson's notable qualities was loyalty. He had strong allegiances and was faithful to them. He was loyal to his religion, and to the law; loyal to the government under which he lived, the Nation, the State, and the town. He was true to all persons to whom he owed fidelity, his kindred, and his friends. He was loyal to his Alma Mater and to his college class.

To the law he gave the working years of his life, following with a deeply religious spirit the light of truth and righteousness, at the same time for many years serving the government with conspicuous integrity and ability. No home circle could have been more closely united in affection than his, and of this no one who was not within it can say more without trespassing. He felt the obligations of friendship, and was generous and sympathetic as a friend to his friends. His interest in his neighbors and fellow townsmen did not arise from any accident of casual propinquity, but was a development of the neighborly contact of family with family in long succession.

But his spirit of loyalty was not confined to the limits of persons or principles. His fidelity embraced the very substance of the place where he was born and in which his forbears had dwelt from father to son. It covered the land which his ancestors had tilled for generations, the house in which they lived and which he made his own abode. He loved to climb the hill to view the broad and pleasing expanse of Middlesex. The woods were his delight and refuge. He increased his bounds, restored the waste, reforested the slopes, extended the orchards, sowed and reaped the fertile fields. His herds grazed the pastures, and the paternal acres grew rich and plentiful.

Such devotion to the land either denotes or induces constancy. It matters not which is the cause or which is the effect. In either case the man who loves the land seems to have something of the steadfastness and repose of the soil itself. We know where such a man stands and what he represents. There is nothing fickle or variable about him. He can be relied upon.

In an uneasy and unstable age, when habitations too often shift as ambitions swell, and "the old homestead" has become to many no more than a sentimental phrase, it is good to find that there are still men like Judge Sanderson, who feel the tie that binds succeeding generations to the same bit of good earth. It would be better for us all if there were more of this kind of loyalty, from which great nations have derived their cohesion and strength. The fact that, as he lived his life and achieved success and eminence in his profession, his feet still sought the paths his fathers had trod shows perhaps more vividly than any other one thing the length and breadth of Judge Sanderson's spirit of devotion. It harmonizes with the constant simplicity and steadiness of his character, and from it came the restful serenity which was one of his distinctive charms.

He loved to quote these lines of Alexander Pope1 -- they meant so much to him that he caused them to be printed on a card which he distributed amongst his friends; they might well have been written for him, so well do they express his feelings:
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air
In his own ground.
Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter, fire.

Felix Rackemann, Esquire, addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors: The life which has been lost to the Commonwealth by the untimely death of Mr. Justice Sanderson has been fully pictured in the remarks already made. I prefer to indorse rather than repeat them.

A word may, however, be fittingly added regarding his life from a different viewpoint; -- and that word I venture to offer.

All motion results from some impelling force. The watch has its mainspring. The water-wheel borrows power from the mountain stream.

The activities of the human life are subject to the same law!

What constituted that constant impelling force in the life of Justice Sanderson?

He had climbed a long ladder, from messenger in a minor office to his place on this honored bench. He never faltered. The world took him at far above his own valuation of himself. He gained and enjoyed unbounded respect and confidence. His course was always onward and upward. What was the force, the power, behind that climb of a lifetime, up to the ladder's top?

I do not know that he ever stated it himself. Perhaps he never stopped to formulate it. Indeed, it may have been only a subconscious influence.

Let me, however, again venture a suggestion.

Whether it be true or not that the Justice, as a lad, read, and became deeply impressed by, that wonderful thought of Wordsworth's, expressed in the "Ode to Duty," we may only conjecture; but if he did, it would, I submit, afford a key to the secret of his life; and if he did not, I think it is true that Wordsworth's thought may yet have been his also.

Was it not an abiding sense of DUTY which (not as a lash but as an inspiration) became, and was, the guiding star of Justice Sanderson's life, Duty to his family, -- to his neighbor, -- to his fellow-townsmen, -- to all good causes, -- to himself, and to his Maker?

May I not remind you of some of the lines of the "Ode"?

Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!
0 Duty! if that name thou love,
Who art a light to guide, a rod
To check the erring, and reprove;
Thou who art victory and law
When empty terrors overawe;
From vain temptations dost set free;
And calm'st the weary strife of frail humanity!

And the last of the stanzas:

To humbler functions, awful Power!
I call thee: I myself commend
Unto thy guidance from this hour;
Oh, let my weakness have an end!
Give unto me, made lowly wise,
The spirit of self-sacrifice;
The confidence of reason give;
And in the light of truth thy Bondman let me live!

Adapting the words of the Ode--

Was it not duty which, to him, was ever "a light to guide"? Was it not duty which set him free from "vain temptations," and calmed his "weary strife" with "frail humanity"?

Did he not "commend himself unto the guidance" of that same star? Did he not faithfully observe the injunction of Polonius to Laertes?

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.2

Was there not given to him, "made lowly wise," the "spirit of self-sacrifice"?

Did he not have "the confidence of reason," and live and serve, a happy "bondman," "in the light of truth"?

Chief Justice Rugg responded as follows:

Mr. Attorney General and Brethren of the Bar: Our activities are arrested that tribute may be paid to the memory of a recently deceased member of this court, taken from us in the midst of the administration of his trust and at the moment of highest possibilities of usefulness. The death of Mr. Justice Sanderson is felt with a heavy weight of sadness by his colleagues. They have learned by intimate labors with him to appraise his preëminent ability as a magistrate, and have become bound to him closely by his many endearing personal traits. My own friendship with him began when both of us were working as librarians at the law school. It has strengthened with the passing years and has ripened in the fraternal relationship arising from joint endeavor toward a common end.

George A. Sanderson was a true product of the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His earliest forbears on this continent were among those who came during the Puritan immigration. Every successive generation of the family was disciplined by a life of industry, frugality and simplicity. Most if not all of them were tillers of the soil. He was born and reared in a country town of Middlesex County. He had the rich patrimony of the farmer boy -- training in self-reliance, resourcefulness, work with his hands amid surroundings tending to develop love for the out-of-doors. He was deeply attached to the farm which he owned and where he lived a large part of his life. He took great interest in extending its orchards, in watching their growth and in increasing their fruitage.

He was a warm adherent of the institutions typical of New England. He took active part in the prudential affairs of his town, and held important offices. He had familiar cognizance concerning the town meeting form of government and its municipal administration. He was diligent in the study of local history and in preserving the results of such investigations.

His experience in practice at the bar was wide in variety. It brought him in close practical touch with many different branches of the law. His connection with the office of district attorney for the northern district enabled him to cover the whole field of criminal law, brought him contact with large numbers of men and gave him an intimate knowledge of human nature. Seventeen years on the Superior Court constituted exceptional opportunity for public service. It was preparation of high order for his remaining judicial work. As a trial judge he was a close approach to the ideal. He was learned in the law. Rarely did he fall into error. He understood men and the motives which actuate their conduct. He knew the common affairs of life. Robust common sense was ingrain in his being. He had an innate apprehension of justice. His fairness was so outstanding that it became proverbial throughout the Commonwealth. He had evenness of temper. No hasty word or unmatured thought ever marred the serenity of his constant courtesy. His patience was never exhausted. His impartiality and promptness were unfailing. There was no wavering in his purpose and no vacillation in his conduct. He was firm in his convictions and steadfast in his rulings. He conducted exceedingly difficult jury trials with marked success. He was equally apt in complicated hearings in equity. No party or counsel ever left his court without feeling satisfied that his case had been heard with calmness, intelligence, insight and sagacity.

He was appointed a justice of this court, at the age of sixty-one, in 1924. Under the stimulus of those new and exacting duties, his powers waxed strong and he grew to even higher judicial achievement. He remained in office almost eight years. During that period he wrote four hundred and ninety-eight opinions expressive of the judgment of the court, to be found in thirty-one volumes of our reports. The first is Marcotte v. Massachusetts Security Corp. 250 Mass. 246, and the last , 280 Mass. 157. He wrote no dissent and joined in only one written by one of his associates. There is a uniformity of fine excellence about his visible contributions to the body of our jurisprudence. It would be difficult without carefully critical examination to select any as rising to a level of superiority above the others. All of his opinions show painstaking investigation and deliberate thought. There is a feeling of satisfaction and security in reading them. They are comprehensive, adequately supported by authority, and expressed with clarity. They carry conviction of their justice and accuracy. He was especially helpful at the consultation table. In the preliminary discussion following argument he was most thorough. No reason put forward at the bar escaped his attention. His analysis was searching, his weighing of conflicting contentions accurate, his perspective correct. He was able to discern the difference between the accidental and the essential, between the dominant and the ancillary. His grasp of governing principles was sure. He never yielded to the allurement of investigating points of merely theoretical concern having no necessary connection with the decisive aspects of a case. The motions of his mind were steady rather than quick, strong rather than sparkling, sound rather than epigrammatic. His final conclusions were never reached without thorough research and sufficient reflection. He was industrious to the last degree. He was always well up with his work. Every opinion assigned to him had been written when the end came.

In appearance and stature he was every inch a judge. His figure was tall, erect, muscular. His manner was mild. His attention was never diverted from the matter in hand. From the beginning of his service on this court he carried his full share of its heavy work. Association with him was always a joy. He had no impediments of manner or temperament, disposition or habit. He was companionable. His recreations kept him in close touch with the things of nature in the country. His family life with wife and children and kindred was most exemplary. It was a living illustration of the truth that the hope of mankind rests on the strength, purity and beauty of home life.

His eminence was recognized by election as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It was the intention of the trustees of Boston University to confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws in 1932. Impressive reference was made to him at commencement although he had passed away a few days before; and the citation intended for him was read.

He was a man deeply religious by nature and punctilious in observance of public worship. His conduct was the manifestation of spiritual devotion and personal conviction. He did justice because it was inherent in his nature; goodness and mercy followed him all the days of his life; and he walked ever with true humility.

We bear testimony to a wise and upright judge. For a quarter of a century on the two courts he rendered judicial service of high character. Almost one third of that time was spent in working upon the written expression of our law. The garland we bring to this memorial is not so much for what he did as for what he was.

The estimates of his life, character and judicial services presented at the bar, have been discriminating and admirable. The motion that the memorial be spread upon the records of the court is granted.

The court will now adjourn.


1 Ode on Solitude.
2 Hamlet, Act. I, sc. iii.

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