James D. Colt

Associate Justice memorial

131 Mass. 595 (1884)

The Honorable James D. Colt, a justice of this court from the fourteenth day of February, 1868, died at Pittsfield, where he resided, on the ninth day of August, 1881. A meeting of the members of the bar of Berkshire was held in Pittsfield on the thirteenth day of September following, at which resolutions were passed, which were presented to the full court on the following day. Before presenting them, James M. Barker, Esquire, addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors: In the golden sunshine of yesterday morning, though the air was still, there fell to the earth full many a leaf which had not yet reached its ripened glory, nor yet been touched with frost. The advancing season had brought again the term of this court at which the commissions of so many eminent men have been presented, and at which also the bench and bar have not unfrequently been called to mourn the recent loss of distinguished magistrates. It is for such an occasion that we are now assembled.

The ordinary business for the transaction of which this court was convened has been finished; the cases upon your docket have been heard, and no suitor stands waiting for the argument of his cause. At a period in your session when our departed brother, whose poignant sorrow in illness was that the public business would suffer from his inability, would have been best pleased to have such ceremonies performed, the bar of the county instructs me and my learned und distinguished associate to bring to the attention of your Honors a matter which cannot have been absent from the thoughts of any who are here assembled. For more than the average time during which justices of this court have occupied their seats, the bar of this county and its people have been accustomed to see upon your bench our brother who has so lately departed. We miss a form very dear to us, and know that we shall see it no more: a presence dignified but gracious; an intellect bright, sagacious, somewhat imperious, but well trained; a memory well stored alike with principle, precedent and anecdote; a spirit kindling at the touch of opposition or the show of difficulty; a heart true and tender, responding instantly and fully to the call of pity or of friendship; a conscience enlivened, instructed and guided by Christian thought and work.

The death of James Denison Colt, when not yet sixty-two years of age, was a great loss to the whole Commonwealth. He was everywhere recognized as a valuable citizen and an excellent judge. The death in office of any member of the court is an event of such importance that it may well occupy the time and attention of the tribunal. No pages of judicial records can do better service to the cause of jurisprudence than those which perpetuate the memory of a learned, just, and upright judge. But it is peculiarly fitting that here in the county which, from its establishment, was the home of his ancestors, in the place of his birth and education and his life-long home, the customary tribute of respect should be paid to the memory of our departed brother. Recognizing this, the bar of the Commonwealth, while taking steps to evince, at the capital of the State, their deep sense of loss and their high appreciation of the deceased, have left to us, his closer brethren by a local tie, the duty of presenting to your Honors formal resolutions suited to mark the common loss and sorrow of us all, and the privilege of listening to your response.

James Denison Colt, a justice of this court from September 11, 1865, to August 15, 1866, and from February 14, 1868, to his death, on August 9, 1881, was born in Pittsfield, October 8, 1819. His great-grandfather, bearing the same name, was one of the early settlers of the town, establishing his homestead upon a generous tract of a thousand acres in extent, at a spot now marked only by an ancient poplar, standing beside an unused and grass-grown way. His grandfather, also bearing the same name, was married under the great elm in front of the First Church, by the first minister of the town, to whose descendant we yesterday had the pleasure of making our salutation upon his accession to this bench. His father, like his ancestors, was a man of great force of character, and of worth and standing in this community, and gave to his sons the advantages of a liberal education. The Judge was the first of the family to enter professional life. He brought to it, however, acquisitions and culture gained in an unusually thorough and varied course of preparatory training. Fitted in the schools of his native place, he completed the usual course of study, and was graduated at Williams College in the class of 1838. There he enjoyed the teachings of that distinguished reasoner and instructor of men, Mark Hopkins, who has cherished for him, and for whom he cherished, the greatest esteem, and was associated as classmate with John Wells, whose too early loss from this bench the Commonwealth mourned in 1875, and as a fellow-student and intimate friend with others who have illustrated the science of the law, both on the bench and at the bar. Pupils of the school which, as the custom then was, he taught in the long vacation, recall him with respect and affection. After his graduation, an adventurous spirit led him to the then distant Southern States, and for two years on the banks of the Mississippi, near Natchez, he taught as tutor in a private family, and read law with a distinguished Southern advocate. Returning to his native town be attended medical lectures, and completed his preparatory legal studies in the office of the Honorable Julius Rockwell, and at the Law School of Harvard University. When admitted to the bar at February term, 1842, he formed a partnership with Mr. Rockwell, and immediately entered upon a large and varied practice. His name first appears in the reports of this court in connection with the cases of the September term 1844, when he seems to have successfully argued three causes, one as the associate of his partner, one alone, and one with Reuben A. Chapman, under whom, as Chief Justice, he was to serve upon this court. His position at the bar of this county was, from the outset, a prominent one, and very soon that of a leader. The generation of able advocates now passed away, and the present leaders of our bar who were young with him, valued him as an ally and respected him as an opponent.

The seventeen years of active practice which intervened before his first nomination to a judicial office were full of intense and varied professional work, in the midst of which, however, he did not allow himself to forget other duties. He served in the militia upon the staff of His Excellency, George N. Briggs. His interest in public affairs led him to serve as a selectman in 1848, and his prompt attention to the town's business is yet remembered by its citizens. He was a member of the General Court in 1853 and 1854, serving as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, with what ability and success the distinguished Speaker of the House of 1854, whose presence now adorns this bench, can attest. He repaid the institutions at which he had received his early training by serving as Professor of Medical Jurisprudence in the Berkshire Medical College, and by devoting much valuable time and thought to the affairs of Williams College, of which institution at a later date he was a trustee, and by which, as well as by Harvard University, he was afterward honored with the degree of Doctor of Laws. His thoughts and efforts turned naturally to the promotion of education and good morals. He was active and influential in the affairs of his parish, and of the charitable, educational and reformatory associations of the town and county. Shortly before the close of this period, in 1857, he married, and began the happy home life in which he delighted to exercise the virtues of the husband and father, and the genial hospitality of the generous host. During a visit to Europe, he studied with interest the working of the English courts, and among his papers is a brief then given him by Sir Watkin Williams, now a judge of Her Majesty's High Court of Justice.

The learning and ability evinced in these seventeen years of practice, and the high qualities of mind and heart displayed in this full, well-rounded life, gained him an enviable reputation throughout the Commonwealth. It was with no feeling of surprise that, upon the creation of the Superior Court in 1859, the public learned that a position upon its bench had been tendered to both the members of his firm. Although Mr. Colt did not see fit to surrender his practice and accept this appointment, the subsequent exercise of his powers was not confined to this county. His professional engagements led him into other parts of the Commonwealth, and before the Supreme Court of the United States. The years from 1859 until his first appointment to the bench were full of honorable and successful employment. Compelled to retire from the bench by ill health after a short service, and reappointed after an absence of little more than a year, he has served since the early part of 1868 as an honored member of this court, and since the death of his classmate, John Wells, as its senior justice.

The estimate of his professional and judicial labors and standing held by the bar of this county, is recorded in its written resolutions. From these, and from the testimonials which will be uttered by others, and from the reports of this court, a just appreciation of his services in the administration of justice may be gained. But I cannot omit to render the tribute of a townsman to his disinterested and valuable services in town affairs; of a citizen of this county, to his eloquent enthusiasm for its beauty of natural scenery, its history, and its institutions; of a fellow-graduate, to his long and distinguished service to his College; and of a younger member of the bar, to the kind consideration and generous help which he so freely gave. Your Honors, who have enjoyed the graceful hospitality of his home, need no word of mine to tell how good and kind he was as a neighbor, and how all people knew and cherished him as a friend. The kindly greeting upon the stage at Commencement of a youth in whom he recognized only a townsman, the frequent cheerful visit in the chamber of sickness, the encouraging, helpful word in the midst of perplexing work, -- these were proof of a frank and noble nature, the like of which his life was wont to afford.

The members of this bar, and our brethren through the Commonwealth, had anticipated with pleasure that a long career upon this bench should win him unquestioned place in the ranks of the most distinguished jurists of our country. But even the works which man, knowing that his own life is but a span, rears with utmost care and skill from the most indestructible materials, quickly crumble and perish. "The breath of man is in his nostrils." "In the midst of life we are in death."

Bereaved of its most valued member, the bar of this county has unanimously adopted, as an expression of its feelings, the resolutions which I am instructed to present to your Honors, with the request that they be entered upon the records of the court.

Mr. Barker then presented the following resolutions:

Resolved, That the members of the Berkshire Bar desire in a public and solemn manner to express their sorrow at the death of the late Honorable James D. Colt, one of the justices of the Supreme Judicial Court, and to testify their high esteem for his character and services, and their affection for his memory. After preparatory training more thorough than was then usually enjoyed in this county he entered here upon the practice of the profession in 1842, and such were his knowledge, resources and abilities that in a few years he stood among the recognized leaders of the bar. As a lawyer he had "no arts but manly arts;" diligent, industrious, conscientious, faithful to the courts and to his clients, just toward all, able, earnest, ingenious, persistent in the development, presentation and enforcement of his causes, litigants felt that their interests were safe in his hands, and he enjoyed a large measure of professional business. He exercised a generous and thoughtful kindness towards his associates of the bar, and ever had, both for himself and for them, that "sensibility of honor which feels a stain like a wound." And he always cherished and encouraged his brethren to cherish a grave and high sense of the functions of the bar, not only in settling disputes, enforcing rights and administering justice, but also in educating both its members and the people to understand and appreciate, and so to preserve, the institutions and traditions of our American liberty.

Resolved, That the qualities and powers displayed by Mr. Justice Colt in his judicial life entitle him to an honorable rank among the magistrates by whom our Supreme Judicial Court has been adorned and our jurisprudence wrought out and perfected. He had a clear and accurate knowledge of the principles which govern in the several departments of the law, and was guarded and kept from all eccentricities of individual judgment in the use of those principles by a sufficient familiarity with the most approved precedents. His mind by natural endowments was strong, comprehensive and impartial. He applied to his own province the broad doctrine of an English philosopher, and held that in legal investigations "the truth is not a single but a double question;" not what can be said for an opinion, but whether more can be said for it than against it; and that there is no assurance of a right conclusion but with him who can both confute the opposite opinion and successfully defend his own against confutation; and hence in the trial of causes at nisi prius and in arguments to the court in banc, he was a good listener, following the discussions with an open and attentive mind, visibly responding to what was pertinent and forcible, and searching the dark corners of a case with luminous and penetrating discernment. He treated the law as an organic and living system, to be moulded and adapted to the circumstances and habits of each generation, and in all matters addressed to judicial discretion, or where the use of it was permissible, he displayed unfailing good judgment, and refused to sacrifice to mere technical proprieties the substantial interests of men. He was a man of large and fine personality, which was not overlaid and obscured by the dignity of his official position; and his bearing to the members of the bar was cordial and familiar, but never so as to involve any loss of respect either for himself or the court; and such was their affection for him that they mourn his death as the death of a friend. While absorbed in the laborious and exacting duties of his professional and judicial life, he also carefully discharged his obligations as a citizen. He loved and was proud of his native town and county, and promoted the development of their educational, charitable and religious institutions, with his property, his counsel and his influence.

Resolved, That these resolutions be presented to the Supreme Judicial Court by the committee appointed for that purpose, with the request that they be entered upon the records; and that a copy be transmitted to the family of our deceased brother, as an assurance of our sympathy with them in their affliction.

The Honorable Henry L. Dawes then addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors: In seconding these resolutions, I have nothing to add but my assent to what has been already so fitly spoken of Judge Colt's professional and judicial career, but I cannot withhold a parting word of tribute to personal worth and private friendship, as the curtain drops between me and one who began with me his life-work here, and who shared with me the early confidences and troubles, the aspirations and ambitions, which with him were crowned at last with the highest honors a Massachusetts lawyer can attain. When I came here a stranger, he had just been admitted to the bar, and he welcomed me with a hand and heart which have ever been warm and generous till now. We sat down together at these tables, and here together entered upon the new and untried work of our profession, wrestling with each other and our seniors as best we could, earnestly, and sometimes sharply, but always holding on to that personal attachment and regard with which we set out, as if it were a golden chain, ever growing brighter and stronger the rougher and the longer the way over which we drew it. He could be trusted anywhere and at any length in the trial of a cause, but the righteous indignation which boiled over when he found his confidence misplaced would clear the very atmosphere of the court room. It was not easy to try cases with him at arm's length, or after he had been pestered with the exactions of mere form and technicality, but he would take bold of an honest issue, man to man, and lift as no other lawyer of his time at this bar could do. And that big heart of his never, in such a struggle, harbored a trace of bitterness, but always overflowed with appreciation of the efforts against which he was contending.

He was the soul of good-fellowship. Before this court-house was built, we were wont to spend the entire week, from Monday morning till Saturday night, at Lenox, and the social life of the bar there was delightful and charming. He was its chief attraction and its brightest ornament. His never-failing fund of anecdote and ever-flowing fountain of humor, his satire, sharp but hurtless, and wit, keen but stingless, his just and discriminating criticism of those among and around us, as well as a poetic temperament ever tuned to the highest strains of music, made him the centre of every circle.

He was more than this. His worth as a man and a citizen cannot easily be measured. Here in his native town, where he always lived and where he died, it is but a feeble utterance of the public sorrow to say that our loss is felt to be irreparable. He had never duties so engrossing that he had not time and disposition to contribute his full of influence and effort for the very best attainable in all that can make a town a safe and attractive home for its own people, and a positive force on the side of the best influences in the State. He entertained such broad and catholic views of public affairs, and of the government under which he lived, that no one who understood him could doubt that, had he not chosen to be a judge, he would certainly have become a statesman.

He always wore among us, with scrupulous care, as a mantle, the dignity of his great office; yet it was ever with an ease and grace which made us forget the presence of authority in that genuine urbanity and delightful unreserve which were the charm and beauty of his daily life. In official and private life alike, he commanded the respect and won the affections of all. He was honored and loved by, all classes and ages among us, from the venerable citizen to the boy in the street. Even the child at the window, obeying that law of its being which opens every heart to the heart which opens in return, would recognize and ex- change salutations with him as be passed. He is universally mourned.

I fear I have indulged in thoughts unusual on such occasions, but I bury today a friend and companion who, entering with me the rear rank of this bar, has kept by my side these many years, while one by one those in front of us have disappeared, and others have been filling the places our advancing footsteps have vacated. And now, after all those who walked and worked before us here are no more, the grave closes over him also.

But whether we speak of Judge Colt as a lawyer and judge, as others have done today, or as a citizen, a friend or companion, let us not forget that he was ever loyal to duty and wore out his life in its discharge, -- that he walked uprightly and feared God. These constitute the full measure of a noble life. What more can a man ask than that it may be written over him when he is dead, "Walking uprightly among his fellowmen, and fearing God, he spent his life in the discharge of duty." This gained, it will matter little to any of us how or when we go hence.

Chief Justice Gray responded as follows:

Brethren of the Berkshire Bar: It is most fit that the resolutions of respect to the memory of the late Mr. Justice Colt should be presented by the bar of which he was formerly a member, and in the county in which he was born and brought up and always had his home. After such a tribute from those who knew him best, little remains for the court to add, beyond expressing its hearty concurrence in the resolutions.

To say that he was of a simple and reverent faith, of the warmest and tenderest feeling, free, genial, outspoken, of widest sympathies, whom none knew but to love, is to repeat what is in the mouths, not only of those nearest to him, but of all his fellow-citizens.

By nature and by habit, he was a speaker rather than a writer. His power of statement, his genuine eloquence, his keen sense of the humorous, his aptness of illustration, were more often apparent in town-meeting, at the bar, in the Legislature, in presiding at nisi prius, or in the unrestrained discussions of the consultation room, than in the official reports of the decisions of the full court. But his knowledge of legal principles, his common sense in practically applying them, and his thorough understanding of our government, state and municipal, made his counsel of the greatest value to his associates, whether acting in a judicial capacity, or discharging the delicate duty of constitutional advisers of the legislative and executive departments. And his clear, direct and forcible written judgments show his appreciation of the importance of stating the grounds of decision as fully and carefully in cases depending wholly upon the peculiar statutes and usages of the Commonwealth, as in those of greater interest to students of general jurisprudence.

He was, as has been often said, the most popular of judges, and deservedly so: not merely for his attractive personal traits; but because of his strong sense, his faculty of putting the rules of law in plain words intelligible to all men, his devotion to justice, his scorn of fraud and wrong in every shape; because,in short, every one having any knowledge of the cases that came before him saw, that, as was said by a great advocate of Massachusetts of the greatest judge who ever sat on this bench, "Life, liberty and property were safe in his hands."

In accordance with the request of the bar, it is ordered that their resolutions, together with a memorandum of these proceedings, be entered upon the records of the court.

The court then adjourned.

  • Office of the Reporter of Decisions  

    The Reporter of Decisions makes true reports of decisions upon all questions of law argued by counsel before the Supreme Judicial Court and the Appeals Court, and prepares them for publication, in print and electronic form, with suitable headnotes, tables of cases, and indexes.
  • Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court  

    The Supreme Judicial Court is the Commonwealth's highest appellate court.
  • Massachusetts Court System  

    The Massachusetts court system consists of the Supreme Judicial Court, the Appeals Court, the Executive Office of the Trial Court, the 7 Trial Court departments, the Massachusetts Probation Service, and the Office of Jury Commissioner.
  • Help Us Improve Mass.gov  with your feedback

    Please do not include personal or contact information.