John Wells

Associate Justice memorial

119 Mass. 605 (1875)

The Honorable John Wells, a justice of this court from the twenty-second day of September, 1866, died at Salem on the twenty-third day of November, 1875. A meeting of the members of the bar of the Commonwealth was held in Boston on the following day, and an adjourned meeting on the fourth day of December, 1875, at which resolutions were passed, which were presented to the full court the same day, by the Attorney General. Before presenting them the Attorney General addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors, -- I am, in behalf of my associates to present to you this morning their tribute of honor and respect to the memory of his Honor John Wells, so recently your associate upon the bench of this court.

I perform this duty with a heart bowed down by no common sorrow, as we all are painfully conscious that we have suffered no common loss, and I wish, as briefly as I may, to add my tribute of esteem and love to those already heaped on his newly made grave.

I will not speak of him in terms of elaborate criticism or analysis, for that is far better done in the resolutions than I can do it, nor in terms of eulogy even, but in the language of friendship and affection.

I have no respect for those who indulge in censorious criticism of a public man when living, and indiscriminate eulogy when dead. I have often thought, when I have heard elaborate praise accorded to such a man after death, how a tithe of this language, in the living ears of the departed, would have encouraged him in the performance of duty, have cheered and prolonged his life, and have been to him a reward, added to that which follows the self-consciousness of faithful service.

Judge Wells was one of those rare men, who needed neither the spur of ill tempered criticism, nor of indulgent compliment, to keep him steady in the performance of duty. His mental and moral organization was so evenly balanced and well perfected, that censure did not retard, nor compliment hasten, the pulsations of his heart. He realized, at the outset of his life, that he had responsibilities to bear, and a purpose to fulfil, and he marched steadily on to its fulfilment.

I first knew him thirty-four years ago, in the Law School of the University, where, under the guidance of Story and Greenleaf, he laid the foundations of the superstructure which he subsequently raised. From that time to his death, I was honored by his friendship, and have watched his progress from young manhood to middle age, and the only change noticeable in him, as he advanced through the years, was a continual ripening, day by day. He was the same John Wells through all those years, thoughtful, conscientious, patient of labor, making all that could be made out of his opportunities, apparently ambitious only to discharge faithfully his duty in that station of life to which God had called him, and thus preserve the approval of his own conscience, which he never intrusted to the keeping of another. Neither then, nor since, am I aware of his ever saying, or doing a brilliant thing, and never, to my knowledge, was he guilty of a foolish act, or silly utterance, but he moved right on, with that steady, self-poised and well-determined action, which attracts no attention, until its results are accomplished.

As a lawyer in the country village which he had selected for his home, you find in him no noisy or cunning pettifogger, seeking to profit in pocket or reputation by the disputes of the people; no stirrer-up of strifes, but one who remembered that the peacemakers are blessed. You find him the diligent student, the safe adviser, the kind neighbor, the efficient member of the parish, the active and Christian citizen, rendering cheerfully to the community every good influence and kind act.

A few years later, he is in the General Court, exerting a commanding influence, as a sound, safe and discreet legislator.

As Judge of the Probate Court, that most difficult office to fill, where the incumbent must be judge, counsel and sympathizing friend at one and the same time, as well as by his well earned reputation as a lawyer, he demonstrated his mental, professional and moral fitness for the duties and responsibilities of a judge of this, the highest judicial tribunal of the state, to which he was appointed, I believe, upon the unanimous recommendation of the bar of Western Massachusetts. The wisdom of their recommendation, upon his appointment to the bench, was conceded at once upon acquaintance by the bar of the Commonwealth, and his judicial career proved that he had no superior, where all should be equals.

He entered upon and performed his judicial duties in the profound conviction that there were no duties or responsibilities surpassing those of a Judge of the Supreme Judicial Court; that God required, and the office demanded, the highest integrity in morals, and in professional culture, united with patient labor, gentle courtesy and unwearied attention, and, acting upon this, no suitor ever left Judge Wells's court room, whether successful or not, with the impression that his case had not received, at the hands of the court, all the consideration to which it was entitled.

In his court room, every one felt that he was in a place "appropriated to justice, to security, to reason, to restraint; where there is no respect of persons; where there is no high nor low, no strong nor weak; where will is nothing, and person is nothing, and numbers are nothing, and all are equal, and all secure before the law."

Judge Wells was no judicial demagogue; he acted upon the sentiment of the German poet: "The human being may not be trusted to self-government. The clear and written law, the deep trod footmarks of ancient custom, are all necessary to keep him in the road of faith and duty."

He followed precedents, but only as his mind discovered and approved the principles on which they were founded, and his opinions, the result of patient study, prolonged thought and severe logic, had placed him at the close of his life -- alas! for the Commonwealth too early -- among the foremost of the men who have adorned the bench of this court, and guided and illustrated its jurisprudence. Had it been in the providence of God that so valuable a life should be prolonged, it is no injustice to his surviving associates to say that no judicial life in this Commonwealth ever gave a more promising assurance for the future.

The corner-stone upon which the reputation of Judge Wells rested as a man, a lawyer and a judge, was his Christian character, vindicated by his love to God and to his neighbor, consistent always, forgetful never. He realized that here in his high office, he was a ruler, as well as lawgiver, and he was never unmindful of the injunction of the prophet of the Lord, "He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God."

Mr. Chief Justice, our friend, and your associate is dead, cut off by an inscrutable Providence in the midst of his ripening usefulness. The bar of Massachusetts can only tender to his heart-stricken wife and family, and to the court, the assurance of their profound sympathy, and the hope, "that in the good providence of God, time, the healer, will come to them, as it comes to all, and that what is now a bitter anguish will come to be a chastened sorrow," and that his memory shall be unto all of us, "as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain."

May it please your Honors, in compliance with the wishes of the bar, I move that the resolutions now presented may be entered upon the records of the court.

The Attorney General then presented the following resolutions:

Resolved, That the death of Judge Wells, Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, in the meridian of life and the full maturity of all his powers, is a calamity which will long be felt by the bar and the people of this Commonwealth; that his acute, philosophical intellect, his legal learning, adequate in all and preëminent in many departments of jurisprudence, his habits of thorough and minute investigation, his remarkable power of protracted study and patient thought, his anxious conscientiousness and unfailing devotion to duty, his absolute intellectual and moral independence and impartiality, made him a pillar of strength in our judicial system; while his native modesty, the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, the gentleness and courtesy of his manners, his simplicity, innocence and purity of heart and life, endeared him to all who came within the sphere of his influence.

Resolved, That we tender our respectful sympathy to the widow and children of our deceased brother, congratulating them that in their irreparable loss they have the precious consolation of the memory of a life and character in which there is nothing they could wish to have changed.

Resolved, That the Attorney General be desired to present these resolutions to the Supreme Judicial Court, with a request that they be entered on its records, and that the secretary transmit a copy thereof to the family of the deceased.

Chief Justice Gray responded as follows:

Gentlemen of the Bar : The sense of the loss which we have sustained in the death of Mr. Justice Wells is too fresh and too deep for elaborate eulogy of him.

He was of that type of character to which New England owes most. From his youth up, trusting in the power and goodness of God, obedient to conscience, faithful to every duty, self-controlled and self-forgetful, modest, fearless, patient, straightforward, inflexibly just, more interested in moral questions than in romance or poetry, grave and reserved in demeanor, but kind and courteous to all, and warmly attached to his household, his friends, his neighbors, his state and his country.

He was a republican, in the truest and best sense; believing in popular government, as known to him through the traditions of Massachusetts and his own experience; and ever ready to accept an opportunity of serving his fellow-citizens, in the parish and Sunday school, in associations for purposes of charity or education, in town or county offices, in the Legislature of the Commonwealth, or in conventions of the people for political or religious objects.

Born in one of the hill towns of Franklin county, practising his profession in the valley of the Connecticut, early associations and his own peaceful nature made the busy hum of cities or the grandeur of the wilderness less attractive to him than a quiet homestead amid orchards and green fields. When the exigencies of his judicial office induced him to remove to this neighborhood, he for a time lived in Boston. But he cannot be said to have taken root here. He was happier after he had built himself a house on a site of his own choice in the adjoining town of Brookline, where he could sometimes, as of old, when the labors of the day were over, join his townsmen in town meeting.

At the time of his appointment to this bench (little more than nine years ago) some of us had had opportunities of observing his learning and acuteness in the argument of questions of law, and the weight that his character and open dealing gave him with juries. We knew that his uprightness and ability had placed him at the head of the bar of his county; that his wise and paternal administration of the office of Judge of Probate had endeared him to many; and that he had the confidence of the people of his section of the state in such a degree as would be a support of any court of which he was a member. But we hardly anticipated his breadth of view, or his capacity of grappling with new problems of jurisprudence. Nor did we then understand; as has since been made manifest, how truly he was one

 "Who, not content that former worth stand fast, looks forward, persevering to the last, from well to better, daily self-surpast."

You have attested, brethren, the sagacity and firmness, the untiring patience, the simple dignity and courtesy, with which he presided at jury trials or hearings in chancery. Some of his opinions upon questions of equity and real property, and of constitutional law, have already taken their place with the great judgments of his predecessors. But his judicial qualities were nowhere more conspicuous than in the consultation room. His minute and accurate observation of the facts, his thoughtful comparison of the arguments, his careful weighing and scrutiny of precedents, his nice appreciation of legal distinctions, his grasp of fundamental principles, his strength in presenting his own suggestions, and his candor in considering those of his associates --guided throughout by a love of justice, and tempered by common sense -- made his presence a peculiar safeguard. In arriving at results that would affect the rights of his fellow-men, no detail was so small as to be neglected, no field of investigation too wide to be explored. Very cautious in forming his conclusions, he was correspondingly tenacious of them when formed. He always wished the opinions of the court to be placed upon such grounds as, not going beyond what the decision of each case required, should afford a firm foothold in determining future controversies. Speaking for each of the judges as for myself, I can truly say that every year of association with him brought a greater reliance upon his counsel and a closer friendship.

The impression made by his death is not confined to the profession of which he was one of the most honored and beloved members. From every part of the Commonwealth -- from the western counties, in which he was born and educated, and passed his early manhood; from Suffolk, in which the greatest part of his judicial work was done; from Norfolk, in which was the home of his adoption, and Essex, in which he died -- have gone up voices of mourning and of blessing for the wise and just judge, the useful citizen, the kind neighbor, the true friend.

As we vainly strive to express our estimate of his worth, better words echo in our ears and come to our lips: "He did justly, he loved mercy, he walked humbly with his God." "The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day."

Brethren, the duties, which we hoped he would have shared and lightened, rest upon his survivors. It is not for us to murmur because He who doeth all things well has called him to his reward; but, thankful for his companionship, inspirited by his example, to close up the ranks and move onward.

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

The court then adjourned.

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