Reuben Atwater Chapman

Chief Justice memorial

112 Mass. 558 (1873)

The Honorable Reuben Atwater Chapman, a justice of this court from the twenty-eighth day of September, 1860, to the seventh day of February, 1868, and from that time the Chief Justice thereof, died at Fluelen, in Switzerland, on the twenty-eighth day of June, 1873. A meeting of the members of the bar of Suffolk was held on the second of September, at which resolutions were passed, which were presented to the full court the same day, at the opening of the court, by the Attorney General. Before presenting them the Attorney General addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors, -- I am desired by my brethren of the bar to present this morning some resolutions which express their appreciation of the late Chief Justice of the Commonwealth as a man and a magistrate, their respect for his memory, their sympathy for his sorrowing family, and that expression toward the great office which he held, which is becoming on an occasion like this.

In the discharge of this duty I am not to amplify the resolutions, or attempt an analysis of the life, abilities, or character of the late Chief Justice.

Chief Justice Chapman was one of those men who are constantly illustrating the beneficence of our institutions in giving to every son and daughter of the state the opportunity to acquire an honorable distinction. Without the aid of wealth, family, or social position, by adhering to sound doctrine in religion and morals, and by persistent industry, he obtained the education necessary for his admission to the profession he had chosen. Without the advantages of a collegiate education, by patient and remitting labor, by fidelity to the courts and to his clients, by a diligent performance of his duties to the community in which he lived, and of his obligations to the state, and by the integrity of his daily life, he gained that position at the bar, which justified his elevation to the bench, and enabled him subsequently to perform the duties of Chief Justice to the satisfaction of the people of the Commonwealth.

I find his name in the reports as early as the year 1828, and for years prior to his elevation to the bench, he had been a leader at the bar of Western Massachusetts. Living in a section of the state filled with an active, intelligent, wealthy, and enterprising population, who followed with enthusiasm the various pursuits of commerce, agriculture, manufactures, and the mechanic arts, he brought with him, from the bar to the bench, an experience in the trial of causes as varied as the wants and the business of the people with whom he lived, qualifications which made him a valuable accession to the members of the court, and of still greater value to suitors in the tribunal in which he presided. Few judges could conduct a trial where questions arose affecting real property, claims for damages growing out of alleged defective highways, controversies between rival manufacturing interests or water rights, questions of pauper law, or law of husband and wife, more satisfactorily than Judge Chapman. His experience as a nisi prius lawyer gave him great facility as a nisi prius judge.

He was patient of investigation, unremitting in diligence to his judicial duties, and his bearing to the public, to witnesses and suitors, was impressive and conciliating. Those who had causes in his court went away from a hearing or a trial satisfied that they had received his patient attention and his thoughtful consideration, and that, so far as the judge was concerned, the law had been faithfully and impartially administered.

He was never unmindful of the courtesy which should be maintained between the bar and the bench, the youngest and least experienced practitioner receiving at his hands the kindest courtesy and forbearance, being listened to with patient attention, gently admonished or instructed, and leaving his presence with the conviction that he had been fully heard and thoroughly understood. No lawyer, to my knowledge, ever left Judge Chapman's presence with his feelings wounded by any rude or unkind remark.

Judge Chapman was a religious man, a diligent student of and a profound believer in God's Word. He believed that "He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God;" and when he was elevated to that great office, the Chief Justiceship of the Commonwealth, and assumed its duties, the people felt that the office had been bestowed upon a man whose integrity was above suspicion, and that they possessed in him, "that element of security without which liberty itself is an empty and dreary thing, and its worship a vain oblation -- a security of right under an equal law, and a learned and incorrupt judge." This confidence in his integrity was never withheld or diminished, and at the close of a long life, compacted with usefulness, he has gone to his reward, leaving the character and honorable traditions of the judiciary, which had been intrusted to his care, unimpaired.

May it please your honors, I move that the resolutions which I shall now read, and which have been unanimously adopted by the bar, may be entered upon the records of this court.

The Attorney General then presented the following resolutions:

Resolved, That by the death of the Honorable Reuben Atwater Chapman, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has lost an able, faithful, learned, and upright magistrate; a lover of justice and equity, whose chief object was to make the law an efficient instrument for the defence and protection of rights, and the prevention and punishment of wrong, and who sought to simplify its processes, to make its remedies intelligible, accessible, and speedy, and to discourage all chicanery, oppression, and fraud:

That the court has lost an honored head, who never wanted courage to maintain his own convictions, and sustained with a firm hand the prerogatives and powers of the tribunal over which he presided, but who knew well that its dignity was best upheld by a gentle and patient courtesy toward all men:

That the bar have lost a sympathizing friend, always considerate and kind in his intercourse with them, and who honored the profession to which the best years of his life had been devoted, and which he had adorned by his accomplishments and his virtues: That this community have lost a citizen who was the steadfast supporter of good order, good morals, education, and religion.

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

Mr. Justice Gray responded as follows:

Gentlemen of the Bar: It is now more than forty years since a Chief Justice of Massachusetts died in office. The personal affection which all who knew him bore to the late Chief Justice Chapman, and the thoughts which must arise, on such an occasion as this, of the duties and responsibilities attached to that great place, second to none in the tribunals of the country, except the Supreme Court of the United States alone, make it impossible to speak without profound emotion.

The court heartily concurs with you, brethren, in the fitness of pausing, before we enter together upon the labors and duties of another judicial year, to commemorate the virtues and public services of him who has been taken from us since we last assembled in this room; and in the truth of the resolutions in which you have embodied your sentiments of the loss which has been sustained by his death.

Reuben Atwater Chapman was a true son of Massachusetts, and a striking example of the opportunity which the Commonwealth affords to every citizen of good talents, sound sense, purity of character, uprightness of life, religious faith, and doing with his might what his hand finds to do, to attain the highest offices of the State.

The son of a farmer of humble condition, his early education was that afforded by the common schools of his native county. But he was so assiduous in availing himself of every means of improvement within his reach, by acting in his turn as a teacher, by speaking in the voluntary debating societies of his town, by writing in the newspapers of the neighborhood, and by frequent reading of the best English authors -- to which, after he had arrived at man's estate and was occupied in the careful study and active practice of his profession, he added a considerable acquaintance with the Latin and German languages -- that he became the master of a written style which for ease and simplicity might well be the envy of many a graduate of the highest universities.

He was a member of that branch of the church of Christ, which adheres most closely to the doctrine and polity of the founders of the Commonwealth; and he was firm and consistent in the faith which he professed, without disguise and without ostentation, looking throughout his life to a benignant Providence for his guidance and his reward.

Of his practice of the law, others of his associates and some of your own number have had a more intimate knowledge than myself. But I cannot remember the time when the bar of Western Massachusetts was spoken of without mentioning him as one of the very foremost. Those who have tried cases with or against him bear testimony not only to his clear understanding of facts, his familiarity with legal authorities, and his readiness in applying them, but to his habit of resting his client's case upon a broad foundation of principle. Always a steady supporter of the law and of all rightful authority, he could not bear to see justice defeated by mere technicalities. How zealous and earnest an advocate he had been would hardly, be suspected by those who seeing him only upon the bench, observed his calm demeanor, his patient attention, and his impartiality between contending parties.

The two acts of his life, on which he seemed to look back with the greatest satisfaction, were the part which he had taken as a commissioner in framing the statutes which simplified the proceedings, practice, and rules of evidence in courts of justice; and the vote which, by the suffrages of his fellow-citizens, and as one of the electors at large of the State of Massachusetts, he had been enabled to cast for Abraham Lincoln upon his first election to the Presidency of the United States.

Appointed a justice of this court, soon after it had been vested by the legislature with full chancery powers, he enlarged the unusual knowledge of that branch of its jurisdiction, which he had already gained in his extensive practice, by new studies in his leisure hours. His common sense, and his familiar acquaintance with the business and ways of life of the people, were apparent in his judgments; and the published reports show that he was at once assigned a large share in the preparation of the opinions of the full court. His judicial temper was admirable, rarely ruffled except at the appearance of fraud or unfairness. A well read lawyer, and fully impressed with the importance of stable rules of decision, yet on the bench, as at the bar, the science of jurisprudence was most regarded by him, not merely as "the collected reason of ages," but rather as "combining the principles of original justice with the infinite variety of human affairs."

His promotion to the office of Chief Justice was wholly unsought and unexpected by him. He assumed its administration with that quiet modesty which was one of his characteristic traits, and he performed its duties so as to fulfil the anticipations of his warmest friends. He always aimed to maintain that harmony of opinion among the judges, resulting from thorough discussion and interchange of views, and that relation of mutual assistance between the court and the bar as fellow-workers towards one end, to which is so largely owing whatever of reputation abroad and of confidence at home the judiciary of Massachusetts has acquired. Any judge might be considered most fortunate, who, through the personal esteem and regard which he inspired in every man with whom he came in contact, won such cordial cooperation and support from his associates on the bench, from the members of the bar, and from all those connected in any way with the administration of justice.

No judge ever more truly kept his oath of office, that he would faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent on him, to the best of his abilities and understanding, agreeably to the rules and regulations of the Constitution and the laws of the Commonwealth. And his prayer for himself and his associates and successors would be to Him by whose aid and favor judges administer justice "Establish Thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish Thou it."

In compliance 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.

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