William Sewall Gardner

Associate Justice memorial

147 Mass. 621 (1888)

The Honorable William Sewall Gardner, Justice of this Court from the thirteenth day of October, 1885, to the seventh day of September, 1887, died at his residence in Newton on the fourth day of April, 1888. A meeting of the members of the Suffolk Bar was subsequently held in Boston, at which resolutions were passed, which were presented to the full court on the twenty-seventh day of November, 1888. Before presenting them, the Attorney General addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors, -- We are met to-day to do honor to the memory of a most excellent, exemplary citizen, a safe counsellor, a sound and reliable advocate, an impartial and able jurist, with a character unblemished, a considerate, pleasant, unostentatious gentleman, and an honest man.

William S. Gardner died at his home in Newton, on April 4th, 1888. He was born in the State of Maine, in 1827, of noted legal ancestry. He was a graduate of Bowdoin College, studied law, and in 1852 was admitted in Middlesex County to the practice of his chosen profession; and in 1853, in Lowell, he opened a law office and commenced his work. He soon formed a copartnership with the late Hon. T. H. Sweetser; and in 1861 the firm moved their office to Boston, and there continued practice till 1875, when Mr. Gardner was appointed one of the Associate Justices of the Superior Court of this Commonwealth, which office he held with marked ability and great credit to the State till October 1, 1885, when he was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, which office he held with distinction till his resignation on the 7th of September, 1887, tendered by reason of his declining health. He held positions of trust in social, literary, charitable, financial, and religious institutions, and always with acknowledged ability and approval. He possessed a taste for literature, and wrote well upon various subjects in which he was interested. He was never idle, and yet unassuming. In discharging his duties as a judge he was kind and considerate to all. To the memory of such a man, it is very proper for us who knew him, for our own benefit, and for the information and benefit of the practitioners of our important and honorable profession who are following us all, that we should pause and consider his character, his attainments, and their reward, as manifested in his life.

The Bar of the county of Suffolk have, at a meeting quite recently held, adopted resolutions appropriate to this occasion, and have requested me to present them to the court, and to move that, after hearing such remarks as may be offered by members of the bar and the court, they be ordered entered of record, and that such other action be taken by the court as may be deemed fitting.

The Attorney General then presented the following resolutions:

The members of the Suffolk Bar desire to place on record their sense of the loss which the Commonwealth has sustained in the death of William Sewall Gardner, a former Justice of this Court.

His was a nature that endeared him to those who knew him well, and secured for him the respect and esteem of the community, and the regard and confidence of those who were brought in contact with him at the bar or on the bench.

His experience at the bar, for many years closely associated with one of the ablest lawyers of his day, who studied the law as a science and tested it by the severest rules of logic, and his long service on the bench of the Superior Court, laid a substantial foundation for the successful discharge of the accurate and discriminating investigations demanded of the members of this court.

While the kindliness of his nature might have tempted him at times to take counsel of his sympathies, his keen appreciation of the right constrained him always to exercise "the severe neutrality of an impartial judge."

We desire that this expression of our regard for him, and of the loss we have sustained, be presented by the Attorney General to the Supreme Judicial Court, with a request that it be extended on the records.

Hon. Edward Avery then addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors, -- I desire to join in the motion submitted by the Attorney General. It was my good fortune to meet Judge Gardner quite frequently while he was at the bar. The eminent ability of his partner, Mr. Sweetser, naturally overshadowed every one who was associated with him in the conduct of a cause; but notwithstanding this I soon learned to appreciate and feel the force and weight of Judge Gardner's powers. His patient investigations, his calm, deliberate judgment, his research and industry, and his practical application of the law to the facts before him, when added to Mr. Sweetser's known force of presentation, were potent factors in the determination of the causes in which they were jointly engaged. His abilities were of the class that are felt rather than seen. As a well equipped, clear-headed, and sound lawyer, be won my respect. Later on, a closer relation with him enabled me to estimate the man, to observe those qualities of the heart that secured for him so many and such strong friends, and to my respect for the lawyer was added a high regard and a warm friendship for the man.

At the time Judge Gardner was appointed to the Superior Court, his ability and legal attainments were not generally known to the Bar of the Commonwealth; but it has been justly said of him, that he soon secured the respect and confidence of the bar, -- respect for his integrity and for his keen appreciation of justice, and confidence in his perfect fairness and his earnest desire to rightly understand and impartially administer the law. His subsequent appointment as one of the justices of this court seemed to be generally regarded as a just recognition of one to whom it was safe to intrust the discharge of the highest judicial duties. Judge Gardner was always courteous and considerate at the bar and on the bench; and I think it no light praise to say of him, that while be was on the bench I never knew or heard of any member of the bar who felt that he had received from him an undeserved rebuff or an unmerited rebuke, or who had been humiliated in his own or his client's estimation by apparent indifference or inattention.

He seemed at all times to realize that ours is a profession in which many may succeed, but in which few indeed can become masters, -- a labyrinth having many chambers, into all of which most have looked and but few entered. He was not of those who dazzle us with spasmodic or erratic bursts of brilliancy, or startle us with novel propositions, or overwhelm us with unfathomable subtleties, but of those who exhibit that calm and deliberate strength which ever attends a well rounded mind. The sad events which occasioned his retirement from this court caused a public loss. His death deprived a large circle of friends of one whom they had honored and loved for his many virtues.

Charles Levi Woodbury, Esq., then addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors, -- Nearly thirty years have I been closely connected with the late Judge Gardner in various ways. My knowledge of him springs not only from association at the bar, and from observation of his ability and his courtesy, patience, and justice as a judge, but from intimate association in many social organizations and the pursuit of many kindred tastes. True it is that always and everywhere character and conduct have stamped their highest qualities on his mind, and commanded for him the respect and esteem of his associates. In a very marked degree has been his success as a presiding officer, not only in judicial but in other organizations, and rare executive ability has characterized his administration as chief of wide-spread organizations whose benevolent and charitable character are well known.

His tastes led him to antiquarian and historical pursuits connected with the early history of New England, and of these organizations themselves. His contributions to the literature of these subjects were marked with accuracy of investigation, purity of style, and chaste eloquence. His investigations in the symbology of medieval art and architecture bore one fruit in the erection of the church from which be was buried. He was a man of wise and prudent counsels. "Unto him men gave ear, and waited and kept silence at his counsel." He was not long enough on the bench of this court for its reports to embody an adequate monument of his judicial abilities; his fatal disease tore him prematurely from the field of action.

He was a man of modesty; the duties of office he thought more of than of the honors that attended them. In harmony with the esteem betokened by these last honors to his worth, I am here among my brethren of the bar simply to drop my sprig of acacia on his grave.

Chief Justice Morton responded as follows:

Brethren of the Bar, -- We join with the fullest sympathy in your tributes of respect and affection for our deceased associate and friend, by whose death the State has lost an upright, conscientious, and able magistrate, and a respected and useful citizen.

Judge Gardner was born in Hallowell, Maine, on October 1, 1827, so that at the time he was compelled by his failing health to lay down the active labors of life he had not reached the age of sixty years. He was a descendant, on his mother's side, of the eminent family of Sewall, which in the earlier period of our history furnished two Chief Justices of the Superior Court of Judicature of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and two Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth, one of whom, Samuel Sewall, was during the last year of his life the Chief Justice.

He was graduated at Bowdoin College, and afterwards pursued the study of law in Lowell. He was admitted to the bar in 1852, and soon afterwards formed a copartnership with that eminently vigorous and able lawyer, the late Theodore H. Sweetser, and this connection continued until be was appointed a Justice of the Superior Court in 18715. He served in that court for ten years, and gained in the fullest measure the confidence and respect of the bar and of the public. He was regarded by all as a sound lawyer of great ability and of sterling common sense, and was an upright and faithful judge. He performed the various and important duties of that office so successfully, that he won the high esteem of the bar; and when a vacancy occurred on the bench of the Supreme Judicial Court by the death of the late Justice Colburn, the bar with remarkable unanimity looked to Judge Gardner as the fittest person to succeed him.

He was appointed a Justice of this Court in October, 1885, with the general approval of the community. He hesitated somewhat as to accepting the office. Possibly he had some premonitions of failing health which warned him against entering upon new and exacting duties. But he finally accepted the office, and, entering at once upon its duties, devoted himself to their performance with untiring diligence until the spring of 1887, when he was compelled by his ill health to cease from his labors. He hoped that a trip to Europe, involving complete rest and change of scene, would restore his health; but in this hope he was disappointed, and soon after his return felt it his duty to resign his office. He was with us but a short time, but we learned to respect and love him.

He had a powerful and well trained intellect, and a temperament fitted for judicial duties, being patient in hearing and impartial in judgment. He was always self-possessed and courteous in discussions, never uttering a quick or impatient word which he would wish to recall. He arrived at results through careful and thorough investigation; and having a strong sense of what was fair and reasonable, his conclusions were usually sound and reliable. His short service demonstrated that, if his health had remained sound, he would have made one of the most able, useful, and honored members of the court.

Outside of his chosen profession, he was deeply interested in the institution of Freemasonry, and was held in esteem and honor by all the members of that great fraternity. He was also deeply interested in the Protestant Episcopal Church, being a devoted member and an active participant in all the work of this diocese. In all the relations of life he was faithful and true, and therefore honored and respected. We remember with sorrow that the last year of his life was passed in sickness, amid clouds and darkness; but surely we may now rejoice in the faith that he has entered upon an inheritance of light and peace, the reward of a just, upright, and Christian life.

Concurring with the sentiments expressed in your resolutions, we shall order that they, 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.