Alexander Young.

The stay and the staff taken away : A discourse occasioned by the death of the Hon. William Prescott, LL.D., delivered in the church on Church green, December 15, 1844 online

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Online LibraryAlexander YoungThe stay and the staff taken away : A discourse occasioned by the death of the Hon. William Prescott, LL.D., delivered in the church on Church green, December 15, 1844 → online text (page 1 of 3)
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DECEMBER 15, 1844,







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At a meeting of the New South Society, held after the afternoon service on
Sunday, December 15th, 1844, Chief Justice Shaw presiding as Moderator, it was

Voted, That the thanks of the Society be presented to our Pastor, the Rev.
Alexander Young, for the impressive Discourse this day delivered by him on
occasion of the decease of our lamented fellow-worshipper, the Honorable Wil-
liam Prescott, and that he be requested to furnish a copy thereof for the press.

Votedy That a Committee of three members be appointed to present this request
to Mr. FouNG, and take measures for carrying into effect the purposes of the
foregoing vote, and that Hon. Lemuel Shaw, Benjamin Rich, Esq. and John
Dorr, Esq. constitute this Committee,

R. L. EMMONS, Proprietors' Clerk.




Isaiah, III. 1 — 3.



Yes, he takes them all away, each in their turn
and order, each in his own good time, in his own
appointed way : and the Lord's time is always the
best time, and the Lord's way the best way. In his
great loving-kindness to their friends and to society,
they may be permitted to live many days upon the
earth, to pass the bounds assigned for the life of
man, to outlast their contemporaries, to outhve their
generation ; and yet, at length, they too must be
taken away.

" They must lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world — with kings
The powerful of the earth — the wise, the good,
Fair forms and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre."

" It is appointed unto all men once to die."
There is no exemption, and no escape, from this


fundamental, this universal law of our being. If
there were any, the virtues and services enumerated
in the text might have spared to us yet longer the
venerable man, whom we this day miss from his
accustomed place, and whose recent and sudden
departure, we, my brethren, in common with his
family and this whole community, have so much
reason to deplore.

The text indicates who are the stay and the staff
of society — who are the real benefactors of their
country and their race — who they are by whom the
interests of a community are upheld and guarded,
and its rights vindicated and maintained. They
are not the noisy demagogue, nor the unfledged
patriot — not the mere practical man, nor the man
of one idea — not the small politician, any more
than the minute philosopher ; — but the far-seeing
and wide-reaching statesman, the man of enlarged
views and comprehensive mind, the man of unde-
viating rectitude and unbending integrity. They
are the tried and the trusted magistrate, the wise
and impartial judge, the /upright and honorable
man, and the prudent and experienced counsellor.
These are really the stay and staff of a common-
wealth, — its lights, its ornaments, its blessings. It
is to them that the people must look for support and
guidance in all emergencies. In ordinary times, in
times of quietness and tranquillity, the people may,
perhaps, trust to ordinary men, and may leave it to

the conflicting parties to watch one another's move-
ments, and to see to it that the State incurs no detri-
ment from the lack of poHtical wisdom or moral
principle in their leaders. But in times of difficulty
and trouble, that must arise, sooner or later, in
every community and nation, — times hke those on
which we have now unfortunately fallen, — the peo-
ple will find that in trusting to such men they have
leaned upon a broken reed, and that nothing can
supply the place of sound judgment, experience and
integrity, in their rulers and pubhc men.

1. The first stay and staff of a people, next to
rehgion, is the Magistracy — the Judge's bench and
office — the high Courts of Equity and Law. Here
is the great barrier, the ocean-dike, which society
sets up to repel the encroaching surges of iniquity
and crime, which constantly threaten to overwhelm
it. It is here, that the foundations of a people's
security and happiness are laid — in their unwavering
confidence in the decisions of a tribunal, hfted by the
tenure of its office, by its independence alike of the
interference of the government and the dictation of
the populace, above the favor and the fear of man.
Such a tribunal as this, — and such a one, thank
God, we have, and have long had, in this common-
wealth, — to which the poor and humble have equal
access with the rich and powerful, and by which
their rights are equally regarded and protected — a
tribunal which cannot be warped by flattery, nor

intimidated by threats, nor lured by bribes — is the
best emblem and representative of that awful tribu-
nal before which we are all one day to stand in
judgment. There is something august and ven-
erable in the aspect, nay in the very idea, of such a
tribunal — in the idea of its independence, its immo-
bility, its absolute impartiality.

The comfort and happiness of a people depend
far more upon the constitution of its Courts, and
the character and qualifications of its Judges, than
upon the theory or the form of its government.
For usually the ruler of the State can have little
to do directly with the affairs of the subject, and
can affect him but little in his private concerns
and his domestic relations ; and if the subject have
a refuge in the independence of the Courts, he has
a security against this interference. Even under a
monarchical form of government, like that of Eng-
land, the citizen may be protected by Law in the
quiet possession and undisturbed enjoyment of his
dearest and most valuable interests. His house
may be literally his castle, and his life, liberty and
property may be perfectly secure from invasion.
Whereas, under a repubhcan or democratic form of
government, where the Law has little or no author-
ity, as in some parts of our own country, outrages
may be committed that would not be tolerated
under the despotisms of Russia or Turkey, and no
man's hfe is secure from the summary vengeance

of an organized mob. One of the gravest offences
that can be committed against the public weal, is
to endeavour to bring the Judiciary into contempt,
by lowering the standard of their quahfications, or
encroaching upon their independence. The men
who attempt this know not how grievous a wrong
they are doing to themselves and to their children,
as well as to their neighbours and fellow-citizens.
There is no class of persons in a State whose labors
are more arduous, whose services are more valuable,
and whose influence is more salutary, than the
Judges'. When they are driven from the Bench by
a paltry economy, the people suffer and mourn ;
and when they are removed by death, the stay and
the staff are taken away from Jerusalem and from

2. The next stay and staff of a community is
its honorable men — not those who have this title
from courtesy, or from some office which they have
happened to hold, but men of pure character,
uncompromising principle, and incorruptible in-
tegrity. These men are "the salt of the earth,"
which, diffused through society, preserves it from
corruption — the leaven that keeps it from stagna-
tion, fermenting the whole mass, and stirring it up
to right actions and worthy deeds. And men of
this description are not confined to any one class or
calhng in life. They are not the exclusive pro-
perty of any political party or religious sect. They


are to be found not only on the Bench and at the
Bar, not only in the Senate and at the Council-table,
not only among those who have been favored with
a liberal education and are engaged in the liberal
professions, but also, and quite as often, among the
merchants, the mechanics, and the farmers. You,
my hearers, can point, as well as I, to many such
honorable men, whom we have known in this city
and commonwealth. And, thank God, the race is
not yet extinct. We have still among us some of
" nature's noblemen," men who make us proud of
the city in which we dwell, men who would adorn
any rank in any nation, who would feel a stain on
their good name far more acutely than a wound on
their body, and whose integrity is equalled only by
their munificence.

One of the saddest sights that can be witnessed,
is intellect devoid of integrity, talent divorced from
principle. And one of the most alarming signs of
the times in a republic, is when men of this charac-
ter have an influence, acquire popularity by their
eloquence, raise themselves to oflice by the low arts
of intrigue, and sway the destinies of the nation.
My friends, is not here our great danger, our great
deficiency at the present juncture ? It is univer-
sally admitted, that we have intellect and talent
enough in this country, among our politicians and
statesmen. What we lack is integrity, honor, prin-
ciple. We want the thoroughly honorable man

the incorruptible statesman, the pure-minded patriot.
And we never can expect to prosper, or to Hve at
peace among ourselves, until more of moral and
religious principle is infused into our public men.
Unless this is done, the glory, if not the sceptre,
will inevitably depart from us. When the honor-
able man fails, or dies, the stay and the staff are
taken away from Jerusalem and from Judah.

3. There is another stay and staff which society
needs to uphold and guide its steps — and that is
the ancient and prudent Counsellor, He is the
great balance-wheel in the pohtical machine, re-
volving with a quiet and steady motion, regulating
the movements of all the lesser wheels, and keeping
them from flying madly from their centres. He
brings the gathered wisdom of years and the lights
of a various and mature experience to bear upon
the new questions, which are constantly springing
up to perplex and agitate society. The science of
government is not a matter of intuition, but a sub-
ject for deep study and long reflection. On this
point, "' days should speak, and multitude of years
should teach wisdom."

Such was formerly the universal, as it is the na-
tural sentiment of mankind. Of late years, how-
ever, in this country, opinion seems to have some-
what changed ; at least there has been a tendency
in an opposite direction. From the general decay
of the sentiment of reverence among us, there has



been manifested of late years a disposition to take
the management of important affairs out of the
hands of " the ancient and prudent counsellor,"
where our fathers placed it, and to commit it to the
inexperienced and immature.

We might have learnt, however, by this time,
that this is all wrong, false in theory, and bad in
practice. It is against nature, against reason,
against our own experience, and against the Word
of God. We know what was the fate of Reho-
boam, w^hen " he forsook the counsel of the old
men, that stood before Solomon, his father, while he
yet lived, and consulted with the young men, that
were grown up with him, and which stood before
him." ^ And we may rest assured, that whenever the
prudent and ancient counsellor is removed, whether
by prejudice, or faction, or the hand of death, the
stay and the staff are taken away from Jerusalem
and from Judah.

Since we were last assembled, brethren, in this
our house of prayer, the grave has closed over the
mortal remains of one of our fellow-worshippers,
who worthily sustained the several relations enume-
rated in our text, of a Judge, an Honorable Man,
and a Counsellor. A sense of duty to the living,
as well as to the dead, prompts me to speak to you

' 1 Kings, xii. 6 — 8.


of him, in the words of truth and soberness — both
as a dqserved tribute to a beloved and honored
name, and for our own benefit and improvement.
We may all be made the wiser and the better, I
think, by the contemplation of his character and

William Prescott was born on the 19th of Au-
gust, 1762, at Pepperell, in the county of Middle-
sex, in this State. He sprung from a most honora-
ble parentage.^ He was the only son of a New-
England farmer, who drove his own team a-field,
and ploughed his own acres. That same farmer
was Colonel Wilham Prescott, who, on the 17th
of June, 1775, at the head of the raw recruits of
the New-England mihtia, twice broke the serried
ranks of the British grenadiers and light infantry,
as they marched up the slope of Bunker Hill, and
drove them in confusion and dismay to their boats.
He was blessed with a most excellent and pious
mother; and, hke many other eminent men, he

^ The first of the family, who came over to this country in 1640,
were substantial farmers, from Lancashire, in England, and settled in
Groton, the town adjoining Pepperell. Benjamin Prescott, the father
of the Colonel, was chosen in 1738 the Agent of Massachusetts at the
English Court, to maintain the rights of that Province in a controversy
with New Hampshire, respecting their boundary lines. He declined
going, however, on account of the fatal prevalence of the small-pox at
that time in LondoUc Edmund Quincy, who went in his place, actually
died there of that disease in the same year. By a singular coincidence,
Prescott died at home of a fever, in the course of the same year.


owed to her early influences some of the pecuUar
and prominent traits of his mind and heart. She
possessed the same firmness, mildness, and high
principle which characterized her son ; and the
profound veneration for the Deity, and the deep
religious sentiment, which were obvious to all who
knew him intimately, were probably implanted in
his breast as he stood by his mother's knee. It
was, doubtless, his strong filial reverence and affec-
tion that prompted him to retain in his possession
his paternal acres, and led him to spend a few
months every year, in rural hospitality, at the old
family homestead.^

He received his early education at Dummer
Academy, in Byfield, under the tuition of the famous
Master Moody, and entered Harvard College in
1779. He graduated in 1783, with distinguished
rank, in a class with Harrison Gray Otis, Ambrose
Spencer, and Artemas Ward, all of whom survive
their eminent classmate. I have recently been in-
formed by one of them, that " he ranked with the
highest scholars of his class — that he was always
distinguished by the firmness of his character, the

^ Colonel Prescott was with General Gates, as a volunteer, at Sa-
ratoga, at the surrender of Burgoyne, in October, 1777. He after-
wards retired to his estate at Pepperell, where he resided till his death,
October 13th, 1795, at the age of 70, much respected by his towns-
men, among whom he had great influence. His widow survived till
1821, cherished and rendered independent in her circumstances by her
only son.


mildness of his manners, the correctness of his con-
duct, and the purity of his morals. These qualities
made him a universal favorite vi^ith his classmates,
and secured the approbation of the Faculty.^' He
studied his profession at Beverly, w^ith Nathan
Dane, v^ell known as the compiler of the great Di-
gest of American Law, and the founder of the Law
College at Cambridge, and still better known as
the author of the celebrated ordinance which for-
ever excluded slavery from the whole vast territory
northwest of the Ohio river. Having been admit-
ted to the Bar of Essex, in 1787, Mr. Prescott
immediately opened an office in Beverly, where,
however, he remained but two years. In 1789 he
removed to Salem,^ as affording a wider sphere for
professional talent, and there continued in con-
stantly increasing practice till the year 1808, when
he transferred his residence to this town, and at
the same time united himself with this parish,

' Whilst residing at Salem he formed the connexion, which for fifty-
one years was to him a source of unmingled blessings; he was mar-
ried in 1793, to Catharine G. Hickling, the daughter of Thomas
Hiclding, Esq., the Consul of the United States at St. Michael, in
the Azores. Of their seven children, four sons died in infancy. Ed-
ward, the sixth child, a graduate at Cambridge in 1825, a Minister of
the Protestant Episcopal Church, and rector of St. Mary's Church in
Salem, New Jersey, died suddenly, April 11, 1844, on the third day of
his voyage from Boston to St. Michael, at the age of 40, greatly la-
mented by his parishioners, as well as by his family and friends. The
surviving children are William H. Prescott, the historian, and Catharine
Elizabeth, the wife of Franklin Dexter, Esq., of Boston.


then under the pastorship of the Rev. Dr. Kirk-

Here he remained, engaged in professional busi-
ness, of which, probably, he had as large and im-
portant a share as was ever enjoyed by a member
of the Suffolk Bar. For a long period he was re-
tained, on one side or the other, in almost every
important case that came into our courts, both in
the counties of Suffolk and Essex. From an early
hour in the morning, to a late hour at night, he was
chiefly devoted to his profession, though also partly
occupied with public affairs, in which he always
took an interest. In 1812, he was appointed by
the Legislature of Massachusetts, on a committee
with Nathan Dane and Joseph Story, '' to collect
the charters, and the public and general laws of the
late Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay,"
which were printed in 1814. In 1818, he was ap-
pointed to fill the place of Judge of the Court of
Common Pleas for the County of Suffolk, the se-
cond year after its organization ; during the first
year it having been occupied by his classmate, Mr.
Otis. Twice he was solicited to take a seat on the
bench of the Supreme Judicial Court of this State ;
once, under his friend Chief Justice Parsons, who
urged it very strongly upon him. But he steadily
dechned this high honor, preferring the more active
duties of his profession.

Mr. Prescott was not, however, so much en-


grossed by the arduous duties of the Law, as not to
find time for the service of the pubhc. On the in-
corporation of the City of Boston, in 1822, he was
elected the first President of the Common Council.
He was at different times a member of the State
Legislature, a Representative both from Salem and
Boston, a Senator from the County of Essex, and a
member of the Executive Council under the admin-
istrations of Governor Gore and Governor Strong.^
He took an active and prominent part in the Con-
vention of Delegates assembled in 1820 to revise
the Constitution of this State. With another emi-
nent member of this parish, his most intimate friend,
George Cabot, he was chosen by the Legislature of
Massachusetts a delegate to the Convention held at
Hartford, in 1814; an office, which although at-
tended with great personal inconvenience, he under-
took, from that high sense of duty which controlled
all his actions, and most faithfully executed. He
was never ashamed of having been a member of
that Convention. He was a Federalist, of the school
and the principles of Washington, and through fife
kept those principles ever before him as the guide
of his opinions and conduct. And now that that
old Federal party is extinct, and is no more an ob-
ject of alarm, it will be frankly admitted, I suppose,

^ Mr. Prescott was a Representative from Salem, from 1798 to 1802,
inclusive, a Representative from Boston in 1811, 1821, and 1823, and a
member of the Executive Council in 1809, 1812, and 1813.


even by its warmest opponents, that in its ranks
were to be found some of the wisest and best men
in the nation, and that it was the purest poUtical
party that ever existed in this country.

Mr. Prescott lent his valuable services and coun-
sels not only to the State, but to the cause of liberal
education and sound learning. He was an Overseer
of Harvard College from 1810 to 1821, and a Mem-
ber of the Corporation from 1820 to 1826. He
was also a Fellow of the American Academy of
Arts and Sciences. In 1815, the University con-
ferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of
Laws, a distinction that was repeated by Dartmouth
College in 1826.

In the year 1828, after forty years' laborious
practice of the Law, he was attacked with some
complaints of the lungs, attended with bleeding;
and the symptoms became so alarming, that the
physicians imperatively required him to relinquish
his professional career, at least so far as practising
in Court. Though he continued for a year or two
after this to give advice on important questions, as
chamber-counsel, he at length wholly abandoned
the exercise of his profession ; and we have it stated
on the concurring testimony of the highest authority
on the Bench and at the Bar,^ that ''he had at-
tained the highest rank in his profession, both as a

' Chief Justice Shaw and Mr. Webster.


counsellor and an advocate," and that " at the mo-
ment of his retirement from the Bar, he stood at its
head, for legal learning and attainment."

The remainder of his days he passed in the en-
lightened occupations worthy of a great and good
mind. His library furnished him with ample means
for the most rational enjoyment. Here he would
take up any particular question of a metaphysical,
theological, or historical nature, and pursue it with
all the ardor of a young inquirer after truth ; for
truth was what he strived to attain through life, and
which shone through his every word and act. The
studies in which he took the greatest delight, were
moral philosophy, theology, and civil history ; and
the vast variety of his reading, and his careful medi-
tation, as well as the natural bent of his mind, filled
him with toleration for every sect and party.

1 . In the removal of such a man as this, though
in a good old age, a stay and a staff are taken away
from Society, — whom he had so long and so faith-
fully served, both in the walks of a laborious and
responsible profession, and in the various public
offices which he had filled in the city and in the
State. He had served this community most effi-
ciently, both in defending their rights at the Bar and
in adjudicating upon them from the Bench. During
his long professional career, with what untiring in-
dustry, with what a conscientious fidelity did he
devote himself to the interests of the numerous



clients who sought the aid of his legal learning and
prudent counsel.

The secret of the wide influence which Mr. Pres-
cott exerted and the general esteem which he in-
spired in this community, was unquestionably the
entire confidence which was reposed in the sound-
ness of his judgment and the integrity of his heart.
Our citizens felt sure that his clear intellect could
be dazzled or diverted by no false lights, and that
his sense of duty and right could be warped by no
sinister or selfish aims. It was believed that he was
not only a skilful advocate, and a judicious counsel-
lor, but a thoroughly honest and conscientious law-
yer. It was this absolute confidence which led men
to summon him to their sick-chambers and their
death-beds, to indite their testaments, and to com-
mit to him the arrangement of their affairs and the
disposition of their property after their decease.
He was a trusted, because he had been proved to be
a trust-worthy man — passing on through life above
suspicion, and without reproach.

He was an honorable man, inasmuch as he was
an independent, firm and courageous man. He
was an echo of no one's opinions, a copyist of no
one's doings. On all questions, moral, social, or
political, he thought and spoke and acted for him-
self, not following the lead of any partisan, not fol-
lowing even the multitude, in its wisdom or its folly.
He did not shrink from the avowal of any sentiment


or the prosecution of any measure from the fear of
any consequences that might result to himself per-
sonally. He was afraid only of doing what was

1 3

Online LibraryAlexander YoungThe stay and the staff taken away : A discourse occasioned by the death of the Hon. William Prescott, LL.D., delivered in the church on Church green, December 15, 1844 → online text (page 1 of 3)