Samuel W Durant.

History of Oneida County, New York : with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers online

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Online LibrarySamuel W DurantHistory of Oneida County, New York : with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers → online text (page 59 of 192)
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his addresses to the jury in such cases were not merely
convincing, they were absolutely overwhelming. On such
occasions, to use a western phrase, he was " simply omnipo-
tent." Alas, that the fame of a distinguished lawyer should
be so evanescent and so traditionary I Spencer, great as he
was in his peculiar sphere, has left nothing on record by
which even the present generation can properly estimate
him, and in the next he will be among the men but faintly
remembered, and in the next perhaps utterly forgotten.

I need not speak of his public life, which was short,
embracing one term of two years in the Senate of the
State and member of the Court of Errors. It was respect-
able, but in no degree remarkable, for his mission was to
be an advocate, and his throne of power was before twelve

men in the jury box. As a man, he was most kind and
unselfish. No student ever left his office without a high
respect for his capacity, and an affectionate attachment to
his person. He was ever doing considerate and helpful
acts to the younger members of the profession, and I well
remember a kind interposition in my behalf in a professional
matter where he relieved me of a crushing weight of re-
sponsibility, and made me deeply his debtor.

He was impulsively benevolent, and cared little for money
except so far as it supplied his own wants and that of his
family, or ministered to the necessities of others. He per-
formed labor enough, at a moderate rate of compensation,
to have secured an ample fortune, and yet so indifferent,
and at the same time so indulgent, was he, that he left to
his children little more than the house he lived in, and the
priceless legacy of a name unstained by any vice, and full
of kind deeds and gentle ministries. He well understood,
however, and knew how to appreciate a mean and sordid
act, as was illustrated in the well-authenticated case of the
man who, having sought and received his advice in an im-
portant matter, drew painfully from his pocket and presented
him with a coin of the value of five cents. Holding the
counsel fee in his hand, Spencer turned to his partner and
said, " Mr. Kernan, you are the junior member of our
firm; enter this in our accounts as the smallest fee ever
received by us, in the smallest coin known to the govern-
ment, from the smallest man that ever darkened our doors."

Such, very imperfectly sketched, was Joshua A. Spencer,
a man of some striking weaknesses which his best friends
were con.scious of, for his character was transparent as the
daj', but with a nature noble enough and with a heart large
enough to atone for them all ; and, upon the whole, we may
safely say we shall not soon, if ever, see his equal before
that tribunal which, somewhat hyperbolical ly perhaps, it is
said it is the object of all government to secure, " twelve
honest men in the jury box."

In closing these hasty sketches, I may very naturally be
asked if, in my judgment, the bar of Oneida County has
suffered an eclipse of its original fame, or degenerated from
its former high standard of intellect, learning, and integ-
rity ; and I unhesitatingly answer, that taking those who
have been and are its acknowledged standard-bearere, and
making no account of those members of the bar who are
not concerned enough for the honor of their profession to
learn its history, or remember the names of those who have
illustrated and adorned it, it has not essentially declined
from its pristine estate. I could easily demonstrate this by
pursuing its history from the days of the men I have com-
memorated, and running my eye along the line of their suc-
cessors who have passed away, graced and illustrated as it
is by the names, among many othej-s, of James Lynch, of
Rome, a man of princely bearing and commanding presence,
and capable, when roused, of efforts but little inferior to
those of Storrs or Talcott ; of Timothy Jenkins, the unri-
valed public prosecutor, from whose iron grasp no felon ever
escaped that was destined for the State's prison, or deserved
the halter ; of Charles A. Mann, the wise counselor, the
accomplished man of business, the aider of every enterprise
that promised benefit to his fellow-men, who from a very
humble beginning rose, by energy, by diligence, by unsullied



integrity, to a most respectable ranic in his profession, and
to public honors fairly won and worthily worn ; of Alvan
Stewart, a remarkable man, somewhat coarse in texture, but
who had a larger fund of quaint and apposite stories than
any man I ever knew, and who, though a little ponderous
at times, carried tremendous power with a jury; of William
C.- NoyeS, who gained indeed his highest reputation in the
city of New York, where he stood side by side with those
who were in the front rank of the profession, but who, by
the generous benefaction of his large and valuable library
to Hamilton College, has shown how kindly and tenderly
he turned in grateful recollection of the mother that bore
and nourished him in the early days of his professional
life; and, passing many others, of Hiram Denio, whose
grave is yet green, of whom it is no disparagement of others
to say there is no higher or worthier name in the annals
of our American jurisprudence — a striking example of the
fostering and beneficent influence of our institutions which
made him, through toil and effort commensurate with the
end he reached, a jurist whose decisions are received as law
throughout the continent of America, and quoted with re-
spect in Westminster Hall ; and of Charles H. Doolittle,
the most recently departed, whose indomitable industry,
painstaking research, and keenly analytic intellect made
him the dread of his opponents at the bar, and would
doubtless have continued to illustrate the bench, and the
sad tragedy of whose death cannot even now be alluded to
without emotion.*

And here it is but fair to remark that in looking at either
men or things from a remote standpoint we are very apt to
exaggerate both their merits and their dimensions. Our
gaze backward is through the vista of years and the haze
which distance casts over evei'y object. It is with men oft-
times as it is with nature, true, that " distance lends en-
chantment to the view." The men of our own days stand
too near us to be weighed at their true value and appre-
ciated at their intrinsic worth. Let time and remoteness
do their appropriate work, as in nature they smooth the
ruggedness, soften the asperities, and intensify the beauty of
every scene they touch, and our contemporaries, it may be,
will appetir to posterity as the fathers do to us, covered with
laurels which we perhaps too grudgingly bestow. It may
be accepted as a striking testimony to the high position
held by our professional brethren in the public esteem, that
at this moment the bar of Oneida is represented in the
Senate of the United States in the persons of both Sena-
tors from the State of New York, in the House of Repre-
sentatives by the member from the 21st Congressional Dis-
trict, and in the national judiciary by an Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court of the United States, and by the
judge of the circuit composed of New York, Connecticut,
and Vermont."!' It is almost superfluous to add that the
bar of no county in the State, and without doubt none in
the Union, can present a parallel to this.

It does not fall within the scope of my present design,
and it might be deemed indelicate if not invidious, to speak
of the living, some of whom have floated away upon the

» See biography of Hon. Timothy Jenljins, in another part of this
■work; and also notice of Judge Wardwell, in history of Home,
t The latter since deceased.

tide that has borne so much of enterprise awd of talent to
our metropolis, and are there carving out fortunes and mak-
ing a large reputation among the ablest of the profession ;
and others of whom are among and around you, and I can
safely leave their record to your candid judgment. Neither
in learning nor in power to move men's minds by eloquent
discourse has our bar declined essentially from its original
standard. I can truly say that from men whom I have en-
countered at the bar and heard from the bench, from men
whom we have been accustomed to meet as our daily com-
panions and associates, I have heard as learned and elabo-
rate legal arguments, and listened to as soul-stirring, elo-
quent, and impassioned appeals as any that 1 find recorded
in the books or that popular tradition assures us controlled
the judgments or led captive the passions of the men who
listened to the glowing periods of Storrs, or Talcott, or
Spencer, in their palmiest days.

If I were to indulge in criticism of the recent bar of
Oneida as compared with its predecessors, — and temperate
criticism, I would fain hope, may be permitted to one who
has retired from active participation in the labors of his
profession, but who nevertheless feels deeply all that may
tend to its discredit, or redound to its honor, — I shonld be
disposed to say that it may perhaps be feared that it has a
little declined from that elevated standard of personal char-
acter which feels the slightest imputation upon its perfect
trustworthiness, like the pain inflicted by a wound upon a
sensitive nature, as well as something of the high-toned
courtesy with which the members of the ancient bar never
failed to treat each other, even in the warmest and most
excited professional encounters. A lawyer, in the days of
which I have been speaking, who justly incurred the sus-
picion of a trickish man, who used the forms of the law
and employed its machinery to entrap his adversaries, to
extort exorbitant fees, or rob the unskilled and unsuspect-
ing, unfailingly earned the odium of the community and
awakened the watchful scrutiny of both bench and bar ;
and if his offenses were not so patent or so capable of proof
as to lead to official degradation, the suspicion of them was
enough to subject him to an ostracism that, to a sensitive
mind, would impose as severe a penalty as the blotting out
of his name from the roll of honorable men. In my earliest
recollections of the bar of Oneida I can recall but a single
instance of a man thus suspected and thus odious, and he
was put so effectually under the social and professional ban
that he was ultimately compelled to remove to a distant city,
where, either through fexpcdiency or from higher motives, he
established a fairer reputation, and lived and died, I trust,
a wiser and a better man.

The modern tendency to mould the law into the shape of
statutory enactmijnts, to codify both principles and practice,
has led to a great abbreviation of the amount of study that
is now expended in preparation for, and in the actual pur-
suit of, the profession, and lawyers as a class are less stu-
dious and probably less learned than their predecessors were
required to be. In my early day, the maxim of Horace,
when teaching tyros the poetic art,

" VoB exemplaria Grieca,
Nocturna vereate maiiHf verente dturnaf''

was the motto of the student at law. On him was enjoined



the duty of reading the choicest books^ selecting the highest
models) and giving days and nights to their diligent perusal
and careful analysis. Only thus can any man now master
his profession, and make it honorable to himself and advan-
tageous to the State. A cultivated, a public-spirited, an
upright and a conscientious lawyer ought to be, and gener-
ally will be, a leading if not a controlling character in the
community. The world has often seen such, and will see
them again. Even in the days of Cicero the counsels of
such a man were sought not merely for direction in the
affairs of private life, but for guidance in those great public
emergencies which involved the peace of the community
and the welfare of the State. ^^Doinus jurisconsidtl est
oraciilum totitis civitatis^^'' is the declaration of the most
distinguished lawyer and renowned orator of Rome. Such
honor will be given and such homage will ever be paid by
the people to him who seeks " popularity" in the true and
legitimate way, the way so admirably described by Lord
Mansfield as the " popularity i\\^i follows^ not that which is
riui aftei-j — that popularity which sooner or later never fails
to do justice to the pursuit of noble ends by noble means."-
Let me sum up in brief but comprehensive terms the
character of the genuine lawyer, as I find it most justly and
happily portrayed in an address recently dtilivercd at the
dedication of the new court-house in Pittsfield, Mass., by
the Hon. H. W. Taft, of Lenox, in the county of Berkshire :

" The true lawyer choj^es hts proression not fro"n mero moreennry
considerations, but because it oTers to him a means of livelihood and
opportunity for laSbr in a most honorable and useful depiirtment of
human action. He pursues his studies with a desire to understand
fully the principles which form a foundation of the system of com-
mr)Q law, and coming thus furnished into practical life, his opinions
are founded in reason, and not in mere analogies of precedent. Ho
grows into an enthusiastic devotion to his profession, as it promotes
his intellectual culture, and gives him opportunities to infuse just
dealing and counteract the evil tendency of avarice and passion among
his fellow-raen. He recognizes the judicial duties of his profession,
and settles more suits than he promotes.* He is not insensible to the
fair rewards of professional success, whether of pecuniary profit or
of those honors which are the just objects of an honorable ambition.
He does not recognize a code of morals which fixes one rule of duty
for private, and another for professional or political life, but he be-
lieves thiit fraud and falsehood are always and everywhere dishonest
and degrading. He is glad to win causes, but never by dishonorable
means, and victory brings him no true gratification if he doubts the
justice of the verdict. His professional life causes him no greater sor-
row than when the cause he believes to be just is lost in spite of his
utmost eff"orts ; as it affords bira no higher joy than when he feels that
by means of his patience, intelligence, and skill juttice has triumphed,
and fraud and villainy are baffled and exposed. He does not with
solemn prudery reject a client entitled to claim his services because he
has a stain upon his reputation, for he knows that every man, whatever
his character or hi^!^tory, has a right to be defended and assisted in the
courts of law; but he does take care, in every cause, to give no coun-
sel, consent, or assistance in any measures of diehoncsty and wrong.
And, crowning all, there is in him — however it may fail of its full
effect upon his heart and life, but coming to him because inwrought
in the system of law of which he is a minister — a sense of responsi-
bility for all human action to that Supreme Intelligence and Virtue
which is ever counseling and commanding what is right and prohibit-
ing what is wrong, to that Higher Law on which all human laws de-
pend, and from which they derive their authority and power."

Do you say this is a high ideal ? It is, indeed, but no true
lawyer should be content with a lower one, and it presents
in its essential elements no standard that is beyond the
reach of an honorable ambition.

Young men of the bar of Oneida, remember " the rock
whence ye were hewn," and the proud patrimony to which
you were born, and let not the foundations of the one be
moved or shaken by your remissness, or the wealth of the
other be lost or diminished by your unfaithfulness.

The following obituary notice of Judge Johnson was
published in the Utica Observer soon after his death :

"Alexander Smith Johnson was born in Utica on the I-IOth of July,
1817. He was the eldest son of Alexander B. Johnson, and the grand-
son of Bryan Johnson, who settled here when what is now Utica was
old Fort Schuyler. The family were English. Bryan Johnson had
been in business in Gosport, England, and afterwards in London, be-
fore he emigrated to America. He came about the year 1797, with
the original intention of making his home in Canada. But finding
here a favorable trading-post, he changed his plans and established
a store at what is now the corner of Whitesboro' and Division Streets.
His son, A. B. Johnson, at a very early age developed a decided taste
for business, and long before he was twenty-one he had estjiblished
an enviable reputation in the mercantile circles of the growing town.
He afterwards devoted himself to the business of banking. As his
opportunities increased he added constantly to his stock of knowl-
edge, till finally, as a scholar, author, and philosopher, he acquired a
distinction more enduring than the memory of his business triumphs
and reverses. His first wife was the granddaughter of John Adams,
the second President of the United States, so there mingled in the
veins of Judge Johnson the blood of that impetuous patriot allied
with the steadier but not cooler life current of his English sire.

" The surroundings of his boyhood brought early into play the in-
tellectual ])art of Judge Johnson's nature. He was only eighteen
when, in 1835, he graduated with the highest honors of Yale College,
which institution afterwards confei-r^id upon him the degree of Doc-
tor of Laws. After his graduation he entered immediately upon the
study of the law, and at the age of twenty-one was admitted to the
bar. The late Judge Beardsley, recognizing in him thepiomiseof
unusual iibility, ofTered him, in the following January, a partnership
This connection lasted only a few raomh?. A field of larger useful-
ness was opened to Judge John^'on in the city of Nfw York, whither
he removed in June, 1S39, to become theassocinte of EHsha P. Hurl-
but in the practice of law. This partnership was termiuisted by the
election of Judge Hurlbut to the Supreme Court bench in 1846. For
five years longer Judge Johnson continued pnictice by himself. In
1851 he was named by the Democrats for Judge of the Court of Ap-
peals. At this time he was only thirty-four yenrs old. No other
man, except the famous Chancellor Kent, had been called to fill so
high a judicial ofiice «t so enrly an age. But the criticism which his
youth provoked did not'survive the campaign. He was triumphantly
elected in a contest so close that part of the Whig tcket was sueeiss-
ful, and before he had been on the bench a year his eminent fitness
for the high office wns everywhere acknowledged. He was the asso-
ciate of Denio, Comstoek, Selden, and Grover, — the highest light:! in
our judicial system, — and among them his opinions ranked with the

"Nature fitted him for the duties of a judge. Ho was calm, self-'
poised, and singularly impartial. No wave of passion ever obscured
his vision or swept his judgment from its moorings. Uq could hear
and determine without prejudice. To these natural qualifications he
added a comprehensive knowledge of the law, and a vigorous grasp
of its underlying principles. He was a student from choice, not from
necessity. Learning to him was not a weapon wherewith to conquer
success, but a key opening the vast storehouses of a high and en-
during pleasure. Retiring from the bench on the first of January,
18G0, he returned to his old home in Utica, and resumed the practice
of the-law. in 1864 he was chosen a Regent of the University, and
the same year he was named by President Lincoln as a commissioner
on the part of the United States to settle the claims of the lluds n
Bay and Puget Sound Companies. He was engaged in this service
for three years, and won high recognition for the ability which he

"In 1873, when Judge Ward Hunt was elevated to the Supremo
Court of the United States, Governor Dix named Judge Johnson as
his successor in the Commission of Appeals. A year later, when
Judge Peekham was lost at sea, Judge Johnson was transferred to



that court. He was the candidate of the Republican party, for the
full term in 1874, but was defeated witb the rest of his ticket. Gov-
ernor Tilden, however, reoognizing his qualifications, named him for
one of the commissioners to revise the statutes, early in 1875. In
October of the same year he was appointed by the President to the
judgeship of the United States Circuit Court for the Second Circuit,
embracing the States of New York and Vermont.

" The duties of this office are peculiarly onerous. The court holds
twelve regular sessions in each year, besides extra meetings for the
transaction of accumulated business. - The only appeal from it is to
the Supremo Court of the United States, and a heavy responsibility
is therefore thrown upon the circuit judge. The protracted illness of
Judge Smalley, of Vermont, threw an additional load of labor on
Judge Johnson. Before he entered on this office his health bad always
been good, though his calm exterior covered many nervous disorders
which his strong will controlled. A forewarning of his fate came to
him months ago. But he was so engrossed in his duties that he could
not or would not heed it. He loved his profession, and the rounding
of his judicial career, while it sapped the foundation of his life, at-
tracted him so strongly that It seemed impossible for him to turn from

" Judge Johnson was something more than a successful lawyer
and jurist. In the best sense of the word he was a philosopher. He
had studied deep into the problems of life. No foolish fear of futurity
stinted his soul or narrowed his vision. With a strong love of home
and an Intense affection for his family, his mind swept beyond the
confines of city, State, or country, and his intellectual nature was
cosmopolitan. His love of the beautiful in art and literature was
deep-seated, and was no pedantic affectation. The old Latin poets
were the companions of his leisure hours. The deep researches of
scientific men were to him no mystery. The progress of painting and
sculpture he followed with keen enjoyment, and rare and curious
treasures he eagerly sought and gladly possessed.

" He was just and upright in all the relations of life, with a singu-
larly winning nature, which endeared him most to those who knew him
best. He will be sadly missed, — missed from the ranks of that high
profession which he so greatly honored ; missed from the city of his
birth, the home of his youth, the chosen abode of his ripened years ;
and missed, most of all, in that household on which the sbudow of a
great bereavement falls black and heavy, with no relief save that the
grief of the family is shared. In some measure, by a wide, sympa-
thizing community."

Judge Johnson died at Nassau, N. P., whither lie had
gone for his health, on the 26th of January, 1878.


The following list of attorneys is mostly prepared from
the papers on file in the county clerk's office, which have
been very carefully examined, and the list made as complete
as possible. It embraces all the names to be found in the
records from the organization of the county in 1798 to
1847. It is not entirely perfect in two respects : first, the
names of the attorneys practicing in Oneida County are
not all on record in the clerk's office, many of them having
been admitted in other counties ; and second, it includes
many names of those who were admitted here, but never
practiced in the county, or at least never were residents.*

Since the adoption of the new constitution, in 1847,
there have been no general terms of the Supreme Court
held in Oneida County, and as attorneys are admitted be-,
fore that court their names are not on the records of the
county, and we have no means of obtaining a correct list.

We give a list of the graduates of the Hamilton College
law department, taken from the books in the county clerk's

» We have tried, by submitling this list to some of the oldest at-
torneys now in practice, to make corrections, and eliminate all who
did not belong to Oneida County, but find it impossible to make it

office, commencing with 1868. Many of these have never
practiced in the countyj though their names appear as
admitted. By virtue of their diploma from that school
they are admitted to practice before the Supreme Court :

1798. — Thomas R. Gold, Joseph Kirkland, Arthur
Breese, Erastus Clark, Joshua Hathaway, Joab Griswold,
Nathan Williams, Francis A. Bloodgood, Bufus Easton,
Medad Curtis.

1799.— Gaylord Griswold, Sanford Clark, Thomas Moore,

Online LibrarySamuel W DurantHistory of Oneida County, New York : with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers → online text (page 59 of 192)