John Willard .


"An honest lawyer is the life-guard of our fortunes, the best collateral security for an estate; a true priest of justice, that neither sacrifices to fraud nor covetousness; and in this outdoes those of a higher function, that he can make people honest that are sermon-proof – one that practices law so as not to forget the Gospel, but always wears a conscience as well as a gown.



JOHN WILLARD, the nephew of the late Mrs. Emma Willard, and the uncle of Hon. Charles S. Lester and Mrs. Alembert Pond, was born on the 20 th day of May, 1792, and graduated at Middlebury College in 1813. He was a relative, on his mother’s side, of the British Admiral, Lord Thomas Graves, well known in connection with his engagement, during the Revolutionary War, with Count De Grasse. Born at Guildford, Conn., Willard was directly descended, on the paternal side, from two of the Puritan band of colonists who, in 1639, planted that town. Never was there a settlement formed of more rigid Puritans that that of Guildford, and there is no town in New England where the peculiarities of that noble race of men have been more faithfully transmitted from father to son. While attending college he was associated with the late Silas Wright and Hon. Samuel Nelson, and evinced at that time the same patriotic solicitude for the success of his country in a foreign war that he afterwards exhibited for it in an internal one. His college course completed, with the advice of his friends he left Vermont to study law and seek its honors in a broader field. He bade farewell to his Alma Mater with no outward property but his books of study. On leaving, his aunt said: "John, we have high expectations for you; and nothing will satisfy us short of your going upon the bench of the Supreme Court of the State of New York." Who shall say how much these parting words may have influenced his after life? Immediately upon being admitted to the bar as an attorney of the Supreme Court in 1817, under the Chief-Justiceship of Smith Thompson, he entered upon the practice of the law in Salem, Washington County, N.Y. Bringing to the profession of his choice a well stored and disciplined mind, he soon attained, by his untiring industry, and without any adventitious aid, an enviable eminence in his calling. For many years he was first Judge of the Common Pleas, and Surrogate of Washington County, until, in 1836, on the elevation of Esek Cowen to the bench of the Supreme Court, he received the appointment of Circuit Judge and Vice-Chancellor of the Fourth Judicial District – filling that office until the new organization of the Judiciary under the constitution of 1846, when he was elected one of the Justices of the Supreme Court. This latter office he held until 1854; and, under the regulations of our judicial system, was a member of the Court of Appeals during the last year of his term of service. The rapidity and ability with which he discharged his judicial duties; his uniform courtesy and kindness to the profession; and, above all, the pureness and integrity of his character as a judge and as a man, commanded universal respect and esteem, winning for him many flattering testimonials of regard from the bar in the different counties of his district. After his retirement from the bench he was engaged for some years in the preparation of his Equity Jurisprudence (1855), a Treatise on Executors, Administrators, and Guardians (1859), a Treatise on Real Estate and Conveyancing (1861) – works which form valuable contributions to our jurisprudence, and are not less distinguished for their felicity and perspicuity of style than accurate and legal learning. {The progress of his authorship was remarkable, considering the important nature of his works, which were to be used as authorities in courts of justice, and thus constantly exposed to the most astute criticism. He had no copyist. He seldom (and in this respect he much resembled George Sand) interlined or re-wrote. It was his own manuscript, with few corrections, that went to his printer. His habit (like Humboldt) was to begin writing at a certain hour in the morning, and to leave off as regularly, before exhaustion should begin.} They are everywhere cited with confidence and received as authority, and have conferred upon their author an enduring fame. In 1856 he was appointed by President Pierce, under Attorney-General Cushing, one of the commissioners to examine into the validity of the California land titles which were claimed under Spanish and Mexican grants. These titles were obscure and indefinite, many of them being fictitious, and led to much litigation, as, for instance, the "New Almaden Quicksilver Mine" and the Fremont "Mariposa Grant." This, which, as may readily be supposed, was a long, laborious, and highly responsible task, he performed fearlessly, honestly, and satisfactorily to the Government that had selected him for the carrying out of this difficult and important duty. As a politician he was warmly attached to the Democratic party, and was strong and decided in his political opinions; but upon the breaking out of our late civil war he sunk the partisan in the patriot, taking early and strong ground in favor of a united support to our Government in its struggle for self-preservation. {The writer well remembers a conversation held with Judge Willard in the office of Judge Lester, just after his return from a visit to Washington – when everything was in confusion on the outbreak of the rebellion, and when the stunning effect of the firing on Fort Sumter – so completely unexpected – had paralyzed every one, irrespective of party, at the North. Judge Willard’s judicial mind took in the situation, and in the course of a talk he remarked: "Mr. Stone, I have always been a Democrat, but this is a time when party must go by the board. The Government must be sustained come what will."} In 1861 he was the candidate of the Union Convention for State Senator, and, subsequently endorsed by all other parties, was elected without opposition. While in the Senate he uniformly acted with the Union Democrats and Republicans; and his opinion, on all questions before that body, was always received with great respect. By his efforts the confusion in the laws respecting murder, and the rights of married women, were removed, and simple and sensible statutes passed and substituted in their place.

Such, in brief, is a sketch of the life of John Willard. But his character was in many respects so lovely, and presents so many examples worthy of imitation, that the remainder of this chapter will be devoted to the presentation of a few of the salient traits of this truly Christian gentleman and lawyer, in the hope that it will lead to their emulation by those youths of the present generation who desire to attain to a perfect manhood. Especially is such a high example needed in these degenerate days, when the name of a lawyer is in danger of becoming a synonym of low pettifogging and chicanery. The profession of a lawyer – that of assisting Justice to hold the scales with an even hand – is, if conscientiously followed, nearly as sacred a calling as that of the ministry. Let, then, those just starting life, and particularly those who are intending to follow the legal profession, before whom these lines may come, make Willard their model; and while sitting at his feet, learn wisdom and courage to reach – what should be the highest ideal of us all – a pure, honorable, and Christian career.

Nor, fortunately, are the means for a correct estimate of his character wanting. Mrs. Emma Willard, under whose roof a part of her nephew’s boyhood was spent, has furnished some reminiscences of his life, which, with some personal recollections of my own, enables the author to speak with greater accuracy than might otherwise be the case.

One of the chief characteristics of Judge Willard, and which, unquestionably, was one of the foundations of his prosperity, was his reliability. His appreciation of the value of time was remarkable. Hence arose his power to attain that extraordinary punctuality which throughout his entire life pre-eminently distinguished him. During his college life, for example, the regularly recurring duties of the week, the day, and the hour were always remembered in their exact order, and from settled principles of action they were never neglected. His impulse was rather to perform them a little in advance of the time. Throughout the four years of his collegiate course (with one exception which will be alluded to hereafter) he never received a single demerit for absence from recitation, or even for tardiness, although he lodged and studied at home – nearly a quarter of a mile from the old college where he recited. Ever, as his lesson was learned, he was wont to descend the stairs from his room to the front hall, and to be there on the threshold, with the first stroke of the college bell; and he would be at the recitation room exactly in time, neither too early – which has its advantages – nor by any means too late. This punctuality, moreover, was not only an important element in his success as a college student, but being formed in nature and cultivated into an unfailing habit, it was a material element in the eminent success of his whole career. In social life he never disappointed friends who expected him; nor as a lawyer did his clients ever have to make fruitless journeys to find a man who had forgotten his engagement and wandered from his office. But it was as a judge that the full magnitude of this virtue was seen. How much of the time and the expenses of suitors with their attendant witnesses were saved, and how much the ends of public justice were served in his courts by the inflexible punctuality of the judge, may be learned from the testimony of the lawyers and suitors who attended. All will say, that not only was the judge punctual himself, but that he possessed the resolute intrepidity of character to bring all about him, who were directly or indirectly concerned in the business of his courts, up to his own standard of excellence.

It has been said that Willard received one mark for tardiness while in college. It arose as follows: having passed through the first two years of his college career without a single fault-mark, one of the professors, to prove that he was not partial, allowed a mark to stand against him for tardiness at prayers, which the whole class knew to be undeserved. The next morning the class was startled by the unusual appearance of Willard entering the chapel after the preliminary exercise had begun – for which, as he expected, he received a second mark. He made no apology; but having given this quiet intimation that

"He knew his rights, and knowing dare maintain,"

he went through the remaining two years of his career without another mark, either for transgression or delinquency.

An evidence of that reliability of character, which had its foundation in this punctuality, is found in the fact that he was trusted, even in the earliest days of his practice, by all men and all classes. "Indeed," says Chancellor Walworth in his speech on the occasion of Judge Willard’s death, "such was my confidence in his capacity and his sound discretion as a county judge, when he was first appointed to that office, and when I was presiding in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, that I requested him to take the whole management of the trial of a capital case. And to those who were afterwards acquainted with him as a judge it is needless to say that at that early day my perfect confidence in his capacity to discharge the most important of all judicial duties, was not misplaced." In truth, it might be said of him, as a lawyer, that he was semper paratus semper fidelis ; for he was always ready and prepared to argue the cause of his client when the time arrived for him to do so; and no lawyer ever discharged that duty more honorably and faithfully. In fact, during the long period of thirty years that he occupied a judicial station as County Judge and Vice-Chancellor, Justice of the Supreme Court, Judge of the Court of Appeals, and as a Judge of the Court for the trial of Impeachments, no judicial officer ever discharged his duties more uprightly or more faithfully.

The question might here very naturally be asked by those who are starting in the legal profession: How did Willard, with his high ideal, pass successfully through the early struggles of a young lawyer, without pandering to the wishes of unprincipled clients? In other words, did he ever have any reason to doubt the principle upon which he always insisted, when he was in college, that the cultivation of justice in the heart, and truth in the speech, is the foundation not only of sound morality, but of all effective eloquence? Let him answer in his own words. "I never had – although, in the beginning, as a poor young lawyer getting business slowly, I had strong temptations. I was sometimes assigned by courts to defend bad men, but there my duty only required of me to set forth all the extenuating points in the case. Scoundrels who deserved punishment soon learned to keep clear of me. As for such poor fellows, however, as had been thoughtlessly led into wrong, I would frequently give them advice gratis – after telling them to flee, repent and reform." Thus, his character once established, the cases he did get he almost invariably gained. He plead them in earnest , his conscience being with and not against him. And this course was in keeping with the principle he early adopted, and it deserves to be written in "letters of gold on tablets of silver," that he would never take part in any disputation that required of him to set his words in variance with his belief – thus favoring the dangerous fallacy that there is an art by which truth may be manufactured – leading to mental habits which impair morality, and destroy the foundation of true eloquence.

The period of his going to Albany to argue his first cause before the Supreme Court was especially impressed upon his memory. It was at the time when that court was so proudly eminent, having the late Chief-Justice Ambrose Spencer at its head. He observed that nothing escaped the penetration of that judge, and that whenever he had heard a matter explained once, his wrath would kindle when some long-winded pleader attempted to go over it again. So when Willard’s own case came up, and the opposing lawyer had made his statement, he began where his adversary left off; and by a concise and clear exposition of his case, he soon had the earnest attention of the judge. He then related concisely what proposal of settlement he had made to his opponent; "and," rejoined Spencer, "what could they say against that?" He bowed and begged the Court’s permission to leave it to the opposing counsel. He won the cause, and eventually the friendship of the judges.

After he became himself a judge, Willard’s well-balanced mind was never moved by the frenzies of the day; hence he was extensively regarded as a tower of defence against popular excesses. Once, when he had been called down to Hudson to decide an anti-rent suit, the party whose cause, though popular, was illegal, sent him word that he "need not come, as they would settle the matter among themselves."

Judge Willard was also wont to relate an anecdote which dates back to the days of the Maine Liquor Law – how he met the extreme conscientiousness of a grand jury with respect to an innkeeper who had sold a quart of brandy to be carried, contrary to his license, off his premises, although it was ordered by a surgeon to bathe the bruises of a wayfaring man who had been thrown from a wagon. "I told them," said the Judge, "that they would have indicted the good Samaritan for taking care of the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves!"

In the popular sense of the term Judge Willard was not an orator. He had not, like Daniel Webster, the natural advantages of a commanding figure and an oratorical voice, which give weight to words. Still, if to convince the understanding and persuade the will be eloquence, then was he eloquent. The writer well remembers one occasion in particular, when his words fell upon assembled thousands with electrical effect. It was in the summer of 1860, when Stephen H. {Should be "A." – BC} Douglas, then a candidate for the Presidency, was given a reception on his way through the village to Lake George. The morning opened dark and gloomy. Yet, as soon as it became known that Mr. Douglas was to arrive from Albany in the two o’clock train, many gathered around the depot waiting for the arrival of the cars. Several bands from Fort Edward, Glen’s Falls, and other neighboring villages, were there, ready to greet the opponent of "Honest Abe." About five minutes before the train arrived, the rain ceased, and the sun throwing out its genial rays, many of Mr. Douglas’s admirers saw therein a prophetic meaning. Mr. Douglas was met at the depot by Mr. Charles S. Lester, and escorted, in a carriage drawn by four horses and decorated with flags, by the bands to the main steps of the United States Hotel. Over the entrance was suspended the national flag, with the word "Welcome" in large letters. Upon his mounting the steps, on the arm of Mr. Lester, the bands struck up "See the Conquering Hero Comes," and the cannon began firing. Quiet being obtained, Judge Willard stepped forward and welcomed the distinguished visitor in one of the neatest, most finished, and graceful speeches it has ever been the lot of the author to hear. Although Willard’s voice was not strong, yet it was so finely modulated, and his enunciation was so clear, that of the three thousand persons present there was not one who did not hear each word as distinctly as if it had been uttered in a drawing-room. {The reply of Mr. Douglas was equally happy. He opened by alluding to Saratoga as being the property of the whole Union – the place where all the lovers of their country could meet and sympathize in common – that here, at these refreshing waters, after the toils and turmoils incident to political life, could best be found the peace and relaxation so much needed. He thus defined his position on the slavery question: The question, he said, must be removed from Congress. Let the citizens of the North carry their property, their merchandise, their horses and cattle, into the territories; let the citizens of the South carry their property, their slaves, into the territory, and there seek protection for their property under the local laws alike. The following morning, Mr. Douglas and his wife, accompanied by Mr. C.S. Lester and others, visited Lake George, whence the former proceeded through Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence to his home in the West.}

But description is utterly inadequate to give an idea of the man himself as felt by those with whom he came into immediate contact. There was such a winning sweetness, such an indescribable charm of manner, that even the modest reticence, which was sometimes apparent, served rather to attract than to repel. Especially was this the case in his intercourse with the young. For possessing that faculty which belongs to so few, viz., of appearing to be the party receiving information, he made them always feel at ease in his presence. I shall ever cherish, as among the pleasantest memories of my life, those hours when I have listened to his conversation which, sustained by a great fund of general information, made intercourse with him always so delightful and instructive. The same qualities, moreover, which rendered converse with him so fascinating in private were no less conspicuous in public. His manner upon the bench was patient, dignified, and courteous. He enjoyed the confidence and esteem of the bar, and his decisions commanded great respect, both at home and abroad. "His recorded opinions," as has been justly remarked by O.L. Barbour, "exhibit great learning and logical ability, and are pervaded by a high-toned morality and adorned by a lucid style."

Through life, he never had occasion to solicit office. When he went upon the bench of the Supreme Court of the State, Governor Marcy (who was wont thus to forestall office-seekers) gave him a surprise, by sending him his appointment. But in the manner of his being chosen to the State Senate, there was something not only honorable to him, but nationally encouraging – that, in these later days of American degeneracy, the people of his Senatorial district should have shown a patriotic wisdom worthy of the early dawn of our Republic, when men were chosen not because they wanted office but because the office wanted them. Judge Willard had never been a member either of the State or National legislature; he was engaged in writing law-books, and his feeble health required the comforts of home; but deeply anxious for the fate of his beloved country, when he heard her voice, he obeyed. The voters of his district were divided into three parties. He was nominated by each, and voted for by all.

"When in the Legislature," says Mrs. Emma Willard in her Reminiscences, "his gray hairs were seen as punctually moving to his morning seat in the Senate chamber, as were the dark-brown locks of his youth to the recitation hall of Middlebury College. The oldest man in the Legislature – there by an extraordinary event – the unanimous call of his whole district – having for thirty years been looked up to as a judge, courteous, kind, and just – he was now, by his associates, treated with unwonted respect, mingled with filial tenderness. Thus, the Senate, seeking to honor him and avail themselves of his legal ability, placed him on the Judiciary Committee, expecting him to undertake the important work of remodelling the criminal law, yet considerately forbearing to tax him with such minor cares as must fall upon the chairman of the committee. In forming the law to amend the criminal code, he was but carrying out, as a legislator, views concerning criminal jurisprudence which as a judge he had previously matured. The bill reported on the 7 th of February, 1862, was every word written by his own hand; and both Houses passed it without debate. After the adjournment of the Senate, he was still laboring in the business of the committee, at his own house, to form a satisfactory plan for settling the great and difficult question of the chancery fund. The pile of sheets he had written over, he showed me as they lay on his office table the week before he was stricken down. He was pleased with the progress he had made, and confident in the hope that he should have his report completed in season. As the Governor of the State was known to place high value on his judgment, men of his district who were candidates for office, and could show evidence of fitness, resorted to him for recommendations. In giving these, party considerations had no place. Feeble as he then was, it was affecting to see with what cheerfulness and courtesy he listened to their statements, and gave them his advice and assistance. ‘I owe it to them,’ he said, ‘they all voted for me.’ Thus was he laboring incessantly in the duties of his high station: and in life’s battle he died with his armor on."

Judge Willard was married, in 1829, to Eliza Smith, "the woman," as Mrs. Willard remarks, "of all others best suited to be his wife." Their only child was a lovely daughter, whose understanding it was his delight to cultivate, as it was her mother’s to superintend her accomplishments – particularly music. Perfect domestic concord blessed this amiable household; and dark was the sorrow that overshadowed it when the beloved daughter was taken away by death.

"There was an open grave – and many an eye

Looked down upon it. Slow the sable hearse

Moved on – as if reluctantly it bore

The young, unwearied form, to that cold couch

Which age and sorrow render sweet to man."

The mother, not well before, gradually gave way under the shock. She died six years after, in the autumn of 1859.

Judge Willard never recovered from his loss; and although he lived a few years afterward constantly in the harness, and with his mental vigor to the last unabated, yet nature finally gave way; and on Sunday, the 31 st day of August, 1862, Judge Willard – whose life had ever been guided by the precepts of the Gospel, and whose last hours were cheered by the hopes of the Christian – expired after a mortal illness of twelve days.

Although his decease occurred in a period of great national excitement, when the loss of an individual, however exalted in position, seemed to attract less attention than in ordinary times, yet the death of one who for more than forty years had filled offices of high honor and public trust with signal ability and integrity, and whose private life was singularly pure and blameless, spread a great sorrow over the hearts of the people of the State. Public and private bodies at once united in paying honors to his memory. The Senate of the State of New York passed appropriate resolutions, and voted to wear the insignia of mourning for the period of a week. In Saratoga, also, where he had lived honored and beloved for so many years, a meeting of the bar was called at which feeling addresses were made by Wm. L.F. Warren, the late R.H. Walworth, O.L. Barbour, Judiah Ellsworth, Joseph A. Shoudy, and James P. Butler. He was buried from his residence the following Wednesday, and laid by the side of those whom in life he had loved so well, in the beautiful Greenridge Cemetery.

As an advocate, a judge, a legislator, he was alike eminent and accomplished; in his private life, irreproachable and blameless; and seldom has it fallen to the lot of men to acquire and leave behind them such an honorable and unsullied name.

In closing, I would express the hope that days like those when our Judiciary was presided over by such men as Kent and Cowen, and Walworth and Willard, will yet be restored, and the bench of New York be cleansed from all impurity.



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