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Full text of "Thaddeus Stevens as a country lawyer; address before the Pennsylvania state bar association at Bedford Springs, Pa., June 27, 1906"

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The Pennsylvania State Bar Association 
At Bedford Springs, Pa. 

June 27, 1906 



Leprintcd from the Report of the Proceedings of the Association 


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Address delivered before the Pennsylvania State Bar 

Association at its meeting at Bedford Springs, 

Pennsylvania, June 27, 1906 


Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pennsylvania 
State Bar Association: 

I come neither to "bury Caesar, nor to praise him." I 
shall not ask you to follow this man's career in the field 
where he achieved his real eminence, much less permit you 
to exact from me approval of or encomium upon his work 
as a statesman and publicist, however much it may have 
been shaped or influenced by his education, his experience 
or his character as a lawyer. I shall content myself with 
a brief sketch of his career as a practitioner for two score 
years at the "country Bar," and I reserve, with your consent, 
the privilege to somewhat enlarge this paper in the publi- 
cation of your proceedings. 

His life stretched from the days when the skies were 
reddened by the first torches of the French Rev(Dlution to 
the time when the embers of the great American Civil War 
were cooling into ashes. Thaddeus Stevens was born in 
the first term of George Washington's administration, and 
he died in the last year of Andrew Johnson's. His experi- 
ence was not exceptionally extended, but it was stormy. 
While it lasted most of the history of American jurispru- 
dence was written, but he did not enrich it with any material 
contribution. In the great volume which the Alarshalls 
and Websters, and our own Gibson and Tilghman, Binney 
and Sergeant, and a thousand other leaders of the profession 
have written, no page is his ; nor shall I make bold to hang 
his portrait in the gallery of great American lawyers. 

But the fact that he was a Pennsylvanian of first rank, 
and that before he entered the field of national politics, and 
long before he became the parliamentary leader of a trium- 
phant party, he had rapidly risen to the front as a trial 
lawyer, and the observation that so little of his work is 
recorded in the permanent annals of Bench and Bar, make 
sufficient apology for a brief recognition by an association 
one of whose most agreeable and useful purposes is to pre- 
pare and perpetuate the history and biography of our pro- 
fession in Pennsylvania. 

His struggle — or, rather, that of his widowed mother, 
for her lame boy, the youngest and favorite — to get an 
education, his escapades at Burlington and graduation from 
Dartmouth, his choice of the law and beginning the study 
of it under Judge Mattocks in his native State; his unex- 
plained venture from Peacham, Vermont, to York, Penn- 
sylvania ; his engagement there as a teacher in an academy 
of w'hich Queen Anne was a patroness (and where young 
Stevens prepared for college the maternal grandfather of 
Associate Justice J. Hay Brown) ; how, outside of any law 
school, or even of any lawyer's office he pursued his studies 
diligently under David Casset, one of the leaders of the 
local Bar, are all matters of familiar history. 

His admission was characteristic of the practice of 
his time. It may have been "infra dig." in the York of that 
day to combine the study of a learned profession with self- 
support as a school teacher ; his alien Yankee ways or caustic 
tongue may have won him personal enemies. Whatever 
prevented his application for admission there, it is certain 
he rode horseback to Bel Air, the seat of the adjoining 
county of Harford, in Maryland, and presented himself, 
an entire stranger, on Monday, August 26, 18 16, for mem- 
bership at a Bar, where, if the gate did not stand open, its 
latch was loose. The Judges sitting were Theodoric Bland 
and Zebulon Hollingsworth. They, together with Joseph 
Hopper Nicholson, Chief Judge, constituted the Judges of 

the Sixth Judicial District, comprising the counties of Balti- 
more and Harford. 

A committee of examination seems to have heen 
appointed, and one of the memhers on it was General Wm. 
H. Winder, a noted lawyer, who had been a distinguished 
Maryland soldier in the late war with Great Britain, in 
command of the District of Virginia, Maryland and the 
District of Columbia.* It is also related that Judge Chase, 
of later impeachment fame, participated in the examination, 
which was held after supper at the hotel ; and a pre-requisite 
of the proceedings an order (by the applicant) of two 
bottles of Madeira, which satisfactorily passed the com- 
mittee's test. Then after young Stevens' assurance that he 
had read Blackstone, Coke upon Littleton, a work on plead- 
ing and Gilbert on Evidence, and that he knew the dis- 
tinction between a contingent remainder and an executory 
devise — and the production of two more bottles of Madeira 
— his certificate was signed — a much more expeditious, and, 
perhaps, more agreeable method of testing professional fit- 
ness than the methods prescribed and ])ursued nowadavs by 
the State Board of Law Examiners. 

The "subsequent proceedings interested" a large con- 
course of persons attending court, and in "the game that 
ensued" of "fip-loo," to which Stevens was then something 
of a stranger, he lost nearly all of the fifty dollars he had 
brought with him. 

*In Scarff's History of Maryland I find the following reference to 
Brigadier General W. 11. Winder. 

"When in 1814 the President secured information from our Min- 
i.ster in Europe that a number of transports were being fitted out in 
England for tlie purpose of taking on board the most effective of Wel- 
lington's veteran regiments and conveying them to the United States, 
the President and Cabinet judged it expedient to create a new military 
district to be composed of parts of Virginia, District of Columbia and 
Maryland. The officer selected to command the new district was 
Brigadier General Wm. H. Winder, lately exchanged and returned from 
Canada, where he had been kept a prisoner after his unlucky capture 
at the Battle of Stony Creek in June, 1813. He immediately accepted 
the command without means and without time to create them ; he 
found the district without magazines of provision or forage; without 
transport, tools or implements, without commissariat or anarter mas- 

The minute of the court next day thus records his 
admission : 

"Upon the application of Stevenson Archer, Esq., for the 
admission of Thaddeus Stevens, Esq., as an attorney of this court 
the said Thaddeus Stevens is admitted as an attorney of this court 
and thereupon takes and signs the several oaths prescribed by lav^r, 
and repeats and sigiis a declaration of his belief in the Christian 

That Stevenson Archer became Chief Judge of that 
same Circuit in 1823, and was subsequently Chief Justice of 
Maryland, and died in 1848. He had a son of the same 
name, who was elected to Congress in the fall of 1866, and 
took his seat on the 4th of March. 1867, When he was 
sworn into the House of Representatives, Mr. Stevens, 
who was then a member, came over and shook hands with 
him, and told him he was attracted by his name and wanted 
to know if he was a son of Judge Archer, of ^vlaryland, 
on whose motion Stevens had been admitted to practice at 
Bel Air. Finding that he was, Mr. Stevens then indulged 
in some reminiscenced connected with his admission to the 
Bar and substantially confirmed this account of it. 

The day after he had qualified as a lawyer in Maryland, 
Mr. Stevens rode from Bel Air to Lancaster, scarcely escap- 
ing drowning while crossing the Susquehanna River at 
McCall's Ferry, took a hasty look at the town, and (for 
some unaccountable reason) quit it for Gettysburg, where 

ter's department, and without a general staff, and without troops. .\ 
requisition was made by the President for 93.500 men. Maryland was 
required to furnish 6,000 and when the state was invaded or menaced 
with invasion, then and not sooner. Winder was authorized to call 
for a part of the quota assigned to Maryland. Winder came to Balti- 
more and immediately proceeded to examine the condition of the dis- 
trict to which he had been assigned." Then follows a list of the places 
visited and the flatos thereof, and also: "Though the flotilla was in 
flames and Winder retreating Ross still doubted whether to proceed and 
attempt tlie capture of Washington." 

General Winder was in active practice in Maryland both before 
and after the time Mr. Stevens was admitted to the Bar. He was 
frequently in Court at Bel .Air, as most of the removed cases from Bal- 
timore were tried in that Court, 

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he started upon a career as a lawyer, without friends, fame, 
family or fortune. 


Tradition, based, however, most likely upon his own 
personal narration, has it that, just when he had begun to 
despair of success, fortuitous employment to defend a notori- 
ous murderer brou.ij^ht him a large fee and great reputation, 
followed by many retainers. Confidence in the entire 
accuracy of all the details of the incident is disturbed by 
the reflection that a $1,500 fee in Adams County, at that 
time, paid to a yet obscure local lawyer, by a murderer, 
whose case never reached the Appellate Court, and who 
was himself hanged, seems somewhat improbable. Certain 
it is, however, that Mr. Stevens, to his death, protested the 
mental irresponsibility of his client and acknowledged this 
case to have been the beginning of his professional fame 
and the basis of his fortune. Thenceforth he leaped to the 
front of the local Bar and to fame. In all the courts of his 
county, especially in the Common Pleas and Quarter Ses- 
sions, he became engaged in the very miscellaneous practice 
which crowds the desk and throngs the office of a busy and 
successful country lawyer. From 182 1 (7 S. & R.) to 1830 
(2 Rawle). he seems to have appeared in every case in 
the Supreme Court from Adams County. Compared with 
the modern volume of business and reports, or the multitude 
and variety of cases from populous counties, this record is 
not. in itself, a very extensive one; but the fact that, out of 
the first ten appeals in which he appeared, he was successful 
in nine — six times, as plaintiff in error, reversing the Court 
below — may help to account for his sudden rise to eminence 
and his lucrative returns in fees. 

The first reported case in which Stevens seems to have 
appeared in the Supreme Court was Butler, et al., vs. Dela- 
plaine (7 S. & R., ;^78). heard at Chambersburg, where the 
court then sat. Tilo^hman bein? Chief Justice. Gibson and 

Duncan the Justices. Oddly enough, he appeared against 
a colored woman claiming freedom for herself, her husband 
and two children. The Adams County Court, on a writ of 
hoininc rvplcgiando, submitted the case to determination by 
a jury, who duly charged, found a verdict against the slaves 
under the following circumstances : 

"Charity Butler was admitted to be the slave of Xorman 
Bruce, an inhabitant of the State of Maryland, and still to con- 
tinue a slave, unless she obtained her freedom by the laws of this 
State; and if she were free, her children after her emancipation 
were likewise free. Norman Bruce, in 1782, was the owner of a 
tract of land in Maryland, stocked with a number of slaves, and 
demised it, with the slaves to cultivate it, to one Cleland. and 
removed to a place seventy miles distant in the same State. 
Shortly after the lease, Cleland entered into a contract with one 
Gilleland, respecting Charity. Gilleland, for her services, was to 
feed and clothe her, until her arrival at si.xteen years of age. Gil- 
leland was an inhabitant of Maryland. A separation took place 
between Gilleland and his wife, and Mrs. Gilleland, being left des- 
titute, was obliged to support herself and an infant child. She 
quitted housekeeping, and went to reside with her mother in the 
house of Mrs. Patterson, who lived in Maryland, near the line 
between that State and Pennsylvania, taking Charity with her. She 
was a seamstress, and occasionly went into Pennsylvania to work, 
taking the child and Charity with her to nurse it. She returned^ 
at intervals, to her mother's in Maryland, which continued her 
domicile. Whether she ever remained with Charity, at any one 
time, for six months, was a fact left to the jury. She returned 
Charity to Xorman Bruce, when she arrived at the age of eleven 
years. Mrs. Gilleland never was an inhabitant of this State, and 
never came into it, with an intention of residing." 

Under the Abolition Act of 1780, and its supplement 
of 1788, a residence in Pennsylvania. f(ir six months, with 
the consent of the owner, would have entitled Charity to her 
freedom, and her children Ix^rn after such residence would 
follow their mother's condition; but if she were a slave by 
being born in Marvland they were slaves also. Mr. Stevens 
successfully contended that a lease of land to cultivate it 
gave the lessee no right to carry away any of the slaves (jut 

of the State, and that, as to the continued residence for six 
months, a slave, who happened to come with his master into 
Pennsylvania on different visits, which may, on adding up 
the time of their duration, exceed six months, could not^ 
therefore, claim freedom. Upon this latter phase of the 
contention, it is not without local and timely interest at this 
particular meeting to quote the language of Mr. Justice 
Duncan in delivering the opinion of the Court : 

"It was well known to the framers of our Acts for the aboli- 
tion of slavery that Southern gentlemen, with their families, were 
in the habit of visiting this State, attended with their domestic 
slaves, either for pleasure, health or business; year after year, 
passing the summer months with us, their continuance scarcely 
ever amounting to six months. If these successive sojournings 
were to be summed up, it would amount to a prohibition — a denial 
of the rights of hospitality. The York and Bedford Springs are 
watering places frequented principally, and in great numbers, by 
families from Maryland and Virginia, attended by their domestic 
slaves. The same families, with the same servants, return in each 
season. The construction contended for by the plaintiffs in error 
would be an exclusion of the citizens of our sister States from 
these fountains of health, unwarranted by any principle of human- 
ity or policy, or the spirit and letter of the law." 

In his Congressional reminiscences of Mr. Stevens the 
late Godlove S. Orth, of Indiana, who was a native of 
Pennsylvania, and spent his hoyhood in this State, narrates 
the following incident of Mr. Stevens' early career at the 
Bar. It has been told elsewhere in somewhat different form 
and may be in the main accurate, though no relator seems to 
have altogether verified it : 

"On one occasion, while journeying to Baltimore for the pur- 
pose of replenishing his law library, he .stopped for the night at a 
hotel in Maryland, kept by a man with whom he was well 
acquainted. Soon after his arrival he discovered quite a commo- 
tion among the servants at the hotel, and a woman in tears 
approached him and implored his assistance to prevent the con- 
templated sale of her husband, who was a slave. On inquiring 
who and where her husband was, she replied, 'Why, Massa Stev- 

ens. he is the hoy who took your horse to the stable." Stevens 
knew the 'hoy,' and at once went to his owner and expostulated 
with him in reference to his sale, and at length offered to pay him 
$150. half the price, if he would restore him to liherty. The land- 
lord was inexorable, and Stevens, knowing the relations between 

the slave and his master, replied, 'Mr. . are you not 

ashamed to sell your own flesh and blood?' This stinging appeal 
only brought forth the response, 'I must have money, and John is 
cheap at $300.' Prompted by his generous nature Stevens pur- 
chased and manumitted 'Jo^"i.' and then retraced his steps to Get- 
tysburg, without completing his journey to Baltimore. At that 
time $300 was a large sum of money for one who had been but a 
few years at the Bar, and he postponed the replenishing of his law 
library to a more convenient season." 


Tliroui^hout the first period of his professional career, 
and wliile he was laying the foundation of a large practice, 
he wisely abstained from activity in party politics, though 
he was a pronounced Federalist. Like many successful law- 
yers in counties where the so-called Pennsylvania-German 
is a large and important element, he gained and kept the 
confidence of a people with whom he seemed to have nothing 
in common. During the next decade, and before his removal 
to Lancaster, his professional work was frequently and 
materially interrupted by bold and aggressive incursions into 
the fields of political strife, by intense advocacy of anti- 
Masonry, radical membership of the General Assembly 
and the Constitutional Convention of 1837, and on the 
Board of Canal Coinmissioners, by his heroic, eloquent and 
effective defense of the common school system and its execu- 
tive patron, who was his dire party foe, and by his inglori- 
ous, if not ludicrous, figure in the bloodless "Buckshot 
War." But his prominence in politics and in official life 
added to, rather than detracted from, his success and emi- 
nence at the Bar. He continued, as an adviser of clients 
and trier of causes, to gather practice and reap fortune, and 
he was tempted to engage largely, and (as often happens 

Mk. Stkvkns at TiiK A(;k ok (x). I'kom a I'ouikaii \:\ I'.kady 

to the business ventures of brilliant lawyers) disastrously 
in manufacturing enterprises and real estate investments. 

From 1830 to 1840 he continued to be engaged on one 
side or the other of all important litigation in Adams 
County, and was often called into neighboring courts. The 
reports of the period tell of his activity and the wide range 
of his practice ; though it was restricted to a rather narrow 
locality, it partook of great variety. The meagre reports of 
the arguments of counsel and the few citations of authorities 
by no means detract from the strength or strenuousness of 
those earlier contentions ; and it is easy to conceive that eject- 
ments for "one hundred and fifty acres of land, with grist 
mill, saw mill, oil mill, and plaster mill erected on it" (Roth 
vs. McClelland, 6 Watts, 68) ; questions of "an estate tail 
in the first taker, or an estate in fee with an executory 
devise over" (Eichelberger vs. Barnitz 9 Watts, 447) ; and 
the disputed freedom or servitude of the son of a manumitted 
female slave (Scott vs. Traugh, 15 Sergeant & Rawle, 17), 
were just as warmly contested and as learnedly disposed 
of as the more complex and profound questions which now 
vex Bench and Bar — and even bewilder the "many-sided" 


Though I am warned by the limitations on both my 
time and my topic not to refer to Mr. Stevens' political 
career, it may not be altogether a transgression to note, 
as part of his work as a lawyer, that he was a member from 
Adams County of the so-called "Reform" Convention of 
1837, to revise the Constitution of Pennsylvania. The 
many volumes which contain the stormy debates and exhibit 
the partisan virulence of that convocation teem with illus- 
trations of his biting personalities and caustic wit. Politics, 
especially on the anti-Democratic side of pending contro- 
versies, was in a somewhat disorganized condition, and 
Stevens was something of a free lance — being not entirely 


satisfied with the Whig leadershii^ — nor it with him. With 
characteristic consistency, that in a body to reform the 
organic law of the Commonwealth mounted almost to 
offensive obduracy, he battled against recognition of any 
race or color distinction; and a generation before he came 
to select a site for his grave or to write his own memorable 
epitaph, he refused to affix his name to the document pro- 
mulgated as the new Constitution, because it restricted 
suffrage to "white" males. 

Nor can I forbear, in this presence — so much enriched 
a few years ago by Mr. Ashhurst's scholarly and valuable 
memorial of the late William M. Meredith — to cite a passage 
at arms in that convention which may well serve to "point 
a- moral" to those w^ho constantly bewail the degeneracy of 
modern manners and who fancy that the attitude of the 
old school lawyers and politicians toward each other was 
always so dignified and unruffled. It happened that Mr. 
Stevens (who, in this instance, at least, had absorbed Jeffer- 
son's sentiment that cities were "sores of the body politic") 
favored a limited legislative representation in Philadelphia 
— just as a later convention actually engrafted upon the 
fundamental law a restriction in senatorial representation, 
which a most thoroughly regenerated executive and legisla- 
ture have both found an insurmountable obstacle to the con- 
stitutional enforcement of the Constitution. Mr. Meredith, 
resenting the bucolic reflection upon urban rights, spoke of 
Stevens as the "Great Unchained of Adams," and called him 
even worse names; whereupon — imagine the feelings of a 
polite Philadclphian — the artillery of Gettysburg thus blazed 
forth : 

"The extraordinary course of the gentleman from Philadel- 
phia has astonished me. During the greater part of his concerted 
personal tirade I was at a loss to know what course had driven 
him beside himself. I could not imagine on what boiling cauldron 
he had been sitting to make him foam with ajl the fury of a wizard 
who had been concocting poison from bitter herbs. But when he 
came to mention Masonry, I saw the cause of his grief and malice. 

1 1 

He unfortunately is a votary and tool of tlie 'handmaid.' and feels 
and resents the injury she has sustained. I have often before 
endured such assaults from her subjects. But no personal abuse, 
however foul or ungentlcmanly, shall betray me into passion, or 
make me forget the command of my temper, or induce me to reply 
in a similar strain. I will not degrade myself to the level of a 
blackguard to imitate any man, however respectable. The gentle- 
man, among other flattery, has intimated that I have venom with- 
out fangs. Sir, I needed not that gentleman's admonitions to 
remind me of my weakness. But I hardly need fangs, for I never 
make ofifensive personal assaults; however, I may, sometimes, in 
my own defense, turn my fangless jaws upon my assailants with 
such grip as I may. But it is well that with such great strength 
that gentleman has so little venom. I have little to boast of, 
either in matter or manners, but rustic and rude as is my education, 
destitute as I am of the polished manners and city politeness of 
that gentleman, I have a sufiiciently strong native sense of decency 
not to answer arguments by low, gross, personal abuse. I sus- 
tained propositions which I deemed beneficial to the whole State. 
Nor will I be driven from my course by the gentleman from the 
city or the one from tl^e county of Philadelphia. I shall fearlessly 
discharge my duty, however low, ungentlcmanly and indecent per- 
sonal abuse may be heaped upon me by malignant wise men or 
gilded fools." 

It was possibly clue as much to vsbat his most admiring- 
biographer calls his "total want of creative power" as to 
his partisan and personal antagonisms that Stevens' influ- 
ence was very light in a convention composed largely of 
lawyers and assembled to make laws ; but he was no incon- 
spicuous figure in a body which embraced in its membership 
beside Mr. Meredith, such distinguished and able men as 
Daniel Agnew, Wm. Darlington, S. A. Purviance, James 
Pollock, George W. Woodward, John Sergeant, Joseph 
R. Chandler, Joseph Hopkinson. Charles Chauncey, Thomas 
Earle, Charles J. Ingersoll, James M. Porter and Walter 

Thirty years later, when Mr. Stevens died, one of this 
distinguished galaxy, George W. Woodward, was his col- 
league in the Federal House of Representatives. He had 


l^een Justice and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of 
Pennsylvania, and knew the lawyers of the Commonwealth 
for a full generation. He had no political sympathy with 
Mr. Stevens and deplored "the final influence of his great 
talents;" but he "knew much of him as a lawyer," and when, 
after his death, the memorial addresses in the House were 
made, Judge Woodward said of him: 

"As a lawyer Mr. Stevens was bold, honorable, and candid, 
clear in statement, brief in argument, and always deferential to 
the Bench. He was not copious in his citation of adjudged cases. 
I think he relied more upon the reasons, than upon the authori- 
ties of the law. Indeed, his tastes inclined him rather to the study 
of polite literature than of the black letter. He loved Pope's 
'Essay on Man' more than 'Siderfin's Reports.' Yet he betrayed 
no defect of preparation at the Bar. He always came with a keen 
discernment of the strong points of his case, and he spoke to them 
directly, concisely, and with good effect. His humor was irrepres- 
sible and trenchant; sometimes it cut like a Damascus blade. He 
was a lucky lawyer who would go through an argument with Mr. 
Stevens without being laughed at for something. Mr. Stevens' 
legal sagacity was exhibited here, in the presence of all of us, 
when he suggested the eleventh article of impeachment, which 
came nearer costing the President his official life than all the 
other articles together." 

It certainly requires no apology — and scarcely an 
explanation — ior any man's removal from anywhere to Lan- 
caster, even seventy years ago. As a part of the "history 
of the case," it may, however, be fitly stated that Mr. 
Stevens, born to poverty, had, in early youth, learned to 
know the value and to keenly appreciate the power of money, 
and he never forgot his lesson. It is much less discreditable 
that many other things said about him, that he had, in a 
large degree, the spirit of the gambler ; and it is surely to 
his credit that, though he may have played high and, at 
times, even recklessly, he always "played fair," and never 
indulged in what has come to be called "a tight game." 
Personaliv. lie was o])en-han(led and generous, and paid his 
legal and nmral debts to the last farthing. 


Furnaces and farms, even in Adams County, are fine 
things for a lawyer to own, when he does not have to prac- 
tice law to keep the fires burning or the plough moving in 
the furrow ; but there are — or, at least, there used to be, 
times of agricultural depression and industrial stagnation 
when, like the luckless Jerseyman in Mosquito County, 
the more one owns, the po(jrer he is- Between ventures in 
business and expenses in politics — before the days when 
campaign disbursements are rigidly filed in verified public 
statements — Mr Stevens' debts approximated the then 
enormous sum of nearly a quarter million dollars, and he 
was "land poor." He came to Lancaster mainly to better 
his personal fortunes and to extend his practice, but not 
without regard to enlarged political possibilities. He found 
himself at a Bar of able, brilliant and successful lawyers. 
There was no particular warmth of greeting toward him, 
neither did he ever get — nor apparently seek — generous 
social welcome : the dominant elements in his own political 
party were altogether too conservative to invite him to its 
leadership ; and there, as in the county of his first "home-at- 
law," he bided his time to grasp political control. Though 
he \\as not personally well known to the general public in 
Lancaster County, his political fame had preceded him, and 
business naturally came without special contrivance. Like 
many a less famous lawyer, he did not hesitate to first break 
a lance in the Quarter Sessions, and his volunteer defense of 
.a negro ruffian was so spirited as to widely advertise the 
newcomer. \\'ithin six months, he was recognized as a 
leader, and his place in the foremost rank remained undis- 
puted as long as he was in active practice. L'ntil his death, 
he retained property interests in Adams and Franklin Coun- 
ties, and had a large clientage there as long as he practised. 
The reports from 1842 (3 A\'. &: S.) to 1858 (30 Penna. 
State) teem with his appearances in the Appellate Court; but 


the wealth of his professional labors lay in the varied mis- 
cellaneous practice of a populous and rich agricultural 
county, inhabited by people who not only "know their 
rights," but who — may the Lord long bless them — are will- 
ing to pay lawyers to assert and defend them.* 

iVmong his more distinguished contemporaries at the 
Lancaster Bar were Attorneys General Ellmaker, Champ- 
neys and Franklin; Judge Ellis Lewis, later of the Supreme 
Court,, who became Judge of the local court soon after 
Stevens came to Lancaster; W. B. Fordney and Reah 
Frazer, local "sons of thunder;" Samuel Parke, whose 
ingenious special pleading was Stevens' special aversion; 
Isaac E. Hiester, who beat Stevens for Congress in 1852, 
and ujjon whom Stevens revenged himself in 1854 by beating 
him with ex-SherifT Roberts ; the meteor of the Bar, "Wash" 
Barton, and the brilliant John R. Montgomery, who sur- 
vives in tradition as the star of first magnitude in our local 
constellation; A. Herr Smith, who became one of Mr. 
Stevens' successors in Congress and serxed there more years 
continuously than the "old Commoner"' himself ; Judge D. 
W. Patterson, Judge John B. Livingston, who studied under 
Stevens, and Hugh AI. North, who, full <if years and honors, 
vet connects us with what at least is secure — a glorious past. 

Although, as previ(Uisly noted, he was not welcomed to 
the Lancaster Bar, and his invasion of it was regarded 
jealously by most of its members, he was especially antago- 

* I found among my audience, when tliis address was made, 
many Pennsylvania lawyers quite skeptical as to the reported pro- 
fessional incomes at the Lancaster during: the first half of the 
Nineteenth Century. Several Philadclphians especially scouted the 
idea that Mr. Ruchanan, "or any other man." within six years after 
his admission to the Bar. earned and received eight thousand dol- 
lars per year in this "'country town." The unerring accuracy of 
Mr. Buchanan's biographer, the late George Ticknor Curtis, and 
.Mr. R.'s own characteristic precision and integrity arc all-sufficient 
guarantees of the exact truth of their statements (Curtis' Life of 
James Ruchanan, Vol. L p. 15) that from 1818 to 1823, inclusive. 
Buchanan averaged over $6,500 per year. I am satisfied this was 
by no means ihe highest earning at the Bar of that period. Mr. 
Buchanan's preceptor James M. Hopkins, easily doubled it; and 
doubtless Mr. Stevens, at a later day, averaged very much more. 

Mu. SlKVKNS AT TllK AciK Ol" 64 


nized at the outset by Benjamin Champneys — later Attorney 
General under Governor Shunk — an active and pugnacious, 
but withal learned lawyer. The traditions of the local 
Bar are replete with stories of their collisions. Stevens was 
w^ont to sneer at Champneys' copious citations of English 
authorities, and sometimes, it is to be feared, displayed the 
character of the demagogue in court. When Champneys 
blustered, however, Stevens was cool and sarcastic. On one 
occasion when his antagonist "rode the whirlwind," Mr. 
Stevens slyly expressed the hope that the jury would "not 
be taken by storm" — "nor by strategy," hissed Champneys, 
dreading the effect of his opponent's sarcasm. When a rail- 
road attorney vigorously objected to Stevens "leading" one 
of the witnesses on the other side, Stevens raised a laugh 
among the jurymen by observing "he looked so young and 
innocent I felt it my duty to lead him." When in an arbi- 
tration at a tavern his antagonist hurled an inkstand at him ; 
Stevens dodged it and dryly said : "You don't seem compe- 
tent to put ink to better use." In his defense of a young man 
charged with that odious crime which south of Mason and 
Dixon line is regarded as no less horrible than murder, Mr. 
Stevens actually illustrated the trite Elizaljethan story with 
sword and scabbard, and acquitted the defendant. 


That Stevens was not unwilling, at times, to risk the 
reproach supposed to attach to a lawyer who presents his own 
cause, appears from a number of reported cases to which he 
himself was a i)arty. Adjoining his furnace and timber 
lands to which, after his native county in Vermont, he gave 
the name "Caledonia," were the estates of a Hughes family, 
rival iron masters of that day. As far back as 3 Watts and 
Sergeant. 465. heard at Harrisburg in May, 1842. in an 
action of trespass qiiarc clauscm f regit, Stevens had won his 
title to the disputed locus in quo "on the headwaters of the 


Conucucheague in the South Aluuntain." Years alterward 
the strife was renewed in Stevens vs. Hughes (31 Pa., 331), 
where he sharply reversed the lower court's binding instruc- 
tions against him and secured from Justice Strong the asser- 
tion of the principle that "one judgment upon the title to 
real estate in an action of trespass is so conclusive as to 
preclude the same parties or their privies from afterward 
controverting it." 

On the new trial Stevens recovered $500 damages. He 
had beeir indignant at his summary treatment by the Court 
on the first hearing, but was now quite as much astounded 
when, in jocose mind, lie moved the Court to assess treble 
damage, to have the Court promptly raise the verdict to 
$1,500 and enter judgment lor that amount. An appeal 
being taken Colonel ]\lcClure (who was of counsel for rec- 
ord and is my authority for the statement) scarcely had the 
hardihood to print a paper book in defense of the judgment, 
and Stevens, who, after dodging all other resix)nsibility for 
the appeal, had agreed to argue it, disapjjeared at the critical 
moment. His associate promptly lost the case, and, when 
Stevens himself re-appeared and learned the outcome, he 
grimly said he had expected it, he "knew it all the time," 
but he wanted the Supreme Court also to see and know 
"what an utter d — d fool the Judge below really was." 

H the somewhat apocryphal story — as related of him — 
is true that, on one occasion, he made a rude demonstration 
in court and the presiding Judge asked if he meant to show 
his contempt of the court, whereupon Stevens retorted : 
"No. T am trying to conceal it" — it must have happened in 
Franklin County. The Lancaster Courts have never feared 
to punish offenders contemptuous of their dignity. 

Tn an earlier case, Dobbins I's. Stevens (17 S. & R., 
14 j. 1 827, Mr. Stevens successfully defended his conduct 
in purchasing a property at Sheriff's sale, upon the title to 
which he had given an opinion that was claimed to have 
deterred purchasers. The court below said he had com- 


niitted a "legal fraud," but Chief Justice Gibson set him 
right, ilis uppuiieiits, however, at tlic liar and in ^xjlitics 
were wont to remind him of the case; and "Dobbins, Dob- 
l>ins" was frequently fairly roared at him. Dobbins was 
an Adams County lawyer who died in the almshouse.* 

Besides land-title and water-right cases, in which he 
was eminently successful, notable litigation like the case of 
Commonwealth vs. Canal Commissioners (5 W. & S., 388), 
in which he was associated with Mr. Meredith; Stormfeltz 
t'^. Manor Turnpike Road (13 Pa., 555); Commonwealth 
vs. Orestes Collins (8 Watts, 331), involving the judicial 
tenure of a Lancaster County Judge under the Constitution 
of 1838; the perennially interesting Coleman vs. Grubb (23 
Pa., 394) — Mr. Stevens was very frequently employed in 
cases of contested wills and especially delighted in that sort 
(jf fray. One of these which excited great popular interest 
and intense local feeling was the Stevenson case (33 Pa., 
496), in which the decedent left an estate to strangers to his 
l)lood. Mr. Stevens lost it below — as most lawyers will lose 
such a case when left to a jury of the vicinage — but the trial 
Judge went so far as to say, in substance, that, for a testator 
to be competent, he must know who were the natural objects 
of his bounty, and how his estate was to be distributed 
"among them ;" to w'hich the dictum of Justice Woodward 
aptly replies that "a man without parents, wife or children, 
can scarcely be said to have natural objects of his bounty." 
After reversal the case was settled. 


One of the notable cases outside of Lancaster County 
in which he w^as engaged while at the Lancaster Bar was 
that of Specht vs. The Commonwealth (8 Pa., 312), involv- 
ing the right of the Seventh Day Baptists to engage in 
worldly employment on Sunday, in accordance with their 
conscientious belief that the seventh dav of the week was the 

* See also Miles vs. Stevens, 3 Pa., 21. 


true Sabbath of the Lord. The report of the case presents 
Mr. Stevens' argument at exceptional length and is illus- 
trative of his scholarship and legal learning. He recognized 
that the question at issue had been decided against him in 
Commonwealth z'S. Wolf (3 S. 6c K., 48 j, in which 1 ilgh- 
man, C. J., being absent, Yeates, J., rendered the opinion, 
Gibson concurring, and it was held that "persons professing 
the Jewish religion and others who keep the seventh day as 
their Sabbath are liable to the penalties imposed by the law 
for this offense." But he boldly grappled with "stare 
decisis" and argued that the question should be re-opened 
and the constitutionality of the Act of 1794 be re-consideredj 
because the former opinion had been rendered "by two 
Judges, one of whom was just closing a long life of useful- 
ness and was then of great age ; the other was just entering 
upon his judicial career." Questions, he contended, of such 
'.'importance to the happiness of man" had been frequently 
re-considered by the court, and he cited significant prece- 
dents. He derided the doctrine that "the Christian religion 
is a part of the common law," and declared that this doctrine 
had been "promulgated in the worst times and by the worst 
men of a government that avowedly united church and 
state ; in times when men were sent to the block or the stake 
on any frivolous charge of heresy." Of course the judg- 
ment of the court was adverse to his contention, but his 
argument is a most readable and interesting one. 


Like a large proportion of leading lawyers in the 
interior of the State, Stevens seldom appeared in tiie Fed- 
eral Courts. It is not likely he was ever admitted to the 
Supreme Court of the United States ; and, with all his large 
practice and professional activity for forty years, he cannot 
be said to have linked his name with any great case or legal 
principle, to have aided the development of jurisprudence, 
or to have made material contribution to the literature of 
the law. 

Mk. Si kvkns a r i iiK Acii". oi" 70 


In one branch of practice, happily now forever extinct, 
he attained unique distinction. It was altogether to have 
been expected that, in cases arising under the fugitive slave 
law, so conspicuous a political advocate of the free-soil 
doctrine W(.»uld find and even seek frequent and most gen- 
erally uiu-e(|uitc(l employment in the defense of the fugitive 
bondmen. It was not an uncommon thing for him, in habeas 
corpus hearings, and before Magistrates and Commissioners 
asked to detain or release alleged slaves, to make most 
extended, brilliant and effective speeches. These were 
eagerly awaited and listened to. When, too, as was fre- 
quently the case with the prominent Lancaster lawyers of 
his period, he and they visited the village taverns to try their 
law suits before arbitrators, he was greeted by troops of 
partisan admirers. These "halcyon and vociferous" occa- 
sions — be it noted in passing memory of the older and wiser 
Bar — were generally graced with the cheerful presence of 
that "old Madeira" for which Lancaster was famous (now, 
alas! lamentably scarce), and the price of several bottles was 
frequently added to the "docket costs." Physical encounters 
between opposing counsel were not unheard of, and Mr. 
Stevens' sometimes too loosely-fitting wig, which covered 
an entirely hairless head, tradition has it, was at times dis- 
placed in the collision. He himself scarcely ever indulged in 
ardent spirits ; but, though of deformed foot, he was an 
athlete and a lover of the chase. 

In what is said to have been the first suit in Pennsyl- 
vania under the fugitive Slave Act, a Cumberland County 
man named Kauffman was indicted and suit was brought 
against him for the full value of a lot of slaves to whom his 
family had given food and shelter without his knowledge. 
The great public and political importance attached to the 
princi])le involved made the case a celebrated one. It was 
tried in the Federal Court at Philadeljihia, Stevens for the 
defense. A bitter and lenghty legal fight ensued, and, after 
long delay, the case went to the jury on the facts. It may he 


presumed the Government had the better of it, but Stevens 
excelled in the valuable professional gift of selecting a jury 
with excellent judgment; and a prominent citizen of his own 
county and a ix)litical sympathizer was on the jury. He 
kei)t his fellows out for six weeks and the defendant was 
accpiitted. By a singular co-incidence, the present suc- 
cessor of Mr. Stevens, representing Lancaster County in the 
Federal House of Representatives, is the son of his efficient 
friend on that jury. 


Of all the cases of this character, however, in which he 
was engaged as counsel, none was so sensational and dra- 
matic as the trial for treason of some of the persons engaged 
in what has passed into history as "The Christiana Riot." 
On the nth of September, 1851. near the village of Christ- 
iana, in Lancaster County, on the border of Chester, and 
about ten miles above the Maryland line, Edward Gorsuch, 
of Baltimore County, Md., accompanied by deputies mar- 
shal and slave catchers, sought to arrest his escaped slave, 
who was hidden and protected in the house of a free colored 
man named William Parker. The cottage, which became 
the centre of a fierce battle and witnessed the first bloodshed 
in resistance to the fugitive slave law* was located in a 
valley where nearly every house of its Quaker residents 
was a station on the famous "underground railroad." It 
was not an uncommon thing for the residents of the neigh- 
borhood to speed fugitives on the way which lead to the 

* With cliaractcristic literary and historical thrift, that most accur- 
ate, genial and liljeral of New England writers, the accomplished Col. 
Thomas Wcntworth Higginson, in his "Cheerful Yesterdays," pub- 
lished in The Atlantic Monthly (and wisely republished in permanent 
t)ook form. 1899), fell into the easy error of recording that the death of 
a United States marshal's deputy, named Ratchelder, in one of the 
Faneuil Hall anti-slavery riots in 1854 was the "first drop of blood 
actually shed" in resistance to or enforcement of the Fugitive .Slave 
Law. Unwilling to have the history of Pennsylvania fiuever written — 
or unwritten— by New Englanders, I challenged the dislinguishecl his- 
torian's accmacy and called liis attention to the "Christiana riot." In 
reply I had the following letter: 


blazing North star of freedom; nor was it an unknown 
incident in that locality that, when the disappointed slave 
holder failed to find his lost property, he could enlist the ser- 
vices of those known as kidnappers to replace the fugitive 
with a free negro. These social and political conditions 
were well calcinated to promote angry collisions between 
those who took upon themselves the official responsibility 
of enforcing an odious law, and earnest abolitionists who 
stoutly believed in the higher law of freedom for men of 
all race and color. 

There had been a gathering of negroes at Parker's 
house the night before the arrival of the slave catchers, 
and the blowing of a horn soon collected a motley crowd of 
blacks, with a sprinkling of whites, armed with axes, hoes, 
pitch-forks and corn-cutters. In the onset upon the house 
Gorsuch was killed by a sh(jt from a gun, presumably in the 
hand of his own slave, and his son was seriously wounded 
and the posse put to flight. Conspicuous among those who 
assembled at the scene — and who, if they did not give active 
aid to the infuriated negroes, at least refused to assist the 
officers in executing their writs — were Castner Hanway and 
Elijah Lewis, prominent citizens of the neighborhood, of 
pronounced and well known abolition sentiments and sym- 
pathies. The death of Gorsuch and the armed resistance 
to the enforcement of the law produced a flame of excite- 
ment throughout the country, only equaled in its intensity 
by the events of the John Brown raid nearly ten years 

Glimpsewood, Dublin, N. H., Sept.. 3, 1899. 
Dear Sir: 

Thank you for your note, calling attention to an undoubted error 
in my "Cheerful Yesterdays." What I must have meant to say was that 
the killing of Batcheldcr was the first shedding of official blood so to 
speak, i. e. that of a United States officer. As I remember, the persons 
killed at Christiana were the slaveholder himself & his son, which put 
the matter more on the basis of self-defense as between claimant & 
slave ; whereas the death of Ratchelder was that of an United States 
officer. I have not access to books here, but on my return to Cam- 
bridge, will make the needed correction in the plates of "Cheerful Yes- 

\'ery truly yours, 



later. This is not the occasion to exploit the far-reaching 
consequences of the event, nor can we at this time calmly 
measure the confidence with which it was popularly asserted 
the offense committed on the peaceful soil of Lancaster 
County rose to the dignity of treason, by making war 
against the United States in resisting by force and arms the 
execution of the Fugitive Slave Law, and for obstructing 
the United States Marshal in the execution of due process. 

Wholesale arrests followed, including Hanway and 
Lewis, and more than a score of negroes. At the prelimi- 
nary hearing, in the City of Lancaster, Stevens outlined the 
testimony which the defense would produce, and, while he 
admitted the crime of murder had been committed, and was 
deplored by all the citizens of the county, and promised 
that the perpetrators, when ascertained and secured, would 
receive due punishment, he denounced, with characteristic 
savagery, and invective, the testimony of the deputy marshal, 
and pictured, with vivid power, the provocation which the 
people of the neighborhood had to resentment and excite- 
ment by frequent outrages perpetrated upon innocent free- 
men by slave catchers from outside the State, and from 
desperate kidnappers who plied their nefarious trade at 

On the trial in the United States Circuit Court in 
November, upon the charge of treason. Judges Grier and 
Kane sitting, it required a week to select a jury, and. by 
another strange coincidence, its foreman was a Lancaster 
Countian, a conservative Whig, who lived to be a candidate 
for Congress against Stevens and one of the most for- 
midable opponents he ever encountered. A mere outline 
of the exciting features of that trial would far outrun the 
limits of this ];aper and of your patience. For pruilential 
moti\es. the leading part of the defense was assigned to 
John M. Read, then a DeuKxrrat with free soil inclinations, 
and Mr. Stevens even refrained from addressing the jury. 
But he was the central figure and dominating spirit of the 

Mr. Stevens at the A(;e ok 'J2 


scene, which was rendered especially picturesque by the 
two dozen accused colored men sitting in a row, all simi- 
larly attired, w^earing around their necks red, white and 
blue scarfs, with Lucretia Mott sitting at their head, calmly 
knitting, the frightened negroes half hopefully regarding 
her sidewise as their guardian angel, and the tall, stern 
figure of Stevens as their mighty Moses. It will be remem- 
bered that James R. Ludlow, afterwards the distinguished 
Judge, assisted U. S. Attorney Ashmead in the prosecution ; 
and it will never be forgotten with what vigor and venom 
the learned and ordinarily temperate Judge Grier, in his 
shrill, piping voice, hurled his anathemas at the "male and 
female vagrant lecturers" of the abolition cause, "infuriated 
fanatics and unprincipled demagogues" w^ho had counseled 
"bloody resistance to the laws of the land," the necessary 
development of whose principles and the natural fruitage 
of whose seed, he declared, was this murderous tragedy. 

None the less, his judicial temper was so far restored 
that he felt constrained to admit the accused had not been 
shown to have been involved in a transaction w^hich "rose 
to the dignity of treason or a levying of war." The prison- 
ers were acquitted. 

It is by no means certain, however, that Mr. Stevens' 
regard was not such as to lead him to deprecate lawlessness, 
even in advancement of his pronounced abolition ideas. No 
less accurate a chronicler than Judge Penrose relates that 
he was in Lancaster and in Stevens' office when the news 
came of John Brown's raid and capture. Some one said : 
"Why, Mr. Stevens, they'll hang that man ;" to which he 
replied. "Damn him, he ought to be hung." It may be, how- 
ever, that Mr. Stevens despised the blunder more than he 
hated the crime. 


For the purposes of this study or sketch, Mr. Stevens 
must be regarded simply as a skillful, brilliant and success- 

fill trial lawyer. To this task he Ijrought undoubtedly great 
natural (qualities, a liberal education and arduous special 
preparation. These were supplemented by a broad and inti- 
mate knowledge of men, gained in the varied fields of busi- 
ness, legal and political activity ; by unbounded physical cour- 
age, and moral fearlessness to even do the wrong. A rare 
quality of wit and- sarcasm, which he always knew^ how to 
use effectively and without abuse; perfect control of his tem- 
per, joined with unusual power of invective ; readiness of 
expression, without any tendency toward mere "sound and 
fury"' or rhetorical waste of vigor — were other distinguish- 
ing marks of his style. His vernacular was not, however, 
entirely destitute of picturesque forms of speech. On one 
occasion in the Common Pleas, w hen he assailed one whom 
he conceived had acquired lands by fraud, and the defendant 
was not of an altogether ])repossessing countenance. Stevens 
turned to him savagely, in the sight and hearing of the jury, 
and said : "The Almighty makes few mistakes. Look at 
that face ! \Miat did He ever fashion it for, save to be 
nailed at the masthead of a pirate ship to ride down unfor- 
tunate debtors sailing on the waves of commerce?" 

If he was weakened by a lack of faith in others, he 
atoned for it, in part, by supreme confidence in himself; if 
he was naturally sympathetic, he did not permit this infirm- 
ity to mislead him from a sternness which he could readily 
harden into cruelty. To a lawyer friend, from whom he had 
a right to expect something better, but who did him a nasty 
trick, and not in a nice way, he once said : "You must be 
a bastard. f(ir T knew your mother's husband, and he was a 
gentleman and an honest man." To a constituent who 
listened with intense interest to Webster's great Seventh of 
March sj^eech, a plea for the Union, with or without slavery, 
but always for the Union, and wh<i spoke to Stevens in 
admiration of the speech, came the crushing reply, "As I 
heard it. T could have cut his damned heart out." 

And vet, he had a milder mood. When a committee of 


somewhat perturbed preachers called upon him for advice 
and expressed some apprehension lest they could not afford 
to pay his fee, he cheerfully assured them that he often 
defended clergymen for all kinds of misdemeanors and never 
charged them a cent. Neither in life nor in death did he 
ever seem to be unmindful of the mother who bore him, or 
of the sacrifices she made to equip him for life's battle ; but 
if he ever spoke other words in defense or exaltation of 
womanhood, the whisper died in the air. He was disgusted 
at the nomenclature adopted in the creation of some new dis- 
tricts in Lancaster County, and when one was called "Eliza- 
beth," he declared he could never remember "townships 
named after women." His most fulsome biographer says he 
had no conception of beauty as expressed in painting, archi- 
tecture or sculpture, and he "was not a man of taste." He 
read history and the classics, not novels nor poetry. 

It will be remembered that on the memorable occasion 
which called forth Judge Black's superb eulogy on Gibson, 
at the May term of the Supreme Court, Harrisburg, May 9, 
1853, the formal announcement of the ex-Chief Justice's 
death was made by Stevens; and those who read the pro- 
ceedings as reported at the beginning of 6 Harris — and none 
can afford not to read them — will not fail to be impressed 
with the stately severity of Mr. Stevens' literary style and 
his high appreciation of a great jurist; however much, 
as a politician, he may have ignored the true principle of 
selecting the judiciary, as a lawyer he professed the loftiest 

Although Mr. Stevens had a great deal of kindness of 
heart and never seemed to be happier than when doing acts 
of charity to the deserving or extending relief to the unfor- 
tunate, or in ministering to the crippled and deformed, his 
tendency toward sarcasm and his disposition to say "smart 
things," often made him regardless of the feelings of those 
with whom he came into contact — especially if they were per- 
sons of power and influence. It is related that when Chief 


Justice Thompson once told him of the infinite pains which 
he took in the preparation of his judicial opinions — often 
writing them over and over before he got them into a shape 
to satisfy himself — Air. Stevens replied : "Yes, and then 
you don't get them in shape to satisfy the profession." 

Once in the Lancaster County Oyer and Terminer, 
when the Court assigned a rather inferior member of the 
Bar to defend two notorious negro murderers, Stevens 

remarked, "The Court appointed H to defend them, so 

that there would be no doubt of their conviction." 

It is perhaps a trite — though very characteristic — story 
that once when a lady admirer rather effusively addressed 
him as the "Apostle of Freedom" and begged a lock of his 
hair, he gallantly took ofif his wig and, laying it before her, 
invited her to "help herself." 


As to what were his professional standards, his ethical 
ideas or religious beliefs, there is wide room for diver- 
gence of opinion. He had no social aspirations nor elevated 
domestic tastes. He viewed and even joined in football 
with the judicial office without concern ; and it was a matter 
of no particular importance to him if every man in public 
life had his price — except himself. He attracted many law 
students, and when he was asked for terms, he replied : 
"Two hundred dollars. Some pay; some don't," — a custom 
at our local Bar which, by the way, is occasionally still hon- 
ored in the observance. It is not at all certain that his 
influence on those closely associated with him was not more 
enduring for ill than for good. He was a student of the 
Scriptures, but rather for their historical and literary value 
than as a lamp to his pathway. 

As a lawyer, Judge Black once said of him to Mr. 
Justice Brown, "When he died he was unequalled in this 
country as a lawyer. He sa'd the smartest things ever said. 

Mk. StKVKNS at TIIK AcK ()|- j-^ 


But his mind, as far as his sense of his obligation to God 
was concerned, was a howling wilderness." 

Mr. Blaine, who had reversed Stevens' order of migra- 
tion, and between whom and Stevens no love was lost — 
they were quite different types — sums up some of his char- 
acteristics as a parliamentary figure which were inseparable 
from his quality as a lawyer. He characterizes him as a 
natural leader, who assumed that place by common consent, 
"able, trained and fearless," "unscrupulous in his political 
methods," "learned in the law," and holding for a third 
of a century high rank at the Bar — listen gratefully, 
brethren, to this even from an adopted New Englander — 
"of a State distinguished for great lawyers." He was 
taciturn, even at times misanthropic; "a brilliant talker, 
he did not relish idle and aimless conversation;" "he was 
much given to reading, study and reflection, and to 
the retirement which enables him to gratify these tastes;" 
like Emerson, he "loved solitude and knew its uses ;" he 
spoke with ease and readiness, "his style resembling the 
crisp, clear sententiousness of Dean Swift;" his extempore 
sentences bore the test of grammatical aiW rhetorical criti- . 
cism ; he indulged in wit, not in humor ; when his sharp 
sallies set the House in an uproar, his visage was that of 
an undertaker. His memory of facts, dates and figures was 
exact, and his references were to the book, chapter and page. 
"He had the courage to meet any opponent, and was never 
overmatched in any intellectual conflict." Mr. Henry L. 
Dawes, in his Dartmouth College eulogy, accords him like 
high praise. 

Col. A. K. McClure, who was for many years in close 
personal relations with him, and had large opportunities to 
make this contrast, has repeatedly told me substantially what 
he twice comitted to permanent record ; that Stevens was the 
most accomplished all-around lawyer of his day in Penn- 
sylvania; thoroughly grounded in the fundamental prin- 
ciples, and altogether familiar with the decided cases; he 


was most skillful in eliciting testimony from his own wit- 
nesses and adroit in confounding the opposition in cross- 
examination ; he was ingenious and convincing in address- 
ing a jury, and courteous to his opponents, especially if they 
were younger men, and unless they transgressed professional 
urbanity. Summing up his traits as a lawyer, Colonel Mc- 
Clure says : "I have known many of our great lawyers who 
were great advocates, or great in the skillful direction of 
cases; but he is the only man I recall who was eminent in 
all the attributes of a great lawyer." 

No one was better qualified to analyze his character 
and career as a lawyer than his most distinguished student 
and immediate successor, as Representative of Lancaster 
County in Congress, the late Hon. Oliver J. Dickey, him- 
self a leader of the Lancaster Bar in his day. His father 
was a prominent citizen of Beaver County, Pa., whose 
political devotion to Mr, Stevens had much to do with young 
Dickey's coming east to study law with him and locating 
in Lancaster to practice. Li his eulogy of his predecessor 
in Congress, Mr. Dickey pronounced the same high estimate 
upon his ability as a lawyer as those from whom I have 
already quoted ; and he added : 

"No matter with whom associated, he never tried a cause 
save upon his own theory of the case. At nisi priiis he uniformly 
insisted on personally seeing and examining, before they were 
called, the important witnesses on his own side. Generally relying 
upon the strength and presentation of his own case, he seldom 
indulged in extended cross-examination of witnesses, though pos- 
sessing rare ability in that direction. He never consented to be 
concerned or to act as counsel in the prosecution of a capital case, 
not from opposition to the punishment, but because it was repugnant 
to his feelings and that service was the duty of public officers. He 
was as remarkable for his consideration, forbearance, and kind- 
ness when opposed by the young, weak, or (litTulent, as he was for 
the grim jest, haughty sneer, pointed sarcasm, or fierce invective 
launched at one who entered the lists and challenged battle with 
such weapons. He was always willing to give advice and assist- 
ance to the young and inexperienced members of the profession. 


and his large library was ever open for their usci. He had many 
young men read law with him, though he did not care to have 
students. There were, however, two recommendations which 
never failed to procure an entrance into his office: ambition to 
learn, and inability to pay for the privilege." 

The recollections of his few surviving contemporaries 
and the oral traditions of the community concur with the 
recorded impressions of his two local biographers — one, 
Alexander H. Hood, his devoted friend and political ally, 
the other, Alexander Harris, his inveterate antagonist. 
They agree that as a lawyer he showed marvellous early 
training. His power to remember and accurately repeat 
testimony without taking notes was unrivalled. In the 
famous Jackson land title case tried at HoUidaysburg, 
reported in 13 Penn. St. R., 368, which lasted many days, 
Stevens was not observed to have taken a single note; but 
his summing up of the testimony was such a marvel of accu- 
racy and voluminousness that it remains to this day a vivid 
tradition of the Blair County Bar. 

His illustrations were apposite, his speeches were effect- 
ive, never flowery, never tedious; his citations were few, 
but directly to the issue; his attacks were sharp and always 
concentrated on the weak point of his adversary. His hand- 
wTiting was illegible, and he was often unable to read it 
himself — a characteristic of greatness which, I believe, has 
come into modern vogue. 

Intuition, education and experience combined to endow 
him with that most valuable acquirement of a trial lawyer 
— the ability to wisely select a jury. When he could not 
get one to suit him, he would often make zealous effort to 
continue the case. One time, it is related, under such cir- 
cumstances in a case of his own. he found his antagonist 
just as anxious to continue, of w'hich disposition he was 
quite willing to take advantage. The counsel for each, how- 
ever, professed disinclination and insisted on the other pay- 


ing the costs as a condition of the case going over. Stevens, 
apprehensive lest there might be a miscarriage, stepped 
forward and said to his counsel, "Mr. H. and I will settle 
the question of costs between us." and while counsel were 
adjusting the motion Stevens and his antagonist went to 
the nearest tavern and decided the liability for costs of the 
term by a game of "seven-up." 

In his earlier forensic efforts there is not lacking evi- 
dence of classic reading; and his style then had much of the 
florid rhetoric and historical allusion so characteristic of the 
popular oratory of that day. For example, his speech, in 
the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, March lo, 1838, 
in favor of the bill to establish a School of Arts in Philadel- 
phia and to endow the colleges and academies of the Com- 
monwealth," teems wnth references to the commerce of 
"Ancient Tyre or modern Venice." the "Appian ways of 
Rome." "the deserted plains of Palestine." "the eloquent 
example of Troy," "the learning of the Grecian bard," "the 
once proud, populous and powerful capital of Edom," and 
her "rock built ramparts," "the poverty of Sparta," "the 
silken Persian with his heaps of gold," "the victors and vic- 
tories of Marathon and Salamis," "the law giver of Sparta." 
"the mighty captain of Thermopylae," "mighty ocean of 
Pierian waters," etc. Like many others who in later years 
disdain their earlier florid style, Mr. Stevens recalled this 
highly decorated speech with some fondness : for as late 
as 1865 he republished and widely circulated it among his 
local constituents. 

Not the least valuable of the lawyer-like gifts he pos- 
sessed was the faculty of knowing when to quit, and of not 
going on after he was done. I have nested his effective, 
rather than his copious, citation of authorities, and his direct- 
ness rather than tediousness of speech. He was unexcelled 
in the management of witnesses. Tn one exciting trial he 
greatly disconcerted his cliciif by refusing to call his strong- 
est witness. Stevens had just apprehensions that his ultra- 


positiveness would prejudice the jury, and risked the chance 
of dispensing with him — very wisely, as it turned out. 
Unlike many men with ready wit, he never resented and 
always appreciated a keen shaft turned upon himself, and 
some of the old court criers and interpreters tell amusing 
stories of retorts by witnesses under cross-examination 
whom Stevens quickly dropped, joining heartily in the 
laugh evoked at his own expense. He w'as quick to discern 
when he caught a Tartar. 

He once won a close case by making an important wit- 
ness against him, a very plain Amishman, admit on the wit- 
ness stand that he was a "horse-jockey" — a term which he 
used with telling effect upon a jury of farmers. 

In his defense, in the Adams County Court, of Taylor, 
tried for the murder of Bluebaugh, the principal witness for 
the Commonwealth- swore to the declaration, ma'le by the 
accused at the time of the shooting. "By G — d. I have shot 
him." Mr. Stevens succeeded in getting the witness to state 
that the words might have been, "My God, I have shot him," 
with all the force an exclamation of surprise and regret 
would have, in contrast with one of malicious acknowledg- 
ment and satisfaction ; and thus Mr. Stevens acquitted his 


When Mr. Stevens returned from Congress in 1853, 
after two terms of rather conspicuous service, he reasonably 
expected no further official experience. Xot only was rota- 
tion the rule, but he had not yet become a controlling factor 
in local politics. The enlargement of his practice, the restor- 
ation of his fortune and the redemption of his property had 
much to do with his change of purjxDse ; but the organization 
of the Republican party, its aggressive attitude against the 
extension of slavery and the increasing arrogance of the 
South opened the path to his re-election in 1858. That year 
saw his last recorded appearance in the Supreme Court, and 


thereafter his docket shows but desultory attention to the 
business of his office. 

His last notable case in the local court was at the Janu- 
ary Oyer and Terminer of i860, in Lancaster County, when 
he appeared with David Paul Brown, of Philadelphia ; Wil- 
liam Darlington and J. Smith Futhey, of Chester County, 
in the defense of Sylvester McPhillen (so indicted, other- 
wise "McFillen'"), charged wath murder. The case was one 
of the most famous and the trial one of the most exciting 
in the annals of the Lancaster Bar. The parties resided on 
the extreme eastern border of Lancaster County, and the 
homicide occurred along, if not across, the Chester County 
line. McFillen was indicted for the murder of Thomas G. 
Henderson. There was a long standing feud between the 
two families, who represented respectively the old aristo- 
cratic and more pretentious English element of the com- 
munity and the rougher and more popular Irish class. They 
met on August 11, 1859, ^^ ^ "picnic," a semi-public func- 
tion rather of the character of a harvest home. Three Hend- 
erson brothers were there and two of the McFillens, with 
attendant partisan friends. There was a series of alterca- 
tions ; one of the incidents was McFillen hurling a good- 
sized stone, which struck Thomas G. Henderson on the back 
of the head. At first he was not supposed to have been seri- 
ously injured, but he died four days later. 

Each party to the controversy had its adherents, and 
for months preceding the trial there was a rancorous feud, 
which gradually involved almost the entire neighborhood. 
The late Col. Emlen Franklin was District Attorney, but 
the manuscript indictment is in the handwriting of one of 
his colleagues; Hon. Isaac E. Hiester, one of Stevens' 
political antagonists, the late Col. \\'illiam B. Fordney and 
Hon. O. J. Dickey, all eminent lawyers of their day, having 
been specially retained to prosecute the defendant to the 
utmost. The indictment was found at the November Term, 
but there was a plea "against the jurisdiction of the court," 

IOmm ()1- Thauukl's Stevens 
In Shkeinek's Cemetery. Lancastku, Pa. 


it having been contended either that the stone was thrown or 
that its victim was struck on the Chester County side of the 
Hne. The plea was overruled. At that time the new pro- 
visions of the Criminal Code of March 31, i860, providing 
for the trial of offences committed near the boundaries of 
counties, had not yet been adopted. In the report on the 
Penal Code, the new 48th and 49th sections (which provide 
that trial may be had in either county for offences occurring 
within five hundred yards of the inter-county boundary line, 
P. L. i860, p. 427) are recommended as "of real practical 
value" "to obviate the difficulty of proof" which occurs when 
it is doubtful in which county the offence has been actually 

The case came on for trial January 19, i860, but Mr. 
Stevens did not take the leading part, a circumstance which 
was due in some measure to the fact that he was liable to 
be called away from the trial to his Congressional duties in 
Washington. It was also ascribed to the reason that he was 
not accustomed to play the secondary part, even when so 
distinguished a criminal lawyer as David Paul Brown was 
his colleague. Mr. Brown, it will be remembered, was 
almost a fop in dress and manner, and his rotund and pic- 
torial oratory was of a kind with which Mr. Stevens had 
little sympathy. It is related that during the trial he mani- 
fested a certain restiveness not common to him. The number 
of witnesses in attendance on the case was unusually large. 
They were divided into rival bands of rank and rabid 
partisans, who gave noisy vent to their sympathies and met 
in nightly brawls at public places in the city. The trial 
lasted Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Mr. Hiester opened 
for the Commonwealth, but before he had entirely closed 
his argument, Mr. Stevens was granted leave to address the 
jury on behalf of the defense, as he was obliged to leave for 
Washington, his "pair" with an opposition member of the 
House expiring that day. He deplored the rancor which 
had characterized the prosecution, defined the different 


grades of murder under the law, expressed regret that the 
prosecution was pressing for conviction of the higher grade, 
and urged that his client was at most guilty only of involun- 
tary manslaughter. On Sunday the jury attended the Pres- 
byterian Church in the morning, St. James Episcopal 
Church in the afternoon, and heard a temperance service at 
the Moravian Church in the evening. Mr. Hiester concluded 
for the Commonwealth on Monday; the local newspaper 
reports that when he was followed by David Paul Brown, 
for the defense, who spoke nearly all afternoon, Brown's 
remarks "were listened to in deep silence and with such 
intense interest that although the bar was surrounded with 
an audience standing seven or eight deep, and the hall 
crowded to the door, it appeared like a collection of human 
statues." Col. Fordney occupied the evening session wifh 
an address that lasted from half after seven until past ten 
o'clock. After being out two hours, the jury returned with 
a verdict of "not guilty," and such a scene of disorder ensued 
as the Lancaster County court house has probably never wit- 
nessed before or since. The newspaper reports that "for 
a time a stranger might have supposed himself in the hall 
of the House of Representatives at Washington or in a 
court house w^here Sickles was tried and acquitted." The 
court crier stamped his foot and demanded silence, inform- 
ing the crowd that they were "neither in a playhouse not at 
a horse race." The street scenes until daylight were even 
more uproarious and disorderly. McFillen's friends engag- 
ing in a prolonged demonstration, cheering the defendant's 
counsel and the jury, and groaning for the prosecution. Mr. 
Stevens, however, w^as not at home to see or hear the popular 
"vindication" of his last client in the Criminal Courts. 

Years later he rendered a last service to the members 
of his profession by writing his own will, to which circum- 
stance may be due in some part the fact that the contract for 
the orphans' home he founded was let only last month. The 
rapidly succeeding events of the war and his rise to leader- 


ship of his party, through parHamentary control of the popu- 
lar branch of Congress, took him forever from the Bar and 
ended his career as a practising lawyer — with which only 
I have to do now. 

Otherwise it would be interesting, and, perhaps, valuable 
to follow him into the wide arena of national power and poli- 
tics, to weigh his policies and principles, to measure his atti- 
tude toward great questions of government and constitu- 
tional law, of finance, of emancipation and confiscation, of 
reconstruction, executive impeachment and of territorial 
extension, to discriminate how closely he adhered to or how 
far he departed from the law as he viewed it, and to deter- 
mine whether or not, as a statesman, he was inspired by 
mean or noble, selfish or patriotic motives, whether he was 
a violent, malignant, headstrong destructionist, or an ardent 
lover of human liberty, whose hope for and faith in Repub- 
lican institutions made him see with clear vision and hold 
witli tenacious clutch to the higher law of a nation's supreme 
necessity — by w^hich alone she can be saved for the destiny 
whither her people are taking her and for which she was 
outfitted by the God of all nations. 

* (For valuable suggestions and interesting reminiscences embodied 
in the above sketch, I acknowledge my indebtedness to Col. A. K. 
McClure, Hon. Wm. McLean, of Gettysburg; Hon. H. M. North, 
LL.D., and Samuel Evans, Esq., of Columbia; Hon. J. Hay Brown and 
Hon. John Stewart, of the Supreme Court ; Hon. C. B. Penrose, of 
Philadelphia; Simon P. Eby, Esq., of Lancaster; S. A. Williams, Esq., 
of Bel Air, Md., and to the biographies of Stevens thus far published, 
including those of McCall, Callender, Hood and Harris.) 

W. U. H. 



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