Governors of Connecticut

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Roger Sherman Baldwin

From: The Governers of Connecticut
By: Frederick Calvin Norton
Published: 1905


ROGER Sherman Baldwin, one of the most talented men Connecticut has ever produced, was botn in New Haven on January 4, 1793. His father, Simeon Baldwin, was third in line of descent from John Baldwin, one of those Puritans whose names are associated with Davenport, Whitfield and Prudden, the founders of New Haven, Milford and Guilford. His mother was the daughter of Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and a United States senator. On both sides he was descended from the very best New England stock.

In his youth the future governor was distinguished for his accurate scholarship, having read large portions of Virgil before reaching the age of ten.

He entered Yale College in 1807, before he was fourteen years of age, and paid particular attention to rhetoric and elocution. Graduating with high honors in 1811 he was chosen to deliver an oration, and he selected for his subject, “The Genius of a Free Government.”

He commenced the study of law in the office of Seth B. Staples, Esq., but after a year spent in this manner he entered the Litchfield Law School. In that famous institution, where there was at the time several young men of superior ability, Baldwin held a high place, and one of his fellow students, writing to the governor in after years, said: “I think of you still as the head of the Litchfield ‘Law School.” Judge Gould, one of those who conducted the institution, wrote: “No student from our office ever passed a better examination.” Baldwin was admitted to the bar in New Haven in 1814, and at that time “he had developed a mastery of the principles of the law that was considered very remarkable in so young a man.” His great learning, superior knowledge of the law, and elegant diction soon gained for him the prom inence he deserved. Rising rapidly in the profession, he attained rare distinction at the bar and enjoyed a large practice. He was chosen a member of the Common Council of New Haven in 1826, and in 1829 an alderman. In 1837 he was elected a member of the State Senate, where he became an exponent of the Whig party, then ascending into power. It is said by one writer that his great regard for the party extended no further than his regard for its
principles.
Baldwin always had a great regard for the welfare of the colored population, and one of the earliest incidents of his life was his rescuing a slave belonging to Henry Clay.

One of the most famous cases in which Baldwin took part was in 1839, when he defended the “ Amistad Captives.” The Spanish vessel “Amistad” was brought into New London harbor in 1839 by a revenue cutter, having been found drifting along the coast of Long Island, in the possession of a number of Africans. A Spaniard on shipboard said that he with a companion had undertaken to transport a cargo of slaves, recently imported from Africa, from one Cuban harbor to another. in the dead of night, he said, the slaves rose in mutiny, slaughtered his comrade, and spared his life in order that he might navigate the boat. The slaves were taken ashore and cared for, but the Spanish minister immediately made a demand upon our government for restoration of the ship and cargo.

The first court of inquiry by the Federal authorities was held on the “Amistad” in New London harbor. Later the negroes were taken to New Haven and up the canal to Farmington and then to Hartford.

President Van Buren hastened to comply with the request and the case was brought to trial at once. Baldwin became strongly interested in the case and became counsel for the negroes. He carried it through the district and circuit courts of Connecticut, against great odds, up to the Supreme Court of the United States. In that court Baldwin had associated with him the venerable ex-President John Quincy Adams.

The former’s plea for the captives before that body was so profound that it led Chancellor Kent to rate Baldwin “with the leading jurists of the day.” He had the great satisfaction of securing a verdict for the negroes, and they were returned to their native land.

In 1844 Baldwin was elected governor of Connecticut, and again in 1845, serving as chief magistrate with great distinction.

Governor Baldwin was appointed United States senator in 1847 to fill the unexpired term made vacant by the death of Jabez W. Huntington of Norwich. After taking his seat in that body Baldwin became generally recognized as one of its leading members. At the time there were in the Senate some of the ablest men who ever sat within its walls. Among them were Webster, Seward, Clay, Benton and Calhoun. He ranged himself beside Seward and Chase in the arguments over the annexation of Texas. it is said that Governor Baldwin’s speech against the Fugitive Slave Law was generally conceded to be the ablest argument in opposition to the measure deflvered in the Senate.

In the annals of the Senate, Baldwin’s reply to Senator Mason of Virginia, who had cast some aspersions on the policy of Connecticut, “is memorable not less for its admirable spirit than for its use of his extensive historical knowledge as a superior specimcn parliamentary retort.”

The Democratic party was in power in 1851, when his term expired, and he was not re-elected to the Senate. Returning to his law practke in New Haven, his services were in great demand, especially in the United States courts.

Governor Baldwin was strongly urged to accept a position on the bench and a seat in Congress, but he refused both, choosing rather to practice the profession in which he had become so prominent. Governor Baldwin was a supporter of President Lincoln, and one of the five members of the Peace Congress, appointed by Governor Buckingham in 1861. This was about the last public service Baldwin performed, for early in 1863 he began to suffer with a nervous disorder which caused his death on February i9th of that year.

At his funeral an eloquent address was delivered by his pastor, Rev. Samuel W. S. Dutton, D. D., which has been published. A writer in the “Judicial and Civil History of Connecticut” pays this lofty tribute to Governor Baldwin: “ Probably no lawyer ever attained in Connecticut a higher rank at the bar than that which was generally conceded to Governor Baldwin by his professional brethren. He possessed every one of the characteristics and faculties of a great lawyer. In any forum Governor Baldwin would have been regarded, not merely as a skillful practitioner, but as a man entitled to rank among the great lawyers of his day. He possessed a comprehensive and thorough acquaintance with the science of his profession. He understood it in its great doctrines and in its details. In guarding the interest of his clients his watchfulness was incessant. No circumstance which might affect those interests favorably or unfavorably, escaped his notice or failed to receive his full attention. His discourse, whether addressed to the court or jury, was marked by uniform purity and transparency of style. His English was superb. He was always able to say without embarrassment or hesitation precisely what he wished to say, guarding with proper qualifications, exceptions and limitations, when necessary, every sentence and phrase, so that his idea, when expressed, stood forth sharply defined, exactly in the form in which he wished it to appear.”

In an address delivered by the Hon. Henry B. Harrison of New Haven, he referred to Governor Baldwin in the following language: It has been well said that Governor Baldwin was a great lawyer. He was anupright, a just, a conscientious, an honorable man. Governor Baldwin was a true son of Connecticut. His memory deserves all honors from Connecticut, and from every one of her children.”

Governor Baldwin’s son, Simeon Eben Baldwin, born in 1840, is one of the most distinguished lawyers of Connecticut, and of the United States. He has been a prominent railroad attorney, president of the American Bar Association, and Harvard has made him a Doctor of Laws. He is now serving his second term as an associate judge of the Supreme Court of Errors, and is a historical writer of extensive knowledge and great power.

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