Biography of Reuben H. Walworth

D-Descriptive guide of the battlefield of Saratoga



IN THE history and development of the judiciary of the State of New York, Chancellor Walworth (1) stands pre-eminent as an authority in equity law; and by his wisdom and fairness, his profound knowledge, and his force of character, he marks an epoch in the legal history of the State, and is entitled to that distinction which common usage has attached to this term. To praise him, we call him the last of the chancellors, as if, as Plutarch said of another, this Empire State has produced no other great equity jurist since that time. We may affirm this as true, and say, also, that possibly the dignity of the judiciary has suffered some loss in consequence of the absorption of the equity practice into the the courts formerly limited to common and statute law.

The history of the Walworth family is full of interest, on both the paternal and maternal sides. The chancellor's great-grandfather, William Walworth, came from England with Governor Winthrop of Connecticut, at his request, about 1680, to make a model farm and show the colonists English methods. Walworth settled on Fisher's Island, near New London, where he succeeded with the model farm, and had a handsome residence; and, as stated in his will, he had much table silver and other valuables. In the latter part of his life the pirates, then infesting the eastern shore of Long Island, caused so many alarms at Fisher's Island, that Walworth bought farms at Groton and other places in that vicinity, and moved his family to the mainland. He was a descendant of Sir William Walwortb, the Lord Mayor of London who killed Wat Tyler and thereby saved the life of King Richard II. A representation of the dagger with which he struck Wat Tyler appears in the coat-of-arms of the Walworth. family, with the motto, "Strike for the Laws." From a very ancient time a large district in London was named Walworth, and the name still lingers in that region.

The maternal side of the family shows an illustrious line in this country, including a descent from the Winslows and Tracys, and in the Old World a genealogy of twenty-seven generations, carefully traced back to Queen Margaret of Scotland, wife of Malcolm III., and yet further to Queen Clothilde of France.

Reuben Hyde Walworth was born at Bozrah, Conn., October 26, 1788, the third son of Benjamin Walworth. While he was a boy his parents moved to Hoosick, Rensselaer county, N.Y. His father was an officer, with the rank of major, in the Revolutionary war, in Nicoll's regiment, Heath's division. When the young Reuben had finished his studies at home he went to Troy and taught school for a short time, when he entered the law office of John Russell, State's attorney for the northern district, who was said to be the best common law practitioner in the State. William L. Marcy was one of his fellow students. Mr. Russell was impressed with the ability and energy of young Walyvorth, and proposed to introduce him into practice in the northern part of his circuit; thus the young lawyer was led to settle in Plattsburgh. He quickly acquired a good practice there, and soon had occasion to refuse political preferment that would be out of the direct line of his profession; but he accepted an appointment as justice of the peace, and later one as a master in chancery. In 1818 a new law created the office of commissioner to perform certain duties of a judge of the Supreme Court, and he was chosen for the place.

During the war of 1812 he was engaged in the conflict at Plattsburgh, with the rank of major, and acquitted himself with marked courage. During the military occupation of the town he was selected by General Wilkinson to act as judge advocate in a difficult case that arose concerning a British prisoner. After the war Major Walworth was appointed division judge advocate, with the rank of colonel.

In 1821 he consented to run for Congress, and was elected by a large majority. Under amendments made to the constitution of this State in 1821, in each district there were appointed certain judges, who not only presided in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, but they were made equity judges in each district, under supervision of the chancellor of the State. Colonel Walworth became judge of the fourth district. His decisions in this court were pronounced by Judge Cowen to be "able and luminous," and of such value as to be included in the State reports, although the Circuit Court cases were not a regular part of those reports. Judge Walworth was appointed chancellor of the State in April, 1828, when he was thirty-eight years of age, by Governor Clinton. He held the office twenty years. He was also ex-officio a member of the Court of Errors, and required to review the intricate legal decisions of the Supreme Court in cases of dissatisfaction. His. decisions as chancellor are found in fifty two volumes of printed reports and thirty-nine books of manuscript. Amendments to the Constitution of the State in 1847 abolished the Court of Chancery, when Chancellor Walworth retired.

About 1844 the New York delegation in Congress and lawyers outside of Congress presented the name of Chancellor Walworth to President Tyler to fill a vacancy then existing in the Supreme Court of the United States. Tyler sent the name to the Senate, and it was referred to the judiciary committee, which delayed making a report. Charles O'Connor used to tell some amusing stories of "wire-pulling" in that committee. One of the absurdities related was that, after President Tyler had sent the chancellor's name to the Senate, some one told Tyler that this Walworth was a descendant of that Sir William Walworth who killed his (President Tyler's) progenitor, Wat Tyler, and thereupon the president withdrew the chancellor's name. The real cause was in one of those curious combinations that are peculiar to New York politics.

After Chancellor Walworth's retirement his counsel was sought from all parts of the country, and as referee in cases from the Supreme Court of the United States he held his court at his homestead in Saratoga, where cases were argued by such men as William H. Seward, Blatchford, Butler, Daniel Lord, and other distinguished lawyers.

Of this great man's ability Judge Story said: "Walworth is the greatest equity jurist now living. Chancellor Kent, in his Commentaries, referring to Walworth's decisions, said: "I am proud of my own native State." Professor Dane of Harvard said: "No court was ever under the guidance of a judge purer in character or more gifted in talent than Reuben Hyde Walworth, the last chancellor of New York."

While residing at Plattsburgh Chancellor Walworth married Maria Ketchum Avery. They had four daughters and two sons, the latter being Rev. Clarence A. Walworth of Albany, N. Y., and Mansfield Tracy Walworth, the author. Mrs. Walworth died April 24, 1847, and Chancellor Walworth subsequently married Sarah Ellen, daughter of Horace Smith of Locust Grove and widow of Colonel John J. Hardin. She brought with her to Saratoga three children of her first marriage, one of whom is the present Mrs. Ellen Hardin Walworth, the noted historian and author.

(1) For much of the material employed in preparing this sketch the compiler of this work is indebted to a paper read by Mrs. Ellen Hardin Walworth before the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society in 1895.

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