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SAMUEL DEXTER was a native of Boston, Massachusetts, where he was born in the year 1761. His father, Samuel senior, a descendant of Richard Dexter, who' emigrated from England to America, a short time after the landing at Plymouth, was an active supporter of the patriotic cause, prior to the Revolution, and for his eminent services was several times elected by the colonial House of Representatives to the Council; and for the same reasons as often rejected by the royal governor. Finally, however, he was permitted to take his scat; but, in 1774 was again negatived, in company with Bowdoin and others, by the express commands of his Majesty.” It is recorded that he took part in the preparation of the celebrated answers to the Governor's speeches, and the various state papers of that period; which have so long been the theme of admiration for their eloquence and their firm and bold tone of remonstrance against the oppressive measures of the British ministry.* “ Soon after the commencement of the revolutionary war," says Doctor Holmes, “he removed, with his family, to Woodstock, Connecticut. He had a large library, which attracted much attention, at the time of its removal, and he was greatly devoted to the use of it, in his retirement, to the close of his life. He was a gentleman of a highly respectable character, possessed a handsome estate, and enjoyed far beyond most literary men, in our country, otium cum dignitate. The latter part of his life was spent in the investigation of the doctrines of theology; which resulted in the establishment, by his will, of a professorship of Sacred Literature in Harvard University. He died, at Mendon, in Massachusetts, on the 10th of June, 1810. Hannah, the wife of this excellent man, and the mother of the subject of this sketch, was the daughter Andrew and Mary Sigourney, and a descendant of André Sigourney, one of those Huguenots who fled from France to America on the revocation of the edict of Nantes. She is described as "a respectable lady, of dark complexion, with characteristic French features and pronunciation;" peculiarities which her distinguished son inherited. Of her, as well as of his honored father, that son always spoke with reverenco and affection,
At the age of sixteen years Samuel Dexter, the junior, entered Harvard University, and in 1781, graduated with the highest honors of his class. During his junior year he delivered a poem on the Progress of Science, “which was at that time,” says Judge Story, "received with great applause, and is still (1816) considered as highly creditable to his taste and judgment.” § After leaving college he studied law in the office of the Honorable Levi Lincoln, an eminent counsellor of that period, and subsequently Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. In due time he commenced practice, his reputation increased, and “he soon found himself surrounded with clients." He now became a member of the legislature of his native State; soon after was elected to the lower House of the Congress of the United States, and from thence was elevated to a seat in the Senate. In both branches of Congress his course was honorable and distinguished. “His clear and forcible argumentation, his earnest and affecting admonitions, and his intrepid and original development of principles and measures, gave him a weight of authority, which it was difficult to resist. Perhaps no man was ever heard by his political opponents with more profound and unaffected respect."
* Wheaton's Life of William Pinkney, page 141.
+ Appendix to Doctor Holmes's Memoir of the French Protestants who settled at Oxford, Massachusetts, A. D. 1686, &c., in the Massachusetts Historical Collections. Third series, vol. 2, page 79.
Mr. Dexter was, at one time, engaged in the defence of some foreign sailors, who were on trial in Rhode Island, for piracy. During the trial he had occasion to confer with them repeatedly; and a Quaker, to whom he was personally unkpown, observed to a friend, when Mr. Dexter commenced his argument—" How well he speaketh our language !" mistaking him for one of the foreigners, arguing in behalf of himself and his associates.-Sketches of Samuel Dexter by Mr. Sargent.
Sketch of the Life and Character of Samuel Dexter, by Judge Story. Miscellaneous Writings, page 782.
In the spring of 1800, he was appointed by President Adams, Secretary of War, and in the following winter, on the resignation of Oliver Wolcott, was transferred to the Treasury Department. He discharged the duties of these offices with his characteristic energy and ability. Before the close of Mr. Adams' administration he was offered a foreign mission. This honor he declined.
Mr. Dexter continued at the head of the Treasury department during a greater part of the first year of Mr. Jefferson's presidency. Mr. Gallatin succeeded him on the twenty-sixth of January, 1802. Soon after retiring he resumed the duties of his profession, and was immediately engaged in causes brought before the highest courts of his native State and of the country. It was in this position that his splendid powers were fully developed. “In no situation,” said Judge Story, “have the admirable talents of Mr. Dexter appeared with more unclouded lustre, than in his attendance on the Supreme Court, at Washington. For several years, he passed the winters there, under engagements in many of the most important causes. Rarely did he speak without attracting an audience composed of the taste, the beauty, the wit and the learning, that adorned the city; and never was he heard without instruction and delight. On some occasions, involuntary tears from the whole audience have testified the touching power of his eloquence and pathos. On others, a profound and breathless silence expressed, more forcibly than any human language, the riveted attention of an hundred minds :- I well remember," continues the same able authority, “with what appropriate felicity he undertook, in one cause, to analyze the sources of patriotism. * * * No one who heard him describe the influence of local scenery upon the human heart, but felt his soul dissolve within him. I can recall but imperfectly a single passage; and, stript of its natural connection, it affords but a glimmering of its original brightness. "We love not our country,' said the orator, 'from a blind and unmeaning attachment, simply because it is the place of our birth. It is the scene of our earliest joys and sorrows. Every spot has become consecrated by some youthful sport, some tender friendship, some endearing affection, some reverential feeling. It is associated with all our moral habits, our principles, and our virtues. The very sod seems almost a part of ourselves, for there are entombed the bones of our ancestors. Even the dark valley of the shadow of death is not without its consolations, for we pass it in company with our friends.'"
It is much to be regretted that the forensic efforts of Mr. Dexter have not been preserved. But one of his arguments is extant, and that is spoken of by his most recent and most competent biographer,* as “an abridgment,” and cannot, probably, however able, be classed in the very foremost rank of his efforts. His argument on the unconstitutionality of the embargo laws, is considered to be one of his greatest successes. To the profound legal knowledge, the able statesmanship, and the tremendous eloquence he displayed on this occasion, Mr. Webster, in the memorable debate on Foot's resolution, gives unqualified and honorable praise.
Mr. Dexter's style of speaking was slow and deliberate. Generally, he stood still and erect, using no gestures except, occasionally, in the extension of is right arm towards the bar, with his hand firmly clenched. “When growing earnest, he often inclined his body slightly forward, and closing the palms of his hands, moved them up and down repeatedly, as though he were about to dive into the jury box; and, at such times, a dignified motion of the head gave emphasis to the argument. When deeply engaged in any important cause, a slight tremulation of the fingers was frequently perceptible :—He was in the practice of walking much in his office, with his hands behind his back, and in perfect silence. He had a very common habit of sitting for an hour or more with his eyes closed, his chair canted backward, his feet resting against the wall. or the mantel, and while in this position, gently stroking his nose with his thumb and finger. On such occasions, no one disturbed him, without good and sufficient reasons.” Another of his peculiarities is noted by Mr. Sullivan, in his interesting Letters on Public Characters. “His precious moments were of the early morning, when in bed. He awoke oftentimes before dawn, and would remain in bed, producing a gentle motion of the body by shaking his foot, while his mind was occupied in severe contemplation." His manhood may be considered to have been one long process of meditation, reluctantly interrupted by business and sleep.
* Honorable Lucius Manlius Sargent, of Massachusetts, whose sketches of Mr. Dexter, over the signature of "Sigma," appeared in the Boston Transcript in 1856–1857. These valuable papers have since been issued in a volume.
Mr. Dexter was a strenuous advocate of temperance, and was one of the originators of the first society formed for the promotion of that object, and, on its organization, its first president.
This was the Massachusetts State Temperance Society, established about 1813. His was the remark: “Give me the money paid for the support of drunken paupers in the United States, and I will pay the expenses of the Federal and of every State government in the Union, and in a few years become as rich, with the surplus, as the Nabob of Arcot.” He had consented to deliver the opening address of the Massachusetts Society, but was prevented from carrying out his intentions in consequence of being detained at Washington.*
In 1815, President Madison tendered him the mission to Spain, but, from an unwillingness to leave his native country, he declined the proffered honor. During the winter of this and tre following year, he was, as usual, engaged in the laborious duties of his profession at Washington. He was once compelled to relinquish his labors for a time on account of illness; but before he returned to the North in the spring of 1816, he had regained his accustomed health and vigor. On the last day of April of this year, he arrived at Athens, New York, whither he had gone with his family, to attend the wedding of his oldest son. At the time of his arrival he was somewhat indisposed, and continued to fail until his death, which occurred on the morning of the fourth of May following.
The best memorials of this remarkable man, are to be found in the recent sketches by Mr. Sargent, to whom the historical and literary students of America are deeply indebted for the many and valuable facts he has garnered and preserved in the several occasional products of his pen. In the various discourses delivered by eminent jurists of the United States, among whom are Justices Story and Thacher, and Mr. Bliss and Mr. Livingston, will also be found earnest tributes to the eloquence and ability of Mr. Dexter,
ARGUMENT IN SELFRIDGE'S TRIAL.
The following argument was delivered by Mr. close of the defence of this important and interDexter, in the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, esting cause. In doing it, though I feel per
fectly satisfied that you are men of pure minds, at the trial of Thomas O. Selfridge, attorney-at
yet I reflect with anxiety, that no exertion or law, for killing Charles Austin, on the public
zeal on the part of the defendant's counsel can Exchange, in Boston, on the fourth of August, possibly insure justice, unless you likewise per1806.
form your duty. Do not suppose that I mean honestly resolved, and endeavored to lay aside case, his would be the misfortune, and to him all opinions which you may have entertained would it be confined; but in the other, you vioprevious to this trial. But the difficulty of late a principle, and the consequence may be doing this, is perhaps not fully estimated; a ruin. Consider what would be the effect of an man deceives himself oftener than he misleads impression on the public mind, that in conseothers; and he does injustice from his errors, quence of party opinion and feelings, the defendwhen his principles are all on the side of recti- ant was acquitted. Would there still be retude. To exhort him to overcome his preju- course to the laws, and to the justice of the dices, is like telling a blind man to see. He country? Would the passions of the citizen, may be disposed to overcome them, and yet be in a moment of frenzy, be calmed by looking unable because they are unknown to himself. forward to the decision of courts of law for jusWhen prejudice is once known, it is no longer tice? Rather every individual would become prejudice, it becomes corruption; but so long the avenger of imaginary transgression. Vio. as it is not known, the possessor cherishes it lence would be repaid with violence; havoc without guilt: he feels indignation for vice, would produce havoc; and instead of a peaceand pays homage to virtue; and yet does in- able recurrence to the tribunals of justice, the justice. It is the apprehension that you may spectre of civil discord would be seen stalking thus mistake, that you may call your prejudices through our streets, scattering desolation, misprinciples, and believe them such, and that ery and crimes. their effects may appear to you the fruits of Such may be the consequences of indulging virtue, which leads us so anxiously to repeat political prejudice on this day, and if so, you the request, that you would examine your are amenable to your country and your God. hearts, and ascertain that you do not come | This I say to you who are federalists; and have here with partial minds. In ordinary cases, I not as much right to speak thus to those who there is no reason for this precaution. Jurors are democratic republicans? That liberty, which are so appointed, by the institutions of our you cherish with so much ardor, depends on country, as to place them out of the reach of your preserving yourselves impartial in a court improper influence, on common occasions; at of justice. It is proved by the history of man, least as much so as frail humanity will per at least of civil society, that the moment the mit.
to suggest the least suspicion with respect to MAY IT PLEASE YOUR Honor, AND YOU, GEN- your principles or motives. I know you to TLEMEN OF THE JURY: It is my duty to submit have been selected in a manner most likely to to your consideration some observations in the obtain impartial justice; and doubtless you have
Familiar Letters on Public Characters by William Sul- condensed statement of his defence, to the detailed draft, as livan, page 403.
prepared by one of the stenographers. It is much com1 This argument was first printed in the report of this pressed in size from the original argument, but although a trial, in 1807, with the following note. "The Argument of compendium, will be found to contain all the prominent Mr, Dexter is published from a report of the samo as fur- and essential points, maintained by him in this important nished by himself. Mr. D. preferred this mode of giving a trial.”
judicial power becomes corrupt, liberty expires. But when a cause has been a long time the What is liberty, but the enjoyment of your subject of party discussion; when every man rights, free from outrage or danger ? And among us belongs to one party or the other, or what security have you for these, but an imparat least is so considered; when the democratic tial administration of justice ? Life, liberty, presses, throughout the country, have teemed reputation, property, and domestic happiness, with publications, fraught with appeals to the are all under its peculiar protection. It is the passions, and bitter invective against the de- / judicial power, uncorrupted, that brings to the fendant; when, on one side, every thing has dwelling of every citizen, all the blessings of been done, that party rage could do, to preju- civil society, and makes it dear to man. Little dice this cause; and, on the other, little has has the private citizen to do with the other been said in vindication of the supposed of- branches of government. What, to him, are fender, though, on one occasion, I admit that the great and splendid events that aggrandize a too much has been said; when silence has been few eminent men and make a figure in history? opposed to clamor, and patient waiting for a His domestic happiness is not less real, because trial to systematic labor to prevent justice; it will not be recorded for posterity; but this when the friends of the accused, restrained by happiness is his no longer than courts of justice respect for the laws, have kept silence, because protect it. It is true, injuries cannot always it was the exclusive right of a court of justice to be prevented; but while the fountains of jusspeak; wben no voice has been heard from the tice are pure, the sufferer is sure of a recomwalls of the defendant's prison, but a request pense. that he may not be condemned without a trial; Contemplate the intermediate horrors and the necessary consequence must be, that opinion final despotism, that must result from mutual will progress one way; that the stream of in- deeds of vengeance, when there is no longer an cessant exertion will wear a channel in the pub- impartial judiciary, to which contending parties lic mind; and the current may be strong enough may appeal, with full confidence that principles to carry away those who may be jurors, though will be respected. Fearful must be the interval they know not how, or when, they received the of anarchy; fierce the alternate pangs of rage impulse that hurries them forward.
and terror, till one party shall destroy the other, I am fortunate enough not to know, with re- and a gloomy despotism terminate the struggles spect to most of you, to what political party you of conflicting factions. Again, I beseech yon belong. Are you republican federalists ? I ask to abjure your prejudices. In the langnage once you to forget it: leave all your political opinions addresssed from Heaven to the Hebrew prophet, behind you; for it would be more mischievous, “Put off your shoes, for the ground on which that you should acquit the defendant from the you stand is holy." You are the professed influence of these, than that an innocent man, friends, the devoted worshippers of civil liberty; by mistake, should be convicted. In the latter will you violate her sanctuary? Will you profacts.
fane her temple of justice? Will you commit sake of argument, that the evidence proves mur. sacrilege while you kneel at her altar ?
der. Our time will be more usefully employed I will now proceed to state the nature of the in considering the principles of the defence. charge on which you are to decide, and of the Let it be admitted, then, as stated by the coundefence which we oppose to it; then examine sel for government, that the killing being prov. the evidence, to ascertain the facts, and then ed, it is incumbent on the defendant to discharge inquire what is the law applicable to those himself from guilt. Our defence is simply this,
that the killing was necessary in self-defence; The charge is for manslaughter; but it has or, in other words, that the defendant was in such been stated in the opening, that it may be ne- imminent danger of being killed, or suffering othcessary to know something of each species of er enormous bodily harm, that he had no reasonhomicide, in order to obtain a correct idea of able prospect of escaping, but by killing the that which you are now to consider.
assailant. Homicide, as a general term, includes, in law, This is the principle of the defence stripped every mode of killing a human being. The of all technical language. It is not important highest and most atrocious is murder; the dis- to state the difference between justifiable and criminating feature of which is previous malice. excusable homicide, or to show to which the With that the defendant is not charged; the evidence will apply; because, by our law, either grand jury did not think that by the evidence being proved, the defendant is entitled to a submitted to them, they were authorized to ac- general acquittal. cuse him of that enormous crime. They have, Let us now recur to the evidence and see therefore, charged him with manslaughter whether this defence be not clearly established. only.
The very definition of this crime, excludes Mr. Dexter here went into a minute examiprevious malice; therefore it is settled, that nation of the whole evidence. In the course of there cannot, with respect to this offence, be an accessory before the fact : because the intention it he labored to prove, that Mr. Selfridge went of committing it is first conceived at the moment on the Exchange about his lawful business, and of the offence, and executed in the heat of a without any design of engaging in an affray ; sudden passion, or it happens without any such
Gany such that he was in the practice of carrying pistols, intent, in doing some unlawful act. It will not be contended that the defendant is guilty of
and that it was uncertain whether he took the either of these descriptions of manslaughter. weapon in his pocket in consequence of expectNeither party suggests that the defendant was ing an attack; that if he did, he had a right so under any peculiar impulse of passion at the
to do, provided he made no unlawful use of it; moment, and had not time to reflect; on the contrary, he is said to have been too cool and that the
that the attack was so violent and with so dandeliberate. The case in which it is importantgerous a weapon, that he was in imminent danto inquire, whether the act was done in the heat ger; that it was so sudden, and himself so of blood, is where the indictment is for murder, I feeble that retreat wonld have been attended and the intent of the defence is to reduce the crime from murder to manslaughter; but Self
f with extreme hazard; that the pistol was not ridge is not charged with murder. There is no- discharged until it was certain that none would thing in the evidence that has the least tendency interfere for his relief, and that blows, which to prove an accidental killing, while doing some perhaps might kill him, and probably would unlawful act. It is difficult to say, from this view of manslaughter, when compared with the
fracture his skull, were inevitable in any other evidence, on what legal ground the defendant way, and that the previous quarrel with the can be convicted; unless it be, that he is to be father of the deceased, if it could be considered considered as proved guilty of a crime which I as affecting the cause, arose from the misbehamight have been charged as murder, and by law, if he now stood before you under an indict-|
vior of old Mr. Austin, and that the defendant ment for murder, you might find him guilty of had been greatly injured in that affair :- Mr. manslaughter, and therefore you may now con- DEXTER then proceeded : vict him."
This does not appear to be true; for the evi- It cannot be necessary, gentlemen, for the dence would not apply to reduce the offence defendant to satisfy you beyond doubt, that he from murder to manslaughter, on either of the received a blow before the discharge of the pisaforementioned grounds. Perhaps it may be tol. There is positive evidence from one witsaid, that every greater includes the less, and ness, that the fact was so, and other witnesses therefore, manslaughter is included in murder; say much that renders it probable. But if the and that it is on this principle that a conviction defendant waited until the cane was descending, for manslaughter may take place on an indict- or even uplifted within reach of him, reason ment for murder. I will not detain you to ex- and common sense say, it is the same thing; no mine this, for it is not doing justice to the de- man is bound to wait until he is killed, and fendant to admit, for a moment, even for the being knocked down would disable him for de