October 3, 1899
At the opening of court for the October term, A. D. 1899, on Tuesday, October 3d, the Honorable OTTO KIRCHNER, of Detroit, on behalf of the family of the deceased, presented to the court an oil portrait of the late SAMUEL T. DOUGLASS, at one time a member of the court. In presenting the portrait, Mr. KIRCHNER said:
May it Please your Honors:
I have the honor, on behalf of the family of the late SAMUEL T. DOUGLASS, to present his portrait to this court, of which he was at one time a member. I come to the discharge of the office assigned me with no little diffidence, mingled, I confess, with pride and pleasure. Although Judge DOUGLASS was much older than I, for nearly 30 years I enjoyed his constant, undiminished friendship. When I came to the bar he was one of its acknowledged leaders. No man enjoyed the confidence of the courts, of the profession, and of the public to a greater degree than be.
Mr. DOUGLASS was born at Wallingford, Rutland county, Vermont, February 28, 1814. After acquiring an academic education and entering upon his legal studies at Fredonia, N. Y., he came to Detroit in 1837, where in the same year he was afterwards admitted to the bar. He opened an office at Ann Arbor, but soon returned to Detroit, where, except when he served in a judicial capacity, he practiced his profession, with more or less activity, the remainder of his life. He possessed a keen, analytical mind, bent unswervingly on the discovery of truth. He had, in a striking degree, what CARLYLE, termed “mental veracity.” No self-interest, no passing passion or considerations that might well prejudice an ordinary mind, could hide the truth from him. He saw clearly. He never deceived himself. If a thing was black, nothing could ever make him believe it was light gray. His reading in the law was extensive and accurate. He was thoroughly imbued with its principles and spirit. It is therefore no matter of surprise that so early in his professional career, in the year 1845, he was appointed official reporter of the Supreme Court. He held the position till 1848, when he voluntarily retired. The two volumes of reports that bear his name are models of what reports should be.
The Constitution, framed in 1850, had reorganized the Supreme Court. The judges were to be elected by circuits, not by the State at large, as they are now. Dissatisfaction with the nominees of the existing political parties resulted in an independent movement. Mr. DOUGLASS became its nominee. He was easily elected, without effort on his part. The office had sought the man, and found him. As judge of the Supreme Court he was the trial judge of his circuit as well. His accession to the bench marked a new epoch in the judicial annals of this State. He was a model judge; he was in his proper place; yet, in anticipation of a further reorganization of the Supreme Court, he resigned in May, 1857, and at once resumed the active practice of his profession. His practice was extensive.
It extended to the highest courts, both State and National. For 30 years few questions of difficulty and importance came before this court in which it did not have the aid of his learning and judgment. He approached the study of all questions with the utmost impartiality. When he had reached a conclusion, it was the deliberate judgment of a well-informed mind, that had no care but to know the truth. If he had doubts, he did not hesitate to make them known to the court, with his reasons therefor. If his opinions were not in accord with the interests of his clients, he never hesitated to tell them so. He had great tenacity of purpose. When he had reached a conclusion, he was a foeman worthy of the best steel. No labor, no sacrifice, was too great for him. He threw himself, and, when the ends of justice seemed to demand it, what he possessed, into the contest. In the practice of his profession he was indeed a minister of justice.
The thoroughness of his preparation and research was marvelous. Your honors will, I am sure, pardon the allusion to one example. In the Crane-Reeder Case, which came to this court three times, in which he successfully maintained the validity of a conveyance of land by the State Board of Escheats, the defense, represented by a large array of able counsel, urged 18 objections against the conveyance. Judge DOUGLASS had, in his brief, anticipated, and successfully answered, all but two. These he showed were contained in the others.
He was a model citizen of the Republic. He was simple, unostentatious, in his life. He did not take kindly to mere conventionalities. He was at heart, and in his intercourse with his fellows, a gentleman, in the best sense of that much-abused word. He was devoid of the modern squeamish affectation that shrinks from a participation in public affairs. He was ever mindful of the duties citizenship imposes. When, in later years, his neighbors in his country home desired that he serve them as highway commissioner, school inspector, and justice of the peace, he accepted these trusts, and discharged them with characteristic painstaking fidelity and ability.
It was the privilege of some of your honors to know Judge DOUGLASS well. You will bear me out that all I have said of him is but a modest recognition of his real worth. In the sacred presence of the honored dead, none that called him friend could belittle his memory by flattery.
Judge DOUGLASS attained unto years that are vouchsafed to but few men. Yet their strength was neither labor nor sorrow. His eye was not dimmed, neither was his natural strength abated. He maintained his mental vigor and gentleness of disposition to the end. On the afternoon of Saturday, the 5th day of March, 1898, in the home that he had reared, at Grosse Isle, in the River Detroit, surrounded by his faithful wife, his children, and his children’s children, without pain or struggle or vain regrets, he entered into his final rest.
Such a life should be reverently remembered. It is fitting that his portrait should adorn and hallow this hall of justice. I respectfully ask that your honors accept the picture, and assign it a permanent place here.
I feel that I should avail myself of this opportunity to say something of the later years of Judge DOUGLASS, covering a period of 10 or more years, i. e., from 1878 to 1888, when he was occupied with what I think must have been one of his most important cases, and which, in its result, was the crowning triumph of his professional life, about which I am possibly in a better position to know than others. Not only was this a most interesting case in its facts, but it afforded an opportunity for the display of the rare skill, tact, and sagacity of the great lawyer. It was one of those cases where the estate of a deceased person was withheld from its rightful owner by skillful management, until, after many years, it was returned to his widow, whose cause the judge espoused, after a series of interesting and bitter legal contests.
The ancestor, a physician of wealth, engaged in business during the fifties, if I mistake not, with a banker. DOUGLASS claimed that he put into the business assets amounting to $15,000, all in mortgages bearing interest at the rate of 10 per cent. Some years later he died, leaving a will by the terms of which his surviving partner and two others were made executors, with the power of determining whether the residuum of his estate should go to his son upon reaching an age mentioned. If they should determine otherwise, it was to go to his issue, and, in case of his death without issue, to collateral heirs of the testator. The executors, with the exception of the surviving partner, refused to accept the trust, and he proceeded to administer the estate alone. The son grew up, and was married, and in 1870 he died without issue, before reaching the age at which the will contemplated a determination of his fitness to receive the estate. The widow was appointed executrix under a will which gave her all of the property of her husband, and made claim to the estate of her husband’s father. She was substantially penniless, and the surviving partner had whatever assets there were of the father’s estate. He had all the books and other written evidence belonging to the ancestor concerning the property and transactions connected with it, and denied that there was any estate, claiming that the firm was insolvent.
The business of the alleged partnership had been various and extensive. It included a large banking business at the home of the partners. They also owned and managed several farms, a gristmill or two, two large water-powers upon the Kalamazoo river, a foundry, and a woolen mill. They also engaged in the purchase of wool and wheat, and at one time, I think, owned the old and renowned Marshall Hotel. When it is remembered that a settlement of the partnership affairs was a necessary preliminary to an adjudication upon the main controversy, and that the surviving partner had all of the books and papers, except what it was said that he had destroyed, the difficulty of the undertaking will be better understood.
The litigation began as early as 1868, when the son was living, by a bill filed in Calhoun county, but the suit abated by the death of the complainant. A claim had been filed by the surviving partner, and was, at the time of the husband’ s death, pending in the circuit court upon appeal from a disallowance by commissioners. The widow filed a bill to prevent a sale of some of the property, but the defendant was able to get the venue changed to the county of Kent, while the bill filed by the husband was revived and transferred to Kalamazoo, and a supplemental bill filed by the widow to reach a share of some money received from insurance was sent to Jackson county. It was soon after this that I became acquainted with the case. I do not know when Judge DOUGLASS came into it.
At the outset, Judge DOUGLASS was confronted by the question of the widow’s right to the estate, as, under her father-in-law’s will, it was claimed by the collateral heirs. If this claim was valid, the result of any victory that he might obtain would redound to their benefit, and not to that of his client. He therefore resorted to an adroit piece of management. The collateral heirs were no more anxious to conduct a useless litigation than he was, and both were therefore willing to obtain, as speedily as possible, a construction of the first will. His executor had leased it to the Rock River Paper Company, which had occupied beyond its term. DOUGLASS brought ejectment, claiming that the title passed to the son under the first will, and to his widow under the second. The paper company had no defense upon the merits, but was induced to permit the collateral heirs to make defense in its name; and this defense was that the plaintiff had no title, first, because title was in the executor, and, second, if not in the executor it was in the collateral heirs of the testator, not having passed to the son. It was held that title passed to the son. By this tactful course, Judge DOUGLASS made certain that his client would reap the reward of any victory that he might obtain in the main controversy.
His next effort seems to have been to find a way of getting access to the books and papers of the partnership and estate. His efforts were not crowned with success until after the death of the surviving partner, when, through the probate court, he got an entering wedge, though not until he had been compelled to follow the order through the circuit and supreme courts. After this I did not see Judge DOUGLASS for some time. Subsequent events, however, showed that he was busy, with experts, making a careful and thorough examination of the books and papers belonging to the partnership and estate. As a result of this investigation, a new bill was filed, asking the court to take possession of the property of the deceased surviving partner. Such an order was made, but a majority of this court thought it too broad, and restricted it so as not to apply to any property claimed to belong to the estate of the surviving partner. Inasmuch as it was claimed that all of the property belonged to him, except a few pieces of land, the value of the order was lost, and it was not acted upon. The contest was bitter upon this application. It was really a fight for the “sinews of war.” DOUGLASS wanted to put the property beyond the reach of the administrator of the surviving partner. He claimed that most, if not substantially all, of it, belonged to his client, and that the administrator should not be allowed to use it up in defeating the owner. On the other band, the administrator could not do less than make his defense, and the sequel proved that there was more than enough to settle the claim of Judge DOUGLASS, after paying the extraordinary expense which this litigation caused the estate.
The parties then settled down for a final struggle. Knowing the nature of the case, I refused to permit proofs to be taken in open court, and sent it to a special commissioner. I heard no more of it for 15 months, when a consent order closing proofs was entered and the case set down for hearing during the summer vacation of 1887. It was then heard, and decree rendered settling most of the questions of fact and principles of accounting, and referring it to a commissioner to make and report the account. It was estimated that this would amount to a balance in favor of the complainant of about $420,000. On appeal, this court gave the complainant the fund invested, with interest, instead of profits. Its decree was $426,000, in round numbers. It also awarded the unprecedented solicitor’s fee of $20,000.
I learned, after the final disposition of the case, that it was prosecuted under discouragements to which a less tenacious man than Judge DOUGLASS would have succumbed. He was confronted by unlimited wealth and eminent counsel. Proofs were taken at many places, and some of the most celebrated physicians and surgeons were examined in relation to the mental condition of the surviving partner. His client was penniless, and, from advancing money from his own pocket, he found it necessary to pledge his credit for large sums, to meet the expenses incident to the examination and preparation of the case. He thought that it was the policy of the defense to defeat him by delay, and by subjecting his client to expenses that must make it impossible for her to continue the litigation. He said as much in court; and I remember that, on the occasion of the reference to take proofs, he offered in open court to settle for a ridiculously small sum,– $25,000, as I remember it,–rather than to continue to invest money in a fight that was just beginning. Many years after, while riding on a Detroit river steamer, he brought to me a gentleman, whom he introduced as one who stood behind him in his fight,–a fight which extended through 20 years of his life, and which, in this court, covered the period between the 47th and 72d Michigan. The case finally turned upon facts, but few questions of law being settled at the final hearing; but from first to last it involved many interesting legal questions, which one after another were weeded out, until, as I say, it finally got down to the merits.
In the conduct of this case he exhibited the traits of character which are so important to a strong lawyer. His points were always carefully prepared. In their presentation they stood forth in their rugged strength, being divested of all extraneous and superfluous accompaniments. I cannot say that he was not partisan; I think he was, as lawyers usually are and have a right to be; but his judgment never seemed to be warped by his partisanship. He seemed to have a pretty accurate conception of his legal rights, and did not allow his desires or hopes to inspired confidence in an erroneous principle. His tact was admirable. Like an army besieging a city, he made his approaches in a cautious but effective way, carefully intrenching himself in each advanced position he took before making another advance. He did not allow himself to be diverted from his object by side issues. The record contained a vast amount of costly but useless testimony, to which he gave no attention, contenting himself with keeping in view what he considered to be, and what very clearly were, the crucial questions in the case. His entire management was a model of honest prudent, careful, and intelligent management of a case for the very best interest of a client. The case ought to have been a profitable one for him, and it doubtless was. At one time he feared that he should not live long enough to see the end, and he prudently made preparations for such an emergency. Happily his forebodings were groundless. He lived for a decade or more to enjoy the fruits of his well-earned victory.
I concur in and heartily endorse all that has been said in regard to the life and character of the late Judge DOUGLASS. It was my good fortune to know him well. To thus know him was both a pleasure and a profit,–a pleasure because of his genial manner and social qualities, a profit because personal contact with a manly character is helpful and beneficial. He demonstrated the maxim that good character is indispensable to the only success in our profession which is worth attaining. I know no act in his professional career or private life which requires an apology. He was a justice of this court under the revised constitution from 1851 to 1857, inclusive. His opinions are clear and concise expositions of the law, and evidence a well-trained judicial mind. Upon his retirement from the bench he devoted himself to the practice of his chosen profession. In the legal arena he was a foeman worthy of any man’s steel. His examination of cases was exhaustive, and his conclusions marked by that sound common sense which is the foundation of the common law.
His career as judge and lawyer is one which the young members of our profession will do well to study and follow. He guarded his own honor and that of every member of his family with unsurpassed zeal, energy, perseverance, and without regard to the cost to himself. Some of us well remember how he fought, both in court and elsewhere, to defend the honesty and integrity of his brother when they were assailed. The noted case of Perrin v. Lepper, reported in 72 Michigan, pages 454 to 559, furnishes another memorable instance of his indefatigable energy and labor to right what he believed to be wrong. His work in the profession virtually closed with the successful termination of that case. After an extended trip around the world, he retired to his villa and farm on Grosse Isle, to enjoy that “otium cum dignitate” which he had so richly earned. I visited him there about a year before his death, and found him still taking a lively interest in the affairs of his profession, his state and country. His contentment was remarkable, and, though he knew that the end of life was near, he was not disturbed. What his views of the future were I do not know, nor does it concern us. If, however, the strict performance of duty in this life is the safest passport to the life beyond, it is well with him.
It is most fitting that his portrait should be hung in this court-room, among those who were his contemporaries at the bar and upon the bench. The portrait seems to me as nearly perfect as a painter can make. In behalf of my associates and myself, I thank those who have donated it; and in behalf of the bench, the profession, and the people of the State, I accept it.