In Memoriam Honorable Elon Farnsworth, Chancellor Of The State Of Michigan

APRIL 3, 1877

At a session of the Supreme Court held Tuesday, April 3, 1877:

 HOYT POST, Esq., moved that the following resolution of respect to the memory of Chancellor Farnsworth, passed at a meeting of members of the bar held in the city of Detroit on the twenty-seventh day of March A. D. 1877, be spread upon the records of the court:

I. Elon Farnsworth was appointed Chancellor of the State of Michigan in July, 1836, and continued in office until March, 1842. This was the introduction into our system of a new feature, the organization of a Court of Chancery as distinct from the Law Courts. On him devolved the creation of a chancery system for this State; how he performed this duty is well shown by the words of Chancellor Kent, in the fourth volume of his Commentaries. Kent says: “The administration of justice in equity in Michigan under Chancellor Farnsworth was enlightened and correct and does honor to the State.” No one of his decisions was ever reversed. His service as Attorney General of the State was performed with distinction.

II. Those who knew him here, to this recognition of his character as an equity judge, add their recollection of his character as a man. He had a rare union of firmness, courtesy and amiability. No one ever questioned his integrity or fidelity. In all the relations of life as a neighbor, friend and Christian, he could not be too highly spoken of. He was especially in esteem among the churchmen of Michigan as a life-long member of St. Paul’s Church.

III. Great trusts were reposed in him as a member of the community aside from his legal and judicial offices— as a resident director of the Michigan Central Railroad, as a Regent of the University. Those important public enterprises received from him, in their infancy, the fostering care which well accounts for their future success. Many private trusts in our mining companies, banks, asylums, were bestowed on him by reason of his prudence, wisdom and uprightness.

IV. In all these manifold relations of life, legal, judicial, private and public, he performed his duty with distinguished ability and fidelity, and goes down to the grave at the great age of 78, with the esteem and veneration of the whole State. It is therefore by this bar

Resolved, That these resolutions be presented by the appropriate officers in the Federal and State Courts, and leave be asked to have them spread upon the journals of such courts.

 CAMPBELL, J., responded for the court, and after expressing their respect for the memory of Chancellor Farnsworth, and his own regret at the loss of an old and valued friend, gave an outline of his life, the substance of which is embodied in the appended sketch.

The court ordered the action of the Bar to be entered of record.

ELON FARNSWORTH, the first and the last Chancellor of Michigan, was born in Woodstock, Vermont, on the 2d day of February, 1799. He graduated from Middlebury College, where he acquired not only a thorough education but a taste for classical literature and elegant learning, which he continued to enjoy during all his life. He determined to become a lawyer, and having pursued his studies diligently in his native State, he came to Detroit in 1822, and entered the office of Sibley and Whitney, the former the oldest member of the Territorial Bar, who had practiced in the old Northwest Territory, and the latter a younger man of high reputation. In 1824 Mr. Sibley was appointed by the President and Senate to a seat on the Bench of the Territorial Supreme Court, and Mr. Farnsworth entered into partnership with Mr. Whitney, which was dissolved by the death of Mr. Whitney in 1826. After that he continued in practice until the organization of the State government, and entered upon his duties as Chancellor in 1836. The division between law and equity had always been kept up in the Territory, but the chancery jurisdiction had all been vested in the Supreme Court.

There had been no statutory innovations, and little had been done to accommodate the system to the business and customs of the Territory. Chancellor Farnsworth, who had thoroughly studied the ground, at once took measures to introduce some improvements which he thought desirable, and prepared statutes which systematized and simplified the practice, and brought within the jurisdiction of a number of matters which had been left without any adequate or well guarded remedy. Among other things he made provision for checking corporate abuses and winding up failing and insolvent corporations whereby a great deal of mischief was prevented. The early years of the State were made unfortunate by rash speculations and by the creation of many private corporations which soon gave out and had to be wound up. The abolition of some of the harsh common-law remedies against debtors made equitable proceedings necessary more commonly than before. Some statutes had been adopted in New York and elsewhere which furnished aid in completing the scheme, but it was much modified and improved by the suggestions of his own good sense and experience. His plan was so carefully prepared that very little change has been made since, except as indirectly brought about by the sweeping improvements in the law of evidence, which have done away with the uses of discovery, and modifications in the law of mortgages, which have made them in law, as they have always been in fact, securities and not estates. Chancellor Farnsworth also compiled a complete code of rules of practice, which have in the main been found to require few changes.

The entire equity jurisdiction of the State was vested in his court, which sat in different places, but merely for convenience of parties, as suits might be commenced in any circuit and reach persons and property anywhere in the State. Litigation was large and burdensome, but he attended to it carefully and disposed of it without unreasonable delay.

Very few men have been better fitted to dispense justice. His mind was impartial and eminently judicial, his knowledge of law and equity very extensive, and his quickness of perception and his sagacity and knowledge of character were remarkable. With great but simple dignity, and equanimity that nothing could disturb, he was a man of warm heart, of broad sympathy, and of a keen sense of humor, and was rarely deceived in his estimate of men or facts. While one of the most polished gentlemen to be found anywhere, his simplicity and freedom from ostentation encouraged the poorest and plainest to confide in him, and he was not unworthily regarded by the mass of his fellow-citizens as almost the embodiment of justice. Few ever cared to appeal from his decisions. It may not be strictly true, although it is generally believed, that none of his decisions were reversed. They certainly were universally treated as presumably right.

He had no admiration for loose and slipshod practice, and the separate examination required of Supreme Court practitioners before they could be admitted to the chancery bar, secured it from being injured by incompetent or unlearned members. But he never had that unreasonable fondness for the machinery of the court which sometimes led chancellors to prefer form to substance. He favored regularity but preferred justice, and based his judicial conduct on the broad and generous principles illustrated by Hardwicke and Kent, rather than on the most dangerous of all precedents to follow—precedents of fact and not of law. He was not one of those presumptuous magistrates who legislate for their suitors, but he had breadth enough to recognize the plasticity and elasticity of rules that had always governed the rights of persons and things.

He was moreover under all circumstances incapable of being moved by outside influences. He was so quiet and undemonstrative in his ways that in a few instances, where popular interests and prejudices were involved, attempts were made by writers for the press to influence his judgment. It is not known that he ever found it expedient to vindicate his dignity by proceedings in contempt. But no one ever ventured to repeat the effort.

During the six years from 1836 to 1842 he had occasion to dispose of so many important controversies, and did it so well, that his successors found the equitable system of the State very nearly perfected. Such of his numerous decisions as are reported in Harrington’s Chancery Reports indicate his qualities. They will bear scrutiny.

In 1842 he was obliged by weariness from very laborious service to resign his office. He did not at once attempt to resume general practice, but he was much sought after as counsel. He was never an eloquent nor even a very fluent advocate, although his oral decisions were clear and concise. But his opinions as counsel were regarded as sound and reliable. In 1843, having recovered his health, he was induced by the solicitation of Governor Barry to accept the office of Attorney General, which was then especially important from the amount of public litigation. Governor Barry, who was in some respects peculiar and very exacting so far as all public interests were concerned, appreciated and honored Chancellor Farnsworth who was very different from him in manner and temper, but who in return had an unfeigned personal regard for the stern and independent honesty of the Governor, who while very particular in small things had broad and liberal ideas on matters of permanent importance.

In 1846 the adoption of the Revised Statutes (which were not to go into effect until 1847, before which time it was supposed a new Legislature might desire to amend them) provided a new judicial system which dropped the Court of Chancery, and transferred equitable jurisdiction to courts in each county. This change was attributed in part to hostility to Chancellor Manning, an upright and able Chancellor, who,— though of great kindness of heart, was not popular in his ways, and when he smote a transgressor did it with all his might. A few of his enemies—who could not have been numerous, for no one less deserved enemies—combined with some reformers whose knowledge of the law consisted chiefly of a consciousness that they knew nothing about it, mangling the proposed revision and simplifying the judicial system according to their crude notions, so as to multiply instead of destroying, as they expected, the business of the bar.
In the hope that the popularity of Chancellor Farnsworth would still save the court, Chancellor Manning resigned, and Chancellor Farnsworth was re-appointed. The court however was not reinstated. The new system has worked better than was expected. The old court during its ten years’ existence made a distinguished reputation, and its decisions are held in great esteem.

Upon the sale of the Central railroad in 1846 to a private corporation, Chancellor Farnsworth was made local director and general adviser, and from that time until his death he gave up practice at the bar, and was continuously engaged in managing important business and financial interests, which led him to frequent visits to Washington, and the money centers of the United States and Europe. In these agencies his wisdom and probity, and his winning personal demeanor made him popular and successful; and his company was sought for by distinguished men on both sides of the Atlantic. It was his good fortune to be in Paris at the time of the assembling of diplomatic celebrities at the close of the Crimean war, and his opportunities for observation at that time were well used.

He was never a bitter partisan, although decided in his political views. He was democratic nominee for Governor in 1839, when the revolution in sentiment had begun which elected General Harrison to the presidency in 1840. During the war he was a plain-spoken and uncompromising supporter of the government, and personally intimate with the prominent officers engaged in the service,—of whom his son-in-law General 0. B. Willcox was not one of the least distinguished. He was not subsequently active in politics.

He was for many years a Regent of the University either ex officio or by appointment and election, and was one of its warmest friends and wisest counselors. He was also very active in procuring the organization of our insane and other asylums. He visited every important asylum in the United States to inform himself concerning the best methods of management, and it is largely due to him that our success in those institutions has been so marked. When the provision first made for grounds for the insane asylum was too small for its best interests, Governor Barry and Chancellor Farnsworth (who was not a rich man) joined in purchasing additional land at their own expense, and when the necessity of it became apparent, turned over their bargain to the asylum, and saved it from loss and inconvenience. Chancellor Farnsworth was very benevolent, and never hesitated to give such aid as he could to all worthy objects, but was willing to spend his time for the same purpose. His private kindness surrounded him with such clientela as attended the Roman Senators, of plain people, some poor and some in good circumstances, who sought his advice on all subjects and obtained it freely and gratuitously. If he had been a demagogue he would have been a very influential one. But he was followed to his grave with tears and blessings, as an unselfish benefactor.

He was one of the founders, and always an interested member of St. Paul’s Episcopal church, in Detroit, which is the oldest church of that communion west of Lake Erie. He was also active in organizing the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, in 1832. He was through life a consistent Christian gentleman.

In private life he was happily situated, and his home— without show or pretension— was a centre of social enjoyment and domestic refinement and happiness. He was a great reader of all sorts of books and a sagacious and entertaining critic. He married in 1830 Miss Hannah Blake, whose tastes and ways were congenial, and whose combination of a strong intellect and good sense with vivacity and refinement, and elegant feminine accomplishments in literature and art, made their home a very attractive place to all who came within its hospitable doors. They were both fond of young people and very much loved by the young.

Learned without pedantry, and shrewd without sarcasm or bitterness, his useful and calm life passed gently into a placid and reverend age. He met with some domestic bereavements, which saddened his spirits; but in no way lessened his love for his friends or his readiness to contribute to their enjoyment. He made his home to the very last pleasant and attractive. And when he passed away, a pure and devoted Christian went to his reward; a steadfast and true friend left many hearts heavy with bereavement, and the State lost a wise magistrate, who did very much to mould its institutions and who will some day be reckoned among the greatest of its departed servants.

He died on the 24th of March, 1877, at Detroit, a short time after the completion of his 78th year.