In Memoriam Solomon Louis Withey

JUNE 8, 1886

In the matter of the Presentation of Resolutions on the death of Hon. Solomon Louis Withey, late Judge of the District Court of the United States for the Western District of Michigan, who died April 25, 1886, aged 65 years.

 Hon. MOSES TAGGART, Attorney General, addressed the court as follows:

May it please the Court: By action of the Kent County bar, in harmony with that of many bars of the State, and of its entire fraternity, I am directed to present to this Court resolutions of respect to the memory of Hon. Solomon Louis Withey, late Judge of the United States Court for the Western District of Michigan. So many eloquent tributes have been paid to the character of our dead brother and friend, that I can hope to add nothing but an additional expression of sympathy and regret at his death. A few simple words, eloquent only because true and expressive of the heart-felt feelings of those who knew Judge Withey, are all that need be uttered. As a judge he was able, impartial and conscientious. Able, because of a universally clear intellect, and of habits of industry—a part of his very nature, which enabled him to perform the arduous duties of his office in a most satisfactory manner. He was impartial because of that peculiar temperament which permitted him to examine from the standpoint of others. He was conscientious to that extent that if his first judgment or opinion by reason of additional investigation was shown to have been erroneous, a decision upon the fuller and better light was certain to follow.

Judge Withey was of New England birth. He was schooled in the hardships of the early settlers of Western Michigan, and by severe and painful illness, when young in years; but like gold from the crucible he came out of these trials, stronger and better, and more fully prepared for his important life work. His was no spontaneous growth or ignis fatuus light, but a true, steady increasing power for good, both within and without the profession, upon and off the bench. No man or jurist in Michigan has been more justly respected or more deeply mourned. None took such firm hold on our affections. His true counsel which led others to better knowledge; his pure life, a continuous sermon and beacon light to his fellows; his kind and sympathetic words, which made smoother the rugged paths of his brothers, are his strongest, best eulogy, because impressed upon the lives of others thereby made wiser, better, happier.

These written on hearts of men, make for him a far nobler and lasting instrument than can be raised by hand, a monument and wreath, which to him who reads the true philosophy of life and death aright is not for one moment to be compared to the palaces and powers of monarchs, or the crowns of kings.

His was a successful life from the standpoint of worldly success, and we would not pluck one flower from his wreath so well earned, and which justly places him high up among the many of America’s renowned jurists, but only add those of greater brilliancy, of far more enduring fragrance.

That Judge Withey has secured such a high position in the hearts of his people, and left as a heritage to his grief-stricken family that which is most highly to be prized, is well attested by the many and affectionate expressions from both bench and bar— outside as well as within the profession.

The few words which I have spoken show but feebly the appreciation held by all so fortunate as to be numbered with the friends of the departed.

Yes, the “golden bowl” is broken! the “silver cord” is loosed! and he who was with us, guide, counselor, friend, judge, has gone on before. His kindly greeting, his courteous but firm decrees, his ready aid always granted, were ours but are ours no longer. He was ripe in years and in good works and ready for the harvest. Who shall say he has not gone to a higher and better work, where the full fruition of his life can be better realized and reaped than here within the narrow limits of man’ s vision and power. We cannot better honor him than by emulating his example.

I respectfully ask that the resolutions be spread on the Journal of the Court and a certified copy be transmitted to the family of the deceased.

The members of the bar of the County of Kent have heard with deep sorrow of the death of Judge Whithey, while absent from home, journeying for the recovery of impaired health. They mourn this loss to the legal profession, to the whole community, and the affective bereavement of his relations and family.

The departed judge was in private life an example of the qualities of kindness, courtesy, and charity to all, and bound by the strongest ties of love to his home, his wife and children.

With the city of Grand Rapids, the county of Kent, and the State of Michigan, he had sustained important civic relations, and in them had earned a high repute. He took a strong interest in municipal matters, in he establishment of educational, religious and financial institutions, and other public enterprises. He filled high offices of the county and State with excellent judgment, unquestioned integrity and unstinted devotion thereto of time and labor, thus commanding the confidence and gratitude of business associates, of his immediate constituents and of the people of the State.

Upon the creation of the Western District of Michigan, he was appointed the first District Judge, and thenceforth presided over that tribunal: considered and adjudged many questions of complexity arising “on land and from the sea:” adjudicated cases presented under the laws of the State Legislature and of the Federal Congress, and under the State and Federal Constitutions, exhibiting the moral and mental powers which had previously marked his public career and crowned his merits as a man, citizen and representative of the people with the honor of a pure, learned, impartial and dignified magistracy under a National Commission.

Therefore, Resolved, That as Solomon L. Withey thus lived, felt, thought, and rendered judgment, we esteemed and loved him, admired his life work, and respectfully ask this Court to place on its record this memorial of our sentiments.
E. F. UHL,

 Mr. ROGER W. BUTTERFIELD, of Grand Rapids, spoke as follows:

I regret exceedingly that I have not had the leisure to put into more appropriate form, what I desire to say, in memory of a man for whom I feel so great respect and personal regard. I am conscious that under the most favorable circumstances any language at my command would not adequately express what I feel.

At the organization of the United States Circuit and District Courts for the Western District of Michigan, in 1863, Judge Withey was appointed as its judge; from that time the history of that court has been the history of his administration as a judge: up to a few months ago he tried in that court every case tried by a jury. More than is ordinarily the case the administration of justice in that court was personally impressed with the personal characteristics of the judge; and, as after all a man’s life work is his best memorial, so to-day the great universal respect and regard for that court and its decisions, not only amongst the profession at large, but the people of the district and State in which it was held, is the best memorial of Judge Withey as a judge.

While Judge Withey did not have the advantage of what is generally known as a liberal education he had what has been called the better education of circumstances. As a lawyer he not only had wide and thorough knowledge of the books, but this knowledge was supplemented by the possession to an unusual degree of that happy balance of the reasoning faculties commonly known as common sense; added to this was a sagacity and knowledge of men and things that enabled him to separate the true from the false. In the trial of cases he had the faculty of getting at the substance of the matter at issue; of putting to one side all extraneous circumstances, all prejudices and false coloring. Pre-eminent above all his other characteristics, to my mind, was his love of justice and its orderly administration in court. This was manifested in the simplest arrangement of the trial calendar of his court, that every cause should have a full and speedy hearing on its merits. It was manifested in the constancy in which with feeble health and with everything to induce him to relaxation, he continued at work in all times and seasons, lest some one should ask at the door of his court for justice and find it closed. It was the main-spring of patience and industry with which he examined every detail of a case hoping and seeking for the last ray of light that might fall upon it. It was said as we spoke of him after his death, that he was a man of but little pride of opinion; that frequently after he announced his views upon a legal questions arising in the course of a trial, he was so willing to change them if convinced that the weight of reason and authority was the other way. I do not believe that mere want of pride of opinion explains this. Like all men whose opinions are worth anything, Judge Whithey had a very proper pride of opinion, but in his mind the end to be obtained, in the trial of a cause, was the administration of the law, and the security of justice. In comparison with these ends which seemed to him so important, the mere question of pride of individual opinion was nothing; with him the first, last, constant and only duty of a judge was to do justice and the doing of this duty was never absent from his consciousness.

In his relations with the bar, Judge Withey was peculiarly happy. To the oldest members he was bound by the firm friendship which comes from the associations of his early practice. The younger members were bound to him by even stronger ties. There were few of them to whom he had not again and again given the benefit of his wide experience in affairs in the way of friendly advice. Having passed through and overcome the obstacles which meet the young practitioner, he knew when and how to extend that help which is never forgotten by a young man commencing his professional career. In his face and manner there was a gentleness and courtesy that drew men toward him, and when we gathered in the room rendered sacred by his long continued presence, we spoke not simply of a great lawyer, of a judge who had consecrated his life to doing justice, but of a friend who was sincerely mourned because he had been sincerely loved. Considering the mere lapse of years, Judge Withey’ s life was not a long one. To my mind it was in many respects a very happy one. Its days were full of work conscientiously done; done, as only that work is done when the worker loves his work. And when the end came, amid the profound sorrow of the entire community where he had passed his life, in a sunnier clime than this, surrounded by those whom he loved best, in the possession of undiminished
powers of mind, sustained by the faith that had brightened his whole life, he fell asleep.

We mourn his death, but we feel that he has left to us in the memory of a life work well done, of a beautiful character, a very precious legacy.

Further appropriate remarks to the memory of the distinguished jurist were made by Messrs. W. W. Mitchell, H. H. Riley and J. C. Petterson.

By request of the Chief Justice, MR. JUSTICE CHAMPLIN, on behalf of the Court replies as follows:

The sentiments so well expressed by the remarks of the Attorney General and others who have spoken, are those entertained by all who were acquainted with Judge Withey. Speaking for myself I can look back and take in review a history of his life covering over thirty years. When I first knew him he was in active practice at the bar. As a practitioner he was always candid and fair: his word could always be relied upon. It needed no written stipulation to hold him to his agreement in matters of practice. As an advocate he was logical and forcible; in manner earnest, in language affluent— his efforts were addressed to the reason rather than the prejudices of the jury, and consequently the verdicts he secured were seldom disturbed. As a citizen he took a lively interest in the affairs of his municipality, his state and nation. He has filled the positions of City Attorney, Judge of Probate, State Senator and delegate to the Constitutional Convention
of 1867; these offices, the gifts of the people, were bestowed upon him by those who knew his worth and his ability, and they afford an index to the hold he had upon the respect and confidence of his fellow-citizens. In his private life he was indeed an exemplary man. The circle of his friends was large, for he was possessed of a disposition which attracted people to him, and which won their confidence and secured their friendship at the same time. He was genial and social in his intercourse with society; and although by reason of infirmity during several of the later years of his life he seldom spent his evenings away from his own home, yet he was always a welcome guest at the home of others. From his own family relations he derived the greatest solace. Those relations were dear to him, and happily they were of the most affectionate nature. He was the fond husband of a loving wife, a kind and obliging father, whose children venerated
and loved him.

It is, however, of his character as a judge that I would more particularly speak upon this occasion. When he was appointed to that position he was forty-three years of age. His judicial labors extended over a period of nearly twenty-three years. He possessed those qualities of mind which eminently fitted him judicial investigation. He was diligent and painstaking and free from partisan feelings. He was well grounded in the principles of the law, and exhibited in a marked degree the ability to discern and apply those principles to the cases which came under his consideration. He came to conclusions only after the fullest investigation, and a conclusion once reached assumed the force of conviction. Upon doubtful questions he scrutinized every argument, weighed every reason, and sought for a solution which would mete out substantial justice to the parties litigant.

So long as courts are established for the attainment of justice, the substantial merits of a controversy can never be lost sight of in the disposition of a cause. It is often a reproach to the administration of the law, that the ends of justice are delayed and sometimes defeated by the interposition of some legal technicality which determines no rights, and leaves the merits of the controversy untouched.

Judge Withey always took broad and conservative views, and overlooking technicalities, and avoiding all side issues which would draw him away from the substantial issues, gave judgment in accordance with what he regarded as the right and justice of the case as established by the testimony submitted to him. Few challenged the correctness of his decisions, and none regarded them other than the unbiased and impartial convictions at which he had arrived. He possessed the unbounded confidence in his integrity of both suitors and lawyers; and his judicial life was without reproach. No prouder epitaph need be inscribed on his tomb. The record he has made demands no apology ; and his memory will remain a grateful remembrance to all who shared his friendship or possessed an intimate acquaintance with him. It is with sorrow that it must be said that the affectionate husband and father, the good citizen, the true friend, the, wise counselor, the impartial judge is dead. Dead!
“There is no death; what seems so is transition—
This life of mortal breath,
Is but the suburb of the life Elysian
Whose portal we call death.”
He has crossed the portal and entered into the new life beyond. Peace be to his ashes.

At the conclusion of Judge Champlin’ s remarks, the Chief Justice said: The remarks of Judge Champlin, and of the Attorney General arid other members of the bar have left little occasion for further reference to the characteristics of Judge Withey. But the esteem in which I have long held him personally makes it difficult to abstain from saying a few words in addition to what has been expressed so eloquently and appropriately by the gentlemen who have spoken. I have not seen so much of him since he took his seat on the bench of the United States Court as before. But I have known him a long time and many years ago had more or less occasion to meet him professionally and personally.

I always found in him the same qualities that have been so well described this morning.

I shall not attempt to add anything to what has been said of his professional and official character. I shall only refer to him very briefly as a citizen, rather than as a lawyer and judge.

During all his life he was steadily and quietly devoted to the performance of duty. His physical infirmity would have led many men, and might very well have led, to give up the contest and retire from the hard work of life. But he went on bravely, and not only did all that could be done by most men, but much more than any one could be expected to do. He did all his work thoroughly and faithfully and he kept on working to the last until he went down in the struggle. He was as true a martyr as ever went to the stake— as true a hero as ever fell in battle.

His great judicial labors never interfered with his performing all the functions of a good citizen. It often happens that persons who assume Government offices give up much of their interest in local and State affairs. But Judge Withey was always active in promoting the welfare and advancement of Grand Rapids as well as of the State at large. He performed cheerfully and diligently those duties that are unpaid and not always even remembered with gratitude, but which are necessary for the safety and preservation of cities and all free communities—only the best men can perform them well.

No one was more devoted to the welfare and prosperity of the community than he was, and Grand Rapids will always have reason to remember him gratefully for his generous devotion to the public good, and for the example of his useful and consistent life. It owes much of its prosperity to him. But he was equally interested in the welfare of the State, and well known for his services in various capacities. As a member of the legislature he was diligent and useful and always relied on for hard work and sound judgment. When the last Constitutional Convention met in 1867 he was elected and served as a delegate, and was one of the most prominent members of that body. He took a very active part in its labors and debates, and his views were sought for and respected for his wisdom and good judgment. Although the people did not ratify the work of the convention, his services were meritorious and he deserved and received great consideration.

The loss of such a man is a calamity, and his memory deserves to be kept in honor.

The Court accepts the resolutions of the Bar, and will make the disposition of them requested by the Attorney General.
Ordered accordingly.