REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
MATTHEW HALL McALLISTER.
By HENRY E. HIGHTON.
This eminent gentleman was born in Savannah, Georgia, on the twenty-sixth day of November, in the year eighteen hundred, and died at San Francisco, California, on the nineteenth day of December, eighteen hundred and sixty-five. He was educated at Princeton College, New Jersey, and bred to the law, in which honorable profession, for three generations, members of his family have achieved distinction. After his admission to the Bar, he practiced successfully in the City of Savannah for twenty-nine years; and during the Administration of John Quincy Adams, filled the post of United States Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, which had been previously held by his father, Matthew McAllister, under the appointment of General Washington. For many years, Judge McAllister was so fully occupied by the laborious duties connected with his extensive and lucrative practice, that he took no conspicuous part in public affairs; but when, in eighteen hundred and thirty-two, the attempt was made to graft the revolutionary doctrine of nullification upon the policy of the South, he boldly ranged himself with the defenders of the Union and the Constitution, and in the heated discussions which occurred during that period, exhibited a breadth of knowledge, a logical power, and a fervid eloquence, which soon marked him for a popular leader. At the age of thirty-five, he was one of the most prominent and influential members of the Legislature of Georgia, and subsequently, for five successive years, represented Savannah in the higher branch of that body, during which time, in the face of a vigorous and persistent opposition, he effected a radical and most beneficial change in the judicial system of the State, by the establishment of the Court for the Correction of Errors.
In eighteen hundred and forty-five, he became the Democratic candidate for the Governorship of Georgia, and though his party was in a hopeless minority, such was his personal popularity, that he was defeated only by a small vote; and three years afterwards, represented his native State as one of the delegates at large, in the National Democratic Convention which nominated General Cass for the Presidency. In eighteen hundred and fifty, he migrated to California, and practiced law in San Francisco with remarkable success until eighteen hundred and fifty-three, when he temporarily returned to Georgia. At this period, the Legislature of that State were engaged in the selection of an United States Senator, and upon the arrival of Judge McAllister, notwithstanding the fact that he had permanently identified himself with the fact he had permanently identified himself with the interests of the Pacific Coast, he was nominated by his friends, and out of one hundred and eleven votes, which were necessary to a choice, he obtained the extraordinary number of ninety-three. So emphatic a compliment has been rarely paid to any man, however eminent, under similar circumstances. In eighteen hundred and fifty-five, upon the organization of the first Circuit Court for the Pacific States, he received the appointment of Presiding Judge, which position he retained until eighteen hundred and sixty-two, when failing health compelled him to resign; and, after forty years spent in arduous labor and rewarded by honorable achievements, he retired into that private station from which it pleased God that he should never again emerge.
Thus have been summarily stated a few of the leading facts in the life of this distinguished man, of whose career, it may be justly said: “sic itur ad astra.” Of his intellectual and moral qualities it may be generally observed, that he possessed in happy combination the shrewd practical sense, the keen and analytical power, and the strong moral feeling, which characterized his Scottish ancestry, and the glowing imagination and the Chivalrous honor which grow out of aristocratic systems and ripen under tropical skies. His learning was both extensive and varied; his style, whether in speaking or in writing, clear and rich; and his language apt and precise. His manners were of the old school, so gentle and so courtly that they won for him affection and commanded for him respect. He was kind and generous to all with whom he came in contact, and young practitioners especially, who, in their early struggles, are often chilled and wounded by the frosty patronage, the trampling jealousy, or the hard severity, of their seniors, ever found in him a discriminating adviser and a sympathizing friend.
Illustrations of the correctness of these remarks might be numerously cited, were not brevity part of the design of this sketch. Among those bearing on his professional standing, may be recalled the celebrated case of Kennedy vs. The Georgia State Bank, reported in the eighth volume of Howard’s Reports of the Supreme Court of the United States, which Judge McAllister argued against Daniel Webster and other eminent lawyers, and in which he was victorious. His argument in this case fully exhibits the vigor of his mind and the profundity of his research, which were even more strikingly displayed after he had reached the Bench, in an opinion which received the unusual honor of being formally adopted by the Supreme Court of the United States. These, however, are but two examples out of many that might be selected from the product of his industry within the wide circle in which he moved.
But perhaps the most valuable services which Judge McAllister rendered to his country and to mankind, were in connection with the development of the great communities which fringe the Pacific Ocean, and which, within twenty years, have fulfilled the prophecy of Bishop Berkeley by carrying civilization to its extreme western limit. In this practical age, in which facts multiply with unexampled rapidity, and the minds of men are profoundly occupied with their own immediate concerns, we are apt to overlook the importance of contemporary events in their relation to the future; but history has always placed the founders of States among the most illustrious of our race, and to this class the subject of these observations emphatically belonged. The head of a large and distinguished family, at an advanced age, surrounded by associations from which it must have been most difficult for him to escape, he severed the ties which bound him to his native State, crossed a continent, and in a country scarcely redeemed from barbarism and exceptional in all its conditions, established centres of usefulness and of influence, which have most powerfully contributed to the rapid, but symmetrical and steady, progress that has attracted to the Pacific Coast the wondering admiration of the world. Not only this, but in his place on the Bench, with great questions to decide, in the solution of which he was almost unassisted by precedent, he most actively and beneficially participated in the just application of legal principles to anomalous and intricate combination of fact, and thus rendered to society, perhaps the greatest benefit that wisdom and learning can confer. The single volume of his opinions, edited by one of his sons, is a monument to his memory which will excite the attention and respect of future generations, and the utility of which will be coextensive with the existence of the Union.
The death of Judge McAllister was sudden but not unexpected. In the various Courts of San Francisco - Municipal, State, and Federal - the usual honors were paid to his memory, and were accompanied by eulogies, both from the Bench and from the Bar, more than ordinarily earnest and impressive. The funeral ceremonies were rendered highly imposing by the number, the respectability, and the sincerity, of those by whom they were witnessed.
To those who enjoyed the advantage of a personal acquaintance with Judge McAllister, especially to the narrow circle where his inner life was spent, there are other thoughts and other feelings suggested by his death, which are best unuttered. “ Quis-talia fando temperet a lachrymis.” With reverential tenderness he was committed to the peace and serenity of the tomb. There, in that beautiful cemetery, overlooking the Pacific, where the war of our hard struggling life cannot penetrate, and where the western breezes make soft music amidst the graves of the unforgotten dead, he shall calmly and securely sleep, while in the metropolis of California his descendants shall worthily transmit his lofty virtues and his intellectual fame, and throughout the Pacific Coast, society, ever expanding and ever improving, shall permanently feel the impulse of his labors, and shall preserve his name on the roll of its most illustrious Pioneers.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 129-133.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.