REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
JOSEPH G. BALDWIN.
By J. G. HOWARD.
AUTHOR OF THE “BLOVE PAPERS.”
The father of Joseph G. Baldwin, a native of Connecticut, emigrated to Virginia at an early period of his life; and after a few years’ residence in his adopted State, married a lady of his own name from Maryland, whose uncle subsequently became very distinguished in the judicial annals of Virginia. That father still lives at Lynchburg. Born at Stauton, in the county of Augusta, on the 22d of January, 1815, we find young Joseph, at the tender age of twelve, developing unusual business precocity and earnest self-reliance in the performance of the arduous and responsible duties of a Deputy District Court Clerk in his native town. Still further illustrating his youthful energy and early mental capacity, we hear of his assuming the entire editorial control of a popular newspaper, at Buchanan, in the country of Rockbridge, at the very boyish period seventeen. And it may be here remarked with propriety, that no better instance can be adduced than the individual now under review, of the tendency of our peculiar institutions to foster and reward the unaided efforts of the emulous offspring of comparative indigence.
How he acquired his legal knowledge, save by night vigils, cannot be told; but a comparative lad of but nineteen years of age, he is next seen at DeKalb, in the State of Mississippi, springing into legal notoriety, and the caressed and intimate associate of such luminaries as Wiley P. Harris and J. T. Harrison, and that marvel of modern oratory, S. S. Prentiss. Between him and the latter arose upon the instant an enduring regard, stronger than the ties of brotherhood. It was the sudden meeting of kindred genius— the blending and coalescing of two master-spirits. It was wonderful, the strange affection that knit so indissolubly together those two nervous minds. It was just as the great advocate was embarking at New Orleans to breathe his last in his loved Natchez. He turned away from the coterie of almost worshipping ones who surrounded him, to his devoted friend, Colonel Alexander Walker of the Delta. “Alec, be sure,” said he in that melting voice of his, “to write my love to Joe Baldwin. I have written my last on earth. A great man is Joe. He has no superior as writer and lawyer. He comes the nearest to my idea of an universal genius.” It was the tribute of dying worth to living excellence.
At twenty-one, young Baldwin repaired to Sumpter county, in the State of Alabama, continuing the practice of his profession with renewed zest and extraordinary success, until summoned by the voice of the people to the State legislature councils. In ‘44, he acquired much oratorical reputation as an electoral canvasser on the Whig ticket; and in 1849 was defeated by Col. S. W. Inge for Congress, by 250 votes; yet establishing his personal popularity in that violent Democratic State by securing the suffrage of every county in his district but one.
At that time, the practice of the law is that section of the country was somewhat peculiar. The attorney was in the habit of traversing his entire judicial circuit. The termination of this protracted itinerary left him but a scant space of some two or three months for devotion to his home clientage. It was during one of those hurried intervals, and while fretted with an extensive and lucrative practice, that he indicted by snatches and at candle light, that series of sketches now so popularly known under the sobriquet of The Flush Times of Alabama. I regard it almost a matter of supererogation to descant upon the merits of this production, now so generally diffused throughout our land. Its title and class of topics, somewhat repugnant to the staid and scholarly mind, would associate it with that careless, and roistering and rollicking, mass of ephemeral exudings with which the press has teemed for several past years. Its perusal dissipates such disparaging notion. That it was hastily composed is no argument against its intrinsic worth. It was the first literary essay of a mind crowded with thought and replete with exquisite imagery— the primitive yield of a rich virgin soil— the gleeful bubbling of a full, and till then undisturbed fountain. Occasionally descending into the provincialism’s and sectional eccentricities of a class with whom the author was brought in contact, the reader is never annoyed with tameness or startled by vulgarity. There is a genial and bounding mirthfulness throughout, with no offensive or wounding syllable. He riots in ludicrous delight, with the peculiarities of the nomadic bar, and yet so hearty and refined are his strokes of humor, that he enhances his victims in our estimation. There is nothing of that gross caricature in the Flush Times that so pleases the unlettered crowd. It would be difficult not to admire old Chasm in his fierce battle against the legal fledgling. While venting such gall as never issued from the mouth of Timon, he maintains the dignity of a veteran lawyer, and interweaves the most apposite and learned quotations in his classical and scathing invective. Apart from the emanations of convulsing wit that scintillate and sparkle along each page, this work has a higher charm of pure, classic diction. It contains no violation of the most rigid literary taste, or the most elevated chastity of thought; and it almost groans under its affluence of cunning fantasies of language, and merry conceits, and adroit suddenness of situations.
There is one serious effort in the collection that becomes extremely pathetic as we recall the relations that existed between the writer and the subject. A survivor is portraying the attributes of his deceased friend; and it required just such a golden pen to trace the bright and glowing theme. They had been companions; and many a time and oft had pierced the drowsy ear of night with their chaste but uproarious hilarity. It may be a defect of both taste and judgment on my part, but for purity of style and richness and copiousness of illustration and sententious analysis of character. I have encountered nothing superior in the English language to Judge Baldwin’s essay on the life of S. S. Prentiss. It is a dense repertoire of salient thought enveloped in spotless Saxon robe; and yet the writer scarcely ever crossed the portals of a hedge school-house.
He has written another work, of a character so divergent from his humorous essays that it puzzles us to conceive them the issue of the same brain. His “Party Leaders” is a careful and philosophic product of his maturer years. A reviewer, who would mould public opinion to his behest's, once pronounced its style “ambitious.” It was the sneer of envy and malicious detraction. The language of this superior treatise especially embodies the elements of nervousness and simplicity, while the arrangement and marshaling of his facts develop the highest order of logic. I am more than willing to rest the literary fame of my deceased friend upon this single production. It has already noiselessly crept into the classics of the day, and has received the stamp of merit from English approbation. Not, perhaps, in the disjointed times of the present, but the future statesman will garner it up as the most reliable contemporaneous biography of those great spirits who thought and acted for the rude masses of our generation; and it will become his encyclopćdia from which to cull pregnant political facts that would otherwise have glided into oblivion. He will ponder over its close analysis and amazing fertility of thought, and award that due commendation to its brilliant author, of which our people are somewhat chary.
Judge Baldwin was extremely careless of his literary reputation. Penning with utmost ease and facility, he adopted no method, but wrote only when “in the mood;” and he strewed his prolific manuscripts around with the recklessness of a spoiled child, the playthings of which he was weary. I know, however, that had he not been summoned away, he would have devoted himself to the master effort of his life. He had already amassed the materials for a philosophic history of this portion of the Pacific Coast. With wealth sufficient for literary retiracy, engirt on all sides with admiring and loving friends, and in the full flush and vigor of his powers, it might well be augured that he would achieve something of honor to the age. But the great and good God willed otherwise.
It now becomes necessary to say something of his legal attainments and forensic ability. It is a very stupid error of the illiterate that the limited mental constitution of a man does not permit excellence in more than one intellectual pursuit; and hence their loathness to intrust litigation to a lawyer who is detected in anything that savors of abstract intellectual pursuits. But the vast learning and continuous writing of Cicero debarred him not from his patrons, nor impaired his powers of oratory. It is learning that gilds and renders attractive the drudging professions; and hence the illustration of Macaulay on this very matter that the fleet ostrich employs its wings as well as feet.
Contending against a voice by no means attractive and a physique ill adapted to the graces of the higher rank of oratorical efforts, Judge Baldwin had at his command forcible and terse and pointed language, that never failed to arrest the attention of both judge and jury.
In another connection, allusion has been made to the severe logical cast of his mind, and yet, with the rarest versatility and relief, while avoiding all attempts at rhetorical flourish, he would bring to bear the most inimitable and exquisite powers of illustration. About the most arid and uninviting legal abstraction, he would weave some happy simile or anecdotal coincidence that would captivate the understanding of the most obtuse.
In 1853, Mr. Baldwin left Alabama, reaching California in the early part of 1854.
With a mind stored with every phase of legal learning, both as counsellor and advocate, he had achieved distinction in his olden home; and it is not surprising therefore, that in the new State of California he should rank at once among the most eminent of the bar of San Francisco. His success was commensurate with his marked ability. His professional prominence secured him the position of a seat upon the Supreme Bench, to which he was elevated by the voice of the people, in the fall of the year 1858.
The manner in which he discharged the duties and responsibilities of this new and untried sphere mounts into the marvelous and borders upon the realms of fable. At the outset of his judicial career, there was a constantly increasing calendar that had already swollen to the frightful number of near 600 causes— an Augean stable of diverse and intricate litigation that might well appall the most Herculean Judge. At the termination of his term of office, the portentous calendar was cleared; and it is within bounds to say that four-fifths of the serried and confused mass had passed through his laborious hands— an amount of continuous toil unexampled in the annals of judicature. More than any other of our Supreme Judiciary, has he contributed to elucidate our infant system of laws and the novel and perplexing questions that have sprung up under our peculiar situation and varied pursuits. He combined unwonted industry with most consummate ability. His adjudication's are models of clear and logical perception, and reveal the most extensive research, and stringent power of analysis, and copious and refined illustration, and are characterized by grace of style, and scholarly learning and sound deduction. In little while, he reared his name among the most distinguished and erudite of the jurists of the land.
The State of California should be very proud of Judge Baldwin. He has been intimately and prominently associated with her history for the last ten years. Even his salient and epigrammatic wit, generally so transitory, is interwoven and will become traditionary with the striking events that provoked its flashing.
The manners of Judge Baldwin were of a frank and simple nature, with a sweet intrusiveness of social temperament that disarmed all reserve and beckoned immediate companionship. He united the highest order of conversational powers to the fascination of his exhaustless flow of racy and pungent humor; and yet had he a manliness of character and a stern sense of right and a high principle of honor that won the esteem of the great and good with whom he was brought in contact. Such as he could never foster a sordid feeling. His pockets were ever open to every charitable appeal. He esteemed his race, and his checkered career is marked at each footfall with the most passionate affections. Towards those he loved he manifested the tenderness of girlhood. I have seen the big tear-drop course down his cheek as he would mount in glowing panegyric upon his great political chieftain, Henry Clay. He has gone to his long home, leaving no enmity behind. As son and husband and father he was the idol of devoted love. It was only a few weeks before his death that he buried a darling boy; but they met again in the spirit-land. It is almost wrong to weep at the final departure of such a man. Upon his garments rests not a stain. He is in bliss and with his God; would we recall him to a life that at best is full of sorrows?
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 135-141.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.