REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
SERRANUS CLINTON HASTINGS
By THOMAS P. MADDEN.
The ancestry of this gentleman can be traced to times far remote. He is a lineal descendant of the General of his name who led the Danish forces into England during the Heptarchy. His grandfather emigrated from England to Rhode Island early in the seventeenth century. His father, Robert Collins Hastings, a man of considerable intelligence, was bred a mechanic, but his ardent temper drew him away from his laborious pursuits to a wider field and higher sphere of usefulness. During the War of 1812, he commanded a company of soldiers at Sackett’s Harbor. He was conspicuous in the exciting political events of his day, and was a firm friend and supporter of DeWitt Clinton. After that noble patron of virtue, learning and labor, he named his son. His wife (mother of S. Clinton) was a Miss Brayton, of the pioneer family of that name, who were the first settlers of Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties, New York.
Serranus Clinton Hastings was born in Jefferson county, New York, Nov. 22d, 1814. In early youth, he passed six years in study at Governeur Academy. At the age of twenty, he became the principal of the Norwich Academy, Chenango county, New York. This position, after one year’s successful teaching, he resigned, having introduced the Hamiltonian system of instruction in the languages, the Angletean system of mathematics, and other branches of education.
He commenced the study of law with Charles Thorpe, Esq., of Norwich. In the office of this gentleman he prosecuted his studies only a few months, when, in 1834, he emigrated to Lawrenceburg, Indiana, where, in the office of Daniel S. Majors, Esq., he completed his legal studies. He did not enter immediately upon his professional labors. During the bitter presidential contest of 1836, he edited the Indiana Signal, an influence journal which gave a spirited and effective support to Martin Van Buren.
In December, 1836, Mr. Hastings resumed his march westward. Arriving at Terre Haute, Indiana, he presented himself to Judge Porter, of the Circuit Court, and stood the test of a severe legal examination at the hands of that able jurist.
He continued his journey until he reached the Black Hawk Purchase, (now the State of Iowa) and arrived at Burlington in January, 1837. In the following spring he took up his residence on the western bank of the Mississippi, where has since sprung up the city of Muscatine, Iowa. At that time this vast stretch of country was attached to the Territory of Wisconsin for judicial purposes. Mr. Hastings now resolved to commence the practice of the profession for which he had prepared himself. He was examined by Judge Irwin, by whom he was admitted to the bar in 1837. Shortly afterwards, he was commissioned a Justice of the Peace by Gov. Dodge of Wisconsin, with jurisdiction extending over the country lying between Burlington and Davenport, a distance of ninety miles. The western limit of his jurisdiction being undefined, the grasping young magistrate, for his own satisfaction, fixed it at the Pacific Ocean—not having the fear of Mexico before his eyes. He had but one case during his term of office—a criminal charge against a man, who was found guilty by the Justice of stealing $30 from a citizen and $3 from the court. The sentence was, that the prisoner be taken to an adjacent grove and tied to an oak tree, and to received upon his back thirty lashes for the money taken from the citizen and three lashes for the $3 stolen from the court, and to be thence transported across the river to the Illinois shore and banished from the Territory for ever; which sentence, in presence of the court and of all the people, was duly and formally executed.
On June 12th, 1838, Iowa was erected into a separate Territory. Mr. Hastings became the Democratic candidate of his district for the first Legislature to assemble under the Territorial Government. After a very spirited contest, he was elected.
From time to time thereafter, and until 1846, (when Iowa was admitted into the Union) Mr. Hastings continued in public life, representing his constituents either in the House or Council. During one of these sessions of the Territorial Legislature, he was elected President of the Council, the duties of which position he discharged with great dispatch. During another session, while a member of the Judiciary Committee, and associated with Hon. James W. Grimes, since United States Senator, he reported from the committee the celebrated statute known in Oregon and Iowa for many years as the Blue Book. This work was accomplished in ninety days, the limit of a legislative session. It was also during one of these sessions that occurred what is known in the history of Iowa as the “Missouri War.” This “war” originated in the attempt of the sheriff of Clark county, Missouri, and other Missouri officials, to collect taxes within the territorial limits of Iowa. Gov. Boggs of Missouri and Gov. Lucas of Iowa were the acknowledged and opposing leaders. Mr. Hastings took an active part in this conflict. He left his seat in the Legislature, repaired to Muscatine, and took command of the “Muscatine Dragoons” and three companies of militia. Without tents or sufficient clothing, with no arms except pistols and bowie-knives, no forage for his animals, and a scanty supply of food for his men, he led his forces in the heart of a stern and bleak winter entirely through the “enemy’s country” towards the southern boundary of Missouri. The result of this campaign was the bloodless but glorious capture of the obnoxious sheriff, who was taken triumphantly back to the outraged soil of Iowa, and lodged in the Muscatine county jail. Before Major Hastings could again cross the Missouri line, where the Missouri forces were preparing to meet him, the difficulties were adjusted and peace fully restored.
Shortly after the termination of this serio-comic campaign, Major Hastings was appointed on the Governor’s staff, with the rank of Major of Militia.
Early in 1846, a convention of the people of Iowa assembled at the Capitol, and accepted the boundaries proposed by Congress for the new State. Major Hastings was unanimously nominated for Congress, and elected subsequently by the people.
Iowa being admitted into the Union, December 28th, 1846, Major Hastings took his seat as her representative in the Twenty-ninth Congress. With one exception, he was the youngest member of the House of Representatives—a body noted for the virtues and talents of its members. John Quincy Adams had not yet been removed from the theatre of his great triumphs. Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, Andrew Johnson, and other bright names, shone on the roll of members.
In January, 1848, Major Hastings was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Iowa. He held this position a little more than one year, when he resigned for the purpose of emigrating to California. He arrived in this State in the spring of 1849, and settled at Benicia. Shortly after his arrival, he was unanimously elected by the Legislature Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and served out his term of two years.
In 1851, Judge Hastings received the Democratic nomination for Attorney General, to which position he was elected by the people, receiving the highest vote cast at the election, except that given to the candidate for State Treasurer on the same ticket, Major Richard Roman. This vote was considered highly complimentary, as the field was occupied solely by his Whig opponent, who eloquently canvassed the State. At the end of his two years’ term of office, he retired to private life, and has not since been before the people as a candidate for office.
Judge Hastings is a married man, and has eight living children—four boys and four girls. He is a man of nervous, active temperament, genial manners, and agreeable presence. He is tall in stature and of powerful build, possessing great physical endurance. He is a ready and racy debater, but lays no claims to oratory. He is not particularly adapted to the legal profession, and his nature rebels against the restraints of judicial office. His legal attainments are, however, considerable. He is a fine Latin scholar. His conduct and decisions, as the highest judicial functionary of two States, have been generally commended, and not once, in our presence or to our knowledge, condemned. His conversation is decidedly entertaining, and at times infused with wit and humor. His heart cannot grow old. Politics and finances generally engross his thoughts.
While wearing the honors and cares of office, whirling in the dizzy round of political agitation, he always husbanded his resources, and managed his private business affairs with consummate wisdom. He is one of the few pioneers of California who grasped the golden opportunity offered by the flush, exciting times when the State was in her infancy, to lay broad and deep the foundations of their future wealth. His entire career, whether viewed from a political or financial standpoint, has been one of unbroken, almost marvelous success.
Judge Hastings was the guest of Gov. Seward in his tour of observation through Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, in the summer of 1869; and private duties interfered to prevent him accompanying that great friend of the Pacific coast in his journey through our sister Republic. He is addicted to travel, and, since he left public office, the greater part of his time which could be spared from the proper conducting of his children’s education and the management of his estates, has been spent in extended visits to the Eastern States and Europe. His residence is at San Francisco.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 433-437.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.