REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
BY THE EDITOR.
This gentleman is one of the oldest practitioners at the San Francisco bar. For nearly twenty years, with the exception of the time when he occupied a seat upon the Supreme Bench of California, and the further period of nearly five years passed in two visits to the Eastern States, he has been actively engaged in the practice of law in the metropolis of the Pacific.
Judge Bennett is of regular old Puritan stock. His father and mother were born and married in Fairfield county, Connecticut, where their ancestors had resided for several generations. A short time after their marriage, his parents removed to Caatskill, then a village just beginning to flourish in the State of New York, and where his father engaged in the mercantile business for some years. The latter afterwards moved to Clinton, Oneida county, at which place Hamilton College had then lately been established. His object in moving to Clinton was to embrace the better opportunities which offered for the education of his children.
Two of his sons, older brothers of Nathaniel, graduated at Hamilton College. One of them was for many years chief judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Erie county, New York. The other was also a lawyer, and practiced his profession in New York city, in partnership with Hugh Maxwell, Esq., at that time District Attorney of the city. This brother died when quite a young man.
Nathaniel Bennett was born at Clinton, Oneida county, New York, on the 27th day of June, 1818. When he was three or four years old his father purchased several tracts of land of considerable extent, in Erie county. On one of these tracts he settled as a farmer, moving his family thither from Clinton. Nathaniel passed his early boyhood on this farm, and in his twelfth year was sent to Buffalo to a military school, then lately established by the celebrated Captain Partridge, who had been for more than twelve years principal of West Point Academy.
Nathaniel was at school at Buffalo for over two years. The pupils of this school were daily subjected to regular military drill and exercise, after the fashion at West Point. From Buffalo, young Bennett was sent to the Academy at Canandaigua, under the direction of Mr. Howe, where he continued his studies for about a year. One of his schoolmates at Canandaigua was Stephen A. Douglas, who then gave no indication of his subsequent renown. After leaving the Academy, young Bennett was sent to Hamilton College, where he remained one year; at the end of that time he entered Yale College.
Mr. Bennett read law at Buffalo, New York. He was admitted to practice as an attorney in 1840, and as a counselor in 1843. He practiced at Buffalo from 1840 until the fall of 1842, in partnership with Eli Cook, a brother of Elisha Cook, Esq., of San Francisco. He then determined, as his health was somewhat impaired, to make a tour through the Southern States. In 1838-9, he had traveled through Ohio, and visited many parts of Indiana and Kentucky, but had beheld no spot for which he was willing to exchange his own home—Buffalo. Up to the time of his starting upon his second and longer journey, Mr. Bennett had always been an ardent Democrat, and a great admirer of the South and southern institutions. A radical change was soon to come over his feelings. He passed, on horseback, through the States of Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, to New Orleans, where he spent the winter of 1842-3. In the following spring, he started upon his return trip. He rode, on horseback through eastern Louisiana, through Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, to Buffalo. In referring to this tour, Judge Bennett has stated that it wrought a great change in his views concerning southern institutions, country, and people.
Upon his return home, Mr. Bennett applied himself closely to the study and practice of his profession. When the political organization known as “Barnburners” first arose, under the leadership of Silas Wright, Benjamin F. Butler, Joseph White, John Van Buren, and others, Mr. Bennett embraced the principles of the new party with enthusiasm. He was a member of the celebrated Barnburners’ convention which met at Buffalo in the summer of 1848. In addition to the men just named above, Charles Francis Adams, Charles Sedgwick, Alvin Stewart, of Utica, and James W. Nye, now U. S. Senator of Nevada, were delegates to the convention; and a great many others, among whom were some of the most noted men of the Democratic party, who had determined to sever their connection with the latter organization, if it continued in the course which it was pursuing. The convention nominated Martin Van Buren for the presidency. The result of the election is known. Silas Wright, truly a great man, did not live to see the triumph of his principles. Although wedded to political tenets repugnant to a very large majority of his fellow-citizens, and dying in the effort to engraft his views upon hostile public sentiment, millions of devoted friends and magnanimous foes lamented his death, and the flag of his country drooped in melancholy appreciation of the national loss. Judge Bennett is one of those whose hearts were cast down by the tidings of his death, and who have labored patiently and quietly for the vindication of his political principles, and the establishment of a great national party, whose controlling purpose should be the fulfillment of his prophecies and the execution of his high designs.
From 1843 to the summer of 1848, Mr. Bennett was exclusively engaged in practicing law. His success was very considerable. By long and continued labor, and the sacrifice of personal comforts and enjoyments, he had acquired a competency; but his health had become greatly impaired. He was closing up his business affairs, with the intention of spending the following winter in Europe, when the discovery of gold directed his attention to California. His physicians had advised him to take a sea voyage, and as he had lost his health in the pursuit of gold, he hoped in like manner to regain it.
About the time Mr. Bennett determined to leave for California, a few of his friends made the same resolution, and their united efforts got together a pleasant party of twelve persons, mutual acquaintances, who agreed to make the long sea voyage in company. Before completing the arrangements for their departure, they heard of an old ship announced to leave New London, Connecticut, for San Francisco. Believing that a vessel leaving that port would be less crowded than one from New York city, Mr. Bennett, on behalf of his little party of friends, visited New London and inspected the ship. She proved to be the Mentor, a whaling vessel, which had been built by Stephen Girard thirty-eight years before, had made several long voyages, and now presented a sorrowful appearance. Mr. Bennett was not fascinated at the sight of the old hulk on her beams, dismasted, stanchions rotten, and innocent of paint. Like many of his old writs and summonses, he thought her functus officio. But, upon inquiry, he ascertained that her timbers were strong, and that the necessary repairs could be made so as to render her entirely sea-worthy. Accordingly, he engaged passage for his party. The owners of the Mentor at once proceeded to fit her up in proper manner; they painted her, put up her masts, made two cabins, one having capacity for fifty steerage passengers, the other just large enough to accommodate Mr. Bennett and his friends, and a few others, making twenty-five in all. The Mentor sailed from New London on the last day of January, 1849. Our little band of pioneers were well provided with tents, clothing, provisions and every variety of implement then deemed necessary in mining. On the first day out, the Mentor encountered a violent gale, which severely tested her strength and fitness for the voyage she had undertaken. She behaved splendidly, but having sprung her main cap she was obliged to put in to Rio Janeiro for repairs. After a week’s sojourn at that place, enraptured beholders of natural scenery which, in magnificent and grandeur, is surpassed by that of no spot on earth, the voyagers renewed their journey. Swiftly and gallantly, the old Mentor swept round the “Horn,” passing every one of the many vessels she overtook on the way. She stayed two days at Juan Fernandez, or Robinson Crusoe’s Island, where the passengers landed. Mr. Bennett and his companions wandered, with feelings of pleasurable emotion, over this famous island, and frequent and fervent were their expressions of admiration for the genius of De Foe, whose pen, one hundred and thirty years before, had invested this lonely island with such romantic interest, that a perpetual charm will linger around it and pervade its silent lodges.
The Mentor landed her passengers at San Francisco, on June 30th, 1849. Judge Bennett has stated that the five months consumed in the voyage round the “Horn” were passed more pleasantly than any other portion of his life. The captain and crew of the Mentor were old whalers and well-behaved men; the cabin passengers were supplied with books, chess-boards, cards, etc.; and as Mr. Bennett spent considerable time every day in studying the Spanish language—that being the tongue spoken by the native population of California—it may easily be perceived how the long ocean voyage was rendered agreeable, and even delightful. Besides, Mr. Bennett enjoyed a happy exemption from sea-sickness during the entire trip.
Upon arriving at San Francisco, Mr. Bennett’s company determined not to remain in the city, and the entire party immediately started for the mines. The little party did not cling together a month, but broke up, like all such companies in those times, most of them returning to their homes in the Eastern States.
Mr. Bennett commenced his California life in digging gold on the Tuolumne river, on a bar about two miles below Jacksonville, at the mouth of Wood’s creek. This bar proved very rich, and being worked by a goodly number of men, yielded an immense amount of gold. Mr. Bennett was very fortunate at mining: he continued at his new occupation for about three months, when in response to the repeated solicitations of a friend practicing law at San Francisco, he determined to repair to that city, and resume the practice of his profession. Accordingly, in the fall of 1849, he returned to San Francisco, where he formed a law partnership with the gentleman who had induced him to leave the mines. This gentleman was the Hon. John Satterlee, afterwards Judge of the Superior Court of San Francisco, one of Judge Bennett’s earliest and best friends, and a member of his company, but who had crossed the isthmus in advance of the rest.
During his long sea voyage, Mr. Bennett had made considerable progress in his study of the Spanish language; and after commencing practice at San Francisco, he continued his studies until he could read Spanish law-books with facility. Soon after the adoption of the State constitution, he was elected a State senator from San Francisco. He had been in his seat only a few days, when he was elected by the Legislature one of the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, being chosen for the longest term, six years. During his brief senatorial career, and immediately thereafter, he virtually directed the determination of an important question then agitating the mind of the legal fraternity. A petition signed by many practicing members of the San Francisco bar, had been submitted to the Legislature, praying that that body would retain “in its substantial elements, the system of the Civil Law.” The report of the Judiciary Committee, to whom this petition was referred, was written by Judge Bennett, and led to the prompt adoption of the COMMON LAW by the Legislature then in session. This lettered exposition of the general principles of the Civil and of the Common Law, replete with arguments, compactly marshalled, (sic) in favor of the superiority of the latter system, will be found in the first volume of the California Law Reports. It has lost no title of its original merit, and cannot be too often read by the law student.
Judge Bennett continued on the Supreme Bench for about two years, when he resigned, his salary being insufficient to support him in comfort. The nominal salary of a Supreme Judge was ten thousand dollars per annum, payable quarterly; but soon after the organization of the State government, the scrip of the State rapidly declined, as might have been expected.
Judge Bennett was compelled to part with large amounts of scrip for fifty cents on the dollar, and some as low as thirty-five cents. Upon the expectation that the paper of the State would not fall much below par, he had contracted some debts, drawing a high rate of interest, and to remain in office would be to sink deeper and deeper in debt. He therefore resigned, and entered upon the practice of law.
In October, 1850, when the glad tidings came slowly over the waters, that California had become a sovereign State in the federal sisterhood, the enthusiastic citizens of San Francisco celebrated the event with great pomp and ceremony. Judge Bennett was selected to deliver in the oration. His effort on that occasion was printed in full in the columns of the Alta California, and other newspapers of the city. It is remembered with affectionate admiration by the surviving pioneers of the State, and is treasured among the archives in the County Recorder’s office of San Francisco. It is a masterpiece. It has long been a favorite piece for declamation in our schools; and no matter to how high a standard the literature of the Pacific coast may in future attain, must ever be considered and esteemed as a California classic. This oration appears in this volume, immediately following this sketch.
In 1852-3, Judge Bennett was absent from the State for eighteen months, on a visit to the Eastern States. Upon returning, he resumed the practice of law. He devoted himself closely to his profession, and paid but little attention to politics until the formation of the Republican party. He was present, and took part in the first Republican meeting held in San Francisco; and was a delegate to the first Republican State convention held at Sacramento, being elected president of that body. He was nominated for Judge of the Supreme Court on the first Republican State ticket voted for in California, when Hon. Edward Stanly was the Republican candidate for Governor. Being defeated, with the remainder of the Republican nominees, Judge Bennett paid a second and longer visit to his old home, and returned to San Francisco after an absence of three years, in 1860. Since that time, he has been in continuous practice at the San Francisco bar. From 1866 until 1868, Judge Bennett was in partnership with Elisha Cook, Esq., brother of his former law-partner in New York. Later, he was the senior member of the law-firm of Bennett, Machin & Owen; and still continues, in connection with the last-named gentleman, the practice of law.
At the celebration in May, 1869, of the completion of the Pacific Railroad, by the people of San Francisco, Judge Bennett had the honorable task assigned him of delivering the oration on the occasion. In grandeur of thought, splendor of diction, and beauty of expression, this effort will compare favorably with his address delivered in 1850, to which allusion has already been made. Thus, it will be seen, the name of Nathaniel Bennett will be intimately associated through coming time with the history of the two grandest events which in his age affected the interests and destinies of his adopted State.
It is hardly necessary to speak of Judge Bennett’s personal qualities or professional abilities. He is known by his works. An able bar has long recognized him as one of the first of counselors and jurists. He is a scholar of high classical and scientific attainments; and as Poe said of Bryant, “His soul is charity itself, in all respects generous and noble.”
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 545-552.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.