REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
STEPHEN JOHNSON FIELD
BY THE EDITOR.
JUDGE FIELD is the son of the late Rev. David D. Field, an eminent New England divine. David Dudley Field, who has been, for a quarter of a century, one of the foremost members of the American bar; Cyrus W. Field, the projector of the Atlantic submarine telegraph; Jonathan Field, formerly President of the Massachusetts Senate; and Rev. Henry M. Field, editor of the New Evangelist, are all brothers of the subject of this sketch.
Stephen Johnson Field was born in Haddam, Connecticut, November 4th, 1816. In 1818, his father moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he resided until 1837, and from 1851 until his death in 1866. When thirteen years of age, young Field accompanied a relative to Greece and Asia Minor, where he remained for nearly three years, studying the modern languages. Returning he entered Williams College in the fall of 1833, had the Greek Oration in the Junior year, and graduated in 1837 with the Valedictory Oration, the highest honor in his class. In 1838, he went to New York city, and entered upon the study of the law in the office of his brother, David Dudley Field. During this year, he met with an accident which resulted in serious and permanent injury to one of his knee-joints, and has ever since caused a slight lameness.
After being admitted to the bar, he became the partner of his brother, with whom he remained until June, 1848, when he went to Europe, and remained abroad until the fall of the next year. On his return, he was carried by the tide setting for California to that State, where he arrived on the 28th of December, 1849. Among his fellow-passengers were Gov. Purdy and Gregory Yale, Esq.
Mr. Field settled at Marysville, of which place he was one of the earliest citizens. "He was chosen by the first settlers Alcalde, (under Mexican usage) and officiated in that capacity until the organization of the judiciary of the State—his decisions being final, and his jurisdiction extending over an immense, indeed an undefined, territory." Subsequently, for many years, he practiced his profession in the various Courts of the State, and was engaged before the Supreme Court at nearly every term of that tribunal. For several years before his elevation to the Supreme Court bench, he was generally regarded as the first lawyer of Northern California. He also represented Yuba county in the second session of the Legislature, and the State is indebted to him for very many of the laws which constitute the body of her legislature.
In 1857, Mr. Field was elected one of the Justices of the Supreme Court of California, having received his nomination from the Democratic party. His nomination was endorsed by many leading newspapers politically opposed to him, and his election by a large majority was not only a political triumph but a popular recognition of those qualities which subsequently enabled him to adorn that high station. After his election, and before the commencement of the term for which he was chosen, he was appointed by Governor Johnson, Justice of the Supreme Court, to fill the unexpired term of Judge Heydenfeldt, resigned. This endorsement of the popular estimation of his high character. He took his seat on the bench in October, 1858, and in 1859, upon the resignation of Judge Terry, became Chief Justice of the State. In the latter year, he was married at San Francisco to Miss Sue V. Swearingen.
In 1863, while still discharging the duties of Chief Justice of the State, Judge Field, upon the unanimous recommendation of the Senators and Representatives in Congress from the Pacific coast, was nominated by President Lincoln and confirmed by the Senate, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He has ever since continued in the active performance of the functions of this high office.
At the bar, Judge Field was a most skillful opponent. He came to the trial of a cause thoroughly master of all its details; then, with his mind steadily fixed upon its principal points, he proceeded with coolness, caution, and boldness; never thrown off his guard; never surprised by a new proposition; and always developing strength when the cause demanded it, he seldom failed to evolve whatever there was in a case. Without being what is popularly called a great speaker, Judge Field argued his cases with force and effect, whether before a court or jury. There was a nervous strength and an enthusiasm in his clear-cut, logical arguments, which seldom failed to convince.
Upon the bench Judge Field was equally distinguished. His leading characteristics is his clear comprehension of the great principles of the law; in all cases he seeks to apply the broad and general rules of right and justice, and in order to do this, to brush away the trifles and technicalities by which they may be obscured. This is especially true of his opinions in cases involving the titles to land. When carefully examined, they will be found to embrace a system of land law, scattered, it is true, through twelve volumes of the Reports of the Supreme Court of the State of California; sufficiently comprehensive to meet nearly all questions arising in the acquisition, protection, and transmission of this species of property. It is undoubtedly owing to this fact that his decisions have so generally stood the test of time, and are now recognized as authority not only in California, but in all the States of the Pacific.
Judge Field enjoyed the intimate acquaintance and friendship of the late Joseph G. Baldwin, who entertained for his legal abilities profound respect. Judge Baldwin regarded with great pleasure and satisfaction Judge Field's elevation to the high place which he now holds, and in a communication to the Sacramento Union, under the date of May 6th, 1863, he gave a brief history of Judge Field's career, and discussed his character and abilities as lawyer and jurist. And he did not hesitate to declare that, "by appointment of Judge Field to a seat on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, the State of California, has been deprived of the ablest jurist who ever presided over her courts."
Since his elevation to the Supreme Bench of the United States, Judge Field has not ceased to exercise his talents for the benefit of his adopted State. As peculiarly owing to his exertions, may be mentioned the final settlement of a basis for land titles in San Francisco. It is generally understood that the act of Congress confirming the Van Ness Ordinance, and the subsequent and final act of Congress substantially confirming the decision of the Circuit Court in the Pueblo case, emanated from him. His constant solicitude has been to evolve something like order from the chaotic condition of the land titles in that city, believing that he could render no more efficient service to the rising metropolis of the Pacific, and consequently to the whole State, then in conferring upon it one of the first essentials to the prosperity and financial health of any community—certainly in the title to the lands upon which it is built.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 685-688.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.