Connecticut State Library with state seal

Memorials of Connecticut Judges and Attorneys
As Printed in the Connecticut Reports
volume 39, page(s) 601-604

CHIEF JUSTICE BUTLER

THOMAS BELDEN BUTLER, who held the office of Chief Judge of the Supreme Court of Errors of this state from May, 1870, until his resignation a few weeks before his death, died at Norwalk, where he had long resided, on the 8th of June, 1873, in the sixty-seventh year of his age.

Judge BUTLER was born at Wethersfield, in this state, on the 22nd of August, 1806. His father, Frederick Butler, was a man of literary tastes and acquirements, and the author of several books, chief among which is a "Compendium of History." His mother, Mary Belden, was a native of Wethersfield, and a woman of rare natural gifts. The classical education of the son was carefully conducted by his father. Upon its completion he entered Yale Medical School, where he remained there for two years, and then left for Philadelphia, where he continued one year, and completed his professional studies. He settled as a physician in Norwalk, where he ever after resided, in the year of 1829, and there pursued his profession for about eight years. At the end of that time he decided to abandon the practice of medicine and devote himself to that of law. A principle reason for this change, as stated by himself, was that he was sensitive and nervous temperament that he could not endure the sufferings of his patients and his anxiety about them.

He studied law with the late Judge Bissell of the Supreme Court, then at the bar, and was admitted to the Fairfield County bar in 1837. He soon after entered into partnership with Thaddeus Betts, upon whose death, while a senator at Washington, he took and conducted the extensive professional business left by him. He afterwards took into partnership with him Orris S. Ferry, then just commencing the practice of law, now a member of the United State Senate from this state. Still later he had as a partner the late Josiah M. Carter, who remained with him until the election of Judge BUTLER to the bench of the Supreme Court in 1855. He continued in that court until he was elected by the legislature to the Supreme Court in 1861. He was appointed Chief Judge in May, 1870, to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Chief Justice Hinman. This office he held until his resignation in May, 1873.

Judge BUTLER was elected to Congress in the year 1849, and served one term. He was also a member of the State Senate in the years 1848, 1852, and 1853, and a member of the House as representative from Norwalk in the years 1832, 1833, 1837, 1843 and 1846.

He was married in 1831 to Mary Phillips Crosby of Norwalk, who now survives him.

Judge BUTLER had a legal mind in the best sense of that term. He readily understood and appreciated the nicest distinctions, and no one could discriminate more closely or clearly. Yet he had not in the slightest degree that fault to which such minds so frequently run, of being over-nice and technical. On the other hand his common sense perceptions were quick and positive, and he saw clearly the real justice of a case. His only fault in this relation was a tendency in an unusual degree to speculative views. His mind was in the highest degree philosophical, and never found more congenial occupation than when engaged in an unhampered speculation on some philosophical subject, more especially of a physical nature. His habits of observation, both of men and things, were remarkable, and his mind was constantly framing deductions from the facts gathered. He came to have very positive opinions with regard to the characters of public men, more especially as to political and private honesty. He abhorred dishonesty in every form, and was, it sometimes seemed, a little too ready to suspect it. He was however very far from being cynical or censorious, and had one of the kindest of hearts. While ready to be helpful to all, he was never weary of rendering offices of special kindness to his friends. His tender-heartedness showed itself especially towards little children, and he used to keep about him such pets as chickens, pigeons and rabbits, in part for his own amusement, and in part for the entertainment of the children who might visit his house. This was the more remarkable as he had never learned to love children through having any of his own.

His habits of observation led him early in life to study the phenomena of the weather, and to form theories with regard to its changes; and continuing the study through life with an increasing interest and zeal, he published in 1856 an elaborate work on the subject, entitled "The Philosophy of the Weather," of which a second and enlarged edition was published in 1870, under the title of "The Atmospheric System." These works are monuments of his remarkable habits of observation, as well as of his faculty of scientific analysis and construction. He was also fond of the study of mechanics, and obtained several valuable patents as an inventor. He took also an active interest in agriculture, and was full of practical information on all points connected with that subject. He was for several years president of the Fairfield County Agricultural Society. His own farming operations were on a limited scale, but his fields were noticed as among the best tilled and most productive.

The investigating and speculative turn in mind that has been mentioned, he brought with him to the bench, and often, in writing his opinions, he went into deepest philosophy of his subject, examining his questions very fully in the matter of authority, but going beyond authority into an exhaustive discussion of the subject upon pure principle; often extricating the principle form all foreign matter that had fastened upon and obscured it, and bringing it back, like a restored picture, to its original simplicity and beauty. Perhaps as a single judge sitting by himself he might have made more mistakes than some other judges intellectually inferior to him, but as one of a bench of judges, supplemented on the points where he was most likely to fail by the generally more supplemented on the points where he was most likely to fail by the generally more cautious and conservative opinions of his associates, he was invaluable. In any case which involved a new and somewhat uncertain application of legal principles he was generally assigned, when only an associate judge, to write the opinion. His opinions upon some of the novel questions that arose during the late war, especially as to the legality of the actions of towns in various cases and as to the constitutionality of the law authorizing soldiers to vote in the field, are among the finest specimens of juridical investigation and reasoning. In all these cases he showed not merely a thorough knowledge of legal principles, but an extensive knowledge of the early civil and political history of our state, and of the peculiarities of organization of the New England states.

The style in which he wrote his opinions was well worthy to be the vehicle of the thoughts of such a mind. No better style has gone upon our law reports. It is never ambitious or self conscious, but is remarkably succinct and clear and forcible; wasting no words, yet leaving no thought imperfectly expressed; sometimes lacking dignity a little, but never nerve; and occasionally warming into a little keenness of criticism of views which he condemned, but never into unjudicial glow of feeling. Few judges have ever been able to get so much thought into so little space.

Judge BUTLER was absolutely free from ostentation or pretension. There was nothing that he despised more. He was very plain in his dress and manners, familiar in his intercourse with the bar, and, while determined that the court should be thoroughly respected, seemed to care little for the external and traditional dignity of the judicial office. In person he was tall and slender, with countenance indicative of frankness and honesty, in which the perspective organs were remarkably prominent. He enjoyed the humorous side of things, especially if it had some feature of the grotesque, and though not given greatly to story telling, had a fund of anecdotes, originating generally in the county where he lived, and illustrating some eccentricity of human character, especially of people whom he had known, which he often told very effectively. He had a very serious organization, and nothing of that imperturbability that is generally regarded as a good quality in a judge. The nervousness increased upon him in his later years, when his health became very poor, but it never made him irritable on the bench, or manifested itself in an offensive way to his associates. In his poorest health he was a willing worker to the utmost limit of his strength, both in the court room and in the privacy of his study. His mind was too active to rest, even if his sense of official duty had not impelled him to labor. He finally resigned his office when he found the restoration of his health to be improbable, although it is believed he had not wholly given up the hope of recovery, and would have resigned a year earlier but for universally expressed desire of his associates on the bench, and of the bar generally, that he should remain in the office and allow himself to be relieved of such of its duties as could be delegated to others.

Judge BUTLER was all his life a regular attendant on public worship at the Congregational Church of Norwalk, but had never, until shortly before his death, connected himself by profession with the church. He was always a staunch supporter both of religious institutions, and of what he regarded as sound religious doctrine - but upon religion as a matter of private feeling and experience, he was always reticent. It therefore gave great satisfaction to his friends that, a few days before his death, he expressed desire to make a public profession of his religious faith and connect himself with the church. Rev. S. B. S. Bissell, his pastor, in reporting to the church an interview which he had with him on the subject, stated that: "Judge BUTLER said that he had never been a sceptic, but that he had been led, in 1860, to make a through examination of the Gospel as the way of salvation, and was as clearly convinced of its truth as of his own identity; that he had since then considered himself a Christian, and had often intended to make a public profession of his faith in Christ, but had postponed it; but he said, and he repeated it three times very impressively, that he wished it to be explicitly understood that he did not make this application to be admitted to the church, solely or chiefly on the basis of former conviction, but on account of recent exercises and experiences; that many times in the last thirty days in the night-watches, he had earnestly implored, with deep contrition, the pardon of his sins through Christ, and he felt that, in answer to his prayers, he had been forgiven." Mr. Bissell further stated that then, at the judge's request, he recited to him the confession and covenant of the church as required in the reception of members, to which he gave his full assent. The church having voted to receive him, the communion of the Lord's Supper was administered to him upon his bed, on the 2d day of June; a committee of the church and members of his family, with several friends and neighbors, participating. It was a very impressive service, and on its conclusion he was asked whether it had not fatigued him. "No," he replied. "I feel refreshed and strengthened by it."

Six days later, just at evening on a peaceful Sabbath day, he passed quietly away.

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