Memorials of Connecticut Judges and Attorneys
As Printed in the Connecticut Reports
volume 29, page(s) 611-614

CHIEF JUSTICE WILLIAMS

THOMAS SCOTT WILLIAMS, who was Chief Justice of the state from 1834 to 1847, died at his residence in Hartford, on the 15th day of December, 1861, at the age of eighty-four. He was born in Wethersfield, in this State, on the 26th of June, 1777, and was the son of Ezekiel Williams, for many years High Sheriff of Hartford County. At seventeen years of age he graduated at Yale College, and after attending the lectures of Judge Reeve, at the Litchfield Law School, he entered the office of Chief Justice Swift, then at the bar of Windham county, and in 1799 was admitted to the bar of that county. Removing to Hartford in 1803, he commenced his long career of usefulness and honor. He was a member of the General Assembly in the years 1815, 1816, 1819, 1825, 1827 and 1829, and was a representative in Congress from 1817 to 1819. In 1829 he was appointed an Associate Judge of the Supreme Court, and in 1834 Chief Justice of that court, which office he held until the constitutional expiration of his term in 1847, by his attaining the age of seventy. In 1812, he married a daughter of Oliver Ellsworth, Chief Justice of the United States. She died in 1840, and he afterwards married Miss Martha M. Coit, of Boston, who survives him. He leaves no children.

Judge Williams was distinguished when on the bench as a judge of great decision, of vigorous and comprehensive mind, and of great moral excellence. His perfect integrity, and his intrepid assertion of his views of right, commanded the highest confidence of the community, while the determinations of his intellect were regarded as almost infallible. His knowledge of the law was not so much the fruit of constant or extensive reading, as of a thorough study of a few elementary books and the mastery of elementary principles. He seemed to have an almost intuitive perception of the merits of a case, and of the principle which was to be its solvent. He united great modesty and quietness of manner with the utmost firmness. His mind was eminently safe in its operations, as he was never led astray by any false lights from the imagination. He looked wholly at the reality of a thing, and was never disturbed by the gloss which it wore. With all this matter of fact habit of mind and this absence of imagination, he had yet a most genial disposition, and one of the kindest of hearts. His sympathies were warm and active and wide reaching. Few men have been so liberal with their means in helping every good work, and very few have identified themselves personally to such an extent with the cause of Christian benevolence in its various forms. He was long an active member of the American Board of Foreign Missions and of the American Bible Society, and at the time of his death was President of the American Tract Society of New York. He was also a very earnest supporter of the temperance cause. I can not forbear to give here a picture of him in his old age, from a published sermon of Rev. Dr. Hawes, his pastor, preached at Saratoga, a short time before the judge's death, on "The Treasures of a Well Spent Life." It is as follows:

"I may mention, too, another example; it is that of Chief Justice Williams, a member of the congregation to which I minister. He is now in his eighty-fourth year, cheerful, healthy, active, found at the head of his Bible-class every Sabbath morning; always in his place in the sanctuary, and at our occasional meetings; his heart warm and sympathizing as ever in all good objects, and his hand ready to help them forward; his influence, though less public than formerly, hardly less effective and beneficent in the noiseless teachings of a consistent, ripened Christian character. He stands forth a fine example of the rich treasures which a well-spent life gathers around itself in its close, ready to be transferred to enrich the life which is to come."

The Hartford County bar, at a meeting called to express their respect for his memory, passed the following resolutions:

"WHEREAS, After a life of untiring and successful industry, of eminent purity, of great excellence and religious consistency, the Hon. THOMAS S. WILLIAMS, late Chief Justice of this state, has, at a mature and ripe old age, been gathered to his rest; therefore,

"Resolved, That few men have left behind them higher claims to public respect and esteem, and none a stronger hold upon the grateful remembrance of the legal profession, of which he was so long an honored and distinguished member. His industry, untiring zeal and professional ability and integrity; his learning, wisdom and conscientiousness in the administration of the laws; and the purity and excellence of his public and private life, afford an imperishable example to the living, to guide them in the sure paths to honor and happiness, and to a successful and well-spent life.

"Resolved, That in his death this bar has lost one of its most esteemed members; the community in which he lived one ever ready to co-operate and bear his share in promoting its interests and advancing its prosperity; the young a faithful friend, counsellor and guide; the charities of the day and the great benevolent institutions of the age, a systematic, cheerful and liberal supporter; the religious community and the Church an earnest, sincere and devoted Christian, and the world a truly good man."

In bringing into so close proximity these brief notices of Chief Justice Williams and Chief Justice Storrs, both so eminent in the exalted positions which they occupied, it becomes very natural to compare them, and to throw into contrast their more striking individualities. While belonging in common to the list of great chief justices, they were yet very dissimilar. Indeed two men of superior intellects and of the same general tenor of life, could hardly be found more unlike in the leading characteristics of their minds. That of Judge Storrs was polished in the highest degree by classical study and a life-long familiarity with the best English literature, and his utterances were always in the most elegant diction of the schools; the mind of Judge Williams had derived from his collegiate education little but discipline, and he generally spoke and wrote in a condensed and vigorous Saxon, with little regard to the balance of his sentences or the grace of his periods. Judge Storrs had a mind of extraordinary penetration, that could look down the deepest abysses of thought without agitation, and could explore the profoundest depths without losing its way; Judge Williams saw whatever he was looking after without seeming to search for it, the nearer and the remoter all coming before his mind alike, as obvious truths which it was a matter of course for every body to see. The mind of Judge Storrs was stimulated and excited by the adventurous character of any mental exploration; that of Judge Williams found every thing so plain before him that he was never excited by any consciousness of great intellectual effort. Judge Williams came to his conclusions by a single step, and with something like intuition, and looked about afterwards for his reasons, and then, less to satisfy his own mind than to convince his associates on the bench, or the public in his written opinions. Judge Storrs, in seeking his results, moved along down the line of a close logic, and reached his conclusions by a prior consideration of the reasons. I can hardly conceive any thing more exquisite than the movements of his mind, as it was feeling its way along through a maze of perplexities, in the consultations of the judges, which it was my privilege to attend as reporter of the court. Both were men of strong common sense. With Judge Williams this common sense dictated the result and left his reason to defend it; with Judge Storrs logical reasoning worked out the result and then an almost unerring common sense came in to test it, and to prevent the too common mistake of taking what seems a necessary logical conclusion as a safe and correct one in so practical a matter as the administration of justice. The mind of Judge Williams was eminently practical; that of Judge Storrs more inclined to the speculative. The one would have made a successful worker in almost any department of labor that required a vigorous and self-reliant intellect; the other would have made a philosopher of the best age of philosophy. Judge Storrs had read law more extensively and was more familiar with the whole range of law as a science; Judge Williams had dealt with it as a practical thing, rather inhaling it as an atmosphere in which he lived, than systematically pursuing it as a study. Judge Williams rarely hesitated in his conclusions, and if he did, seemed to desire only time for reflection, and to care little for consultation with others; Judge Storrs worked easily to his conclusions, but was always glad to an opportunity to compare his views with those of his brethren. Judge Storrs would sometimes let considerations of policy enter his mind; Judge Williams never. The mind of Judge Williams seemed to work by a law of its own, so that even without the control of his high moral qualities it could hardly have gone astray; that of Judge Storrs seemed to involve the whole aggregate of his faculties, so that with a bad heart he would have made an unsafe judge. When a case seemed to Judge Storrs imperatively to require a decision which some general principle seemed almost as imperatively to forbid, he would find his way to the predestinated result with surprisingly little injury to the general principle. I hardly know what Judge Williams would have done; but I think he would have drawn upon his courage more than upon his ingenuity. The manner of Judge Storrs on the bench was more courteous and affable; the quiet firmness of Judge Williams approached very nearly to sternness; yet the former would often, especially in later years, manifest an impatience under a lengthy argument, that the latter would never have shown under an inexcusably tedious one. Judge Storrs was never very fond of work, and in his later years was a little too much inclined to avoid it; Judge Williams never knew what self-indulgence was, and worked through the allotted hours with no thought of his own ease. Judge Williams must have made an able judge at the outset; to Judge Storrs the training of judicial experience was more necessary. The judicial qualities of Judge Storrs would be called splendid, a term which seems hardly appropriate in such a connection, yet is perfectly applicable here; those of Judge Williams were great in the true sense of the term, but with no quality of brilliancy. Both brought honor to the exalted office which they held, and have left to their associates and to the profession, not merely great examples for imitation, but a burden of increased responsibility in preserving the high character of the judicial office.