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OF THE LIFE AND CHARACTER OF THE HON. SAMUEL DEXTER, LL. D.
[This sketch formed the concluding part of a Charge, delivered to the Grand Jury,
at the Circuit Court holden at Boston, in the District of Massachusetts, in May, 1816; and was then published, at the joint request of the Grand Jury and the members of the Bar of the Circuit Court.]
I have now finished the brief review of those offences, which are most important in the criminal code of the United States. And happy should I be, if I could congratulate you on the peace and general prosperity of our country, without mingling emotions of a painful nature. But how is it possible to enter this hall of justice, and cast my eyes among my brethren at the bar, without missing one, who, for many years, has been its distinguished ornament ?
On ordinary occasions of the loss of private or professional friends, we may properly bury our sorrows in our own bosoms. In such cases the public do not feel that deep sympathy, which authorizes us to speak aloud our anguish and disquietude. But when such men as Mr. Dexter die, the loss is emphatically a public loss, and the mourners are the whole nation. To give utterance to our feelings is, therefore, a solemn duty. It is fit, that the example of the great and good should be brought forward, for the imitation of the young and ambitious; that gratitude for eminent services should find a voice, as public as the deeds; and that exalted genius, when it has ceased to attract admiration by its living splendor, should be consecrated in the memories of those, whom it has instructed or preserved.
I feel assured, therefore, that I am not stepping aside from the path of duty, or pressing unduly upon your attention, by devoting a few minutes of your time to a sketch of the history and character of this illustrious lawyer and statesman.
Mr. Dexter was descended from a highly respectable parentage. His grandfather was a clergyman. His father, the Hon. Samuel Dexter, was a merchant, and resided many years at Boston, where his son Samuel was born in the year 1761. The father early distinguished himself in the struggles between the Crown and the people of Massachusetts, previous to the revolution; and, for his public services, was several times elected to the Council by the House of Representatives, and as often rejected by the royal governor of the province. He was at length admitted to a seat in the Council by the prudence or the fears of the executive; but in 1774 was again negatived “by the express command of his majesty.” Towards the close of his life he retired altogether from public affairs, and engaged in a profound investigation of the great doctrines of theology. At his death he bequeathed a handsome legacy to Harvard University, for the encouragement of biblical criticism ; and upon this honorable foundation the Dexter lectureship has since been established.
Mr. Dexter, the son, after the usual preparatory studies, was matriculated at Harvard University in 1777, and received the usual degree of bachelor of arts in 1781. During his residence at the University, he gave ample promise of those talents, which shed so much lustre on his riper years. At a public exhibition he delivered a poem, which was at that time received with great applause, and is still considered as highly creditable to his taste and judgment. On receiving his degree, he was selected for the first literary honors in his class, which he sustained with increasing reputation.
He now determined to engage in the profession of the law, a science, whose acute distinctions, and logical structure were wonderfully adapted to invigorate and develop the powers of his under
standing. He passed the usual preparatory term at Worcester, · under the tuition of the Hon. Levi Lincoln, then an eminent counsellor at the bar, and since Lieut. Governor of the Commonwealth. During this period, and for several years after his admission to the bar, Mr. Dexter devoted himself with unceasing assiduity to acquire the elements of law; and, as may be easily supposed from his great abilities, he was completely successful in his purposes. Notwithstanding many discouragements of a public nature, which, at that time, pressed heavily on young lawyers, Mr. Dexter rose rapidly into professional notice, and soon found himself surrounded with clients and business. In a short time he was chosen to the State Legislature ; and his sound judgment and comprehensive
policy gave him great weight and influence in all the deliberations of that body. From the State Legislature he was transferred to the Congress of the United States, being first elected to the House of Representatives, and afterwards to the Senate, by the suffrages of his native state. Perhaps there has been no period, since the establishment of the government, which more imperiously demanded all the foresight, virtue, and discretion of the ablest statesmen, than that, in which Mr. Dexter was called to assist in the national councils. The first talents in the respective parties, which then divided the country, were drawn into Congress. The floors of the two houses became a vast amphitheatre, on which the struggles for political power and principle were maintained, with all the eloquence of rhetoric and strength of reasoning, which the zeal of party could enkindle in noble minds. The most deep and impassioned feelings took possession of the nation itself; and the same thrilling sensations, which agitated Congress, electrified the whole continent. It seemed, as if every power of the human mind was summoned to its proper business, and stretched to the most intense exertion. Many of you can recall the emotions of those days ; and to those of us, who were then reposing in academic shades, the light, that burst from the walls of Congress, seemed reflected back from every cottage in the country. At no period of his life, did Mr. Dexter more completely sustain his reputation for extraordinary talents. His clear and forcible argumentation, his earnest and affecting admonitions, and his intrepid and original development of principles and measures, gave him a weight of authority, which it was difficult to resist. Perhaps no man was ever heard by his political opponents with more profound and unaffected respect.
Mr. Dexter resigned his seat in the Senate, on his appointment as Secretary of War, under the administration of President Adams. He next received the office of Secretary of the Treasury ; and, during a short period of vacancy, discharged also the functions of the Department of State. These were to Mr. Dexter new and untrodden paths. The habits of his life, and the pursuits of his mind, were ill suited to that minute diligence, and those intricate details, which the business of war and finance unavoidably impose upon the incumbents of office. He felt a great reluctance to engage in such employments, for which he professed no peculiar relish, and in which his forensic discipline and senatorial experience might not always guide hiin to correct results. His acceptance of these high stations was not, therefore, without much hesitation ; but hav