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Biography of Amasa J. Parker
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AMASA J. PARKER
AN ALBANIAN of high intellectual qualities, who has passed his four-score years, and who has been a resident of this city for forty-four years, adorning its history by distinguished public service and private virtues is the Hon. Amasa J. Parker. He is a true representative of those enterprising New England pioneers who came from their old homes to aid in the development of the then new state of New York and the great western territories. Away back amidst the howling wilderness, where the cheering rays of the sun scarcely ever beamed upon their humble log cabins, they lived and toiled for the good of their country, their families, and their cherished civil and religious institutions. Judge Parker’s ancestors were among those who defended their homes from the invasion of the red men during the old French and English wars, when many a deed of horrid cruelty was enacted by the savages – when the tomahawk and scalping-knife in the hands of murderous foes gleamed through the thick forests, and when fears prevailed on every side, through the light of day and the darkness of night. And when the declaration of American independence was proclaimed, those worthy ancestors were found fighting on the side of the colonists in defense of the just rights of free men; and they laid not down their arms until this new republic was established, and the goddess of liberty forever enshrined in the hearts of the American people.
Thomas Fenn, the maternal grandfather of Judge Parker, was a resident of Watertown, Conn., and for more than thirty sessions he represented his town in the state legislature, closing a long and useful life with the highest esteem of his fellow-citizens.
It appears by Kirby’s Reports, page 62, that he was engaged in administering justice in that state in the earliest days of its organization.
On the 2d of June, 1807, Amasa J. Parker, the subject of our sketch, was born at Ellsworth, town of Sharon, Litchfield County, Conn. Here his father, the Rev. Daniel Parker, a graduate of Yale, was an earnest and devoted minister of the Congregational church, where he labored over twenty years. He was moreover extensively acquainted with various branches of learning outside of his chosen profession, and was particularly an accomplished classical scholar. It is many years since his remains were borne to their last resting place, but still his memory is devoutly cherished by his distinguished son.
In the year 1816 the elder Parker removed with his family to this state, where he became a distinguished and successful teacher. His son Amasa was then a lad of nine years, and under the instructions of his father was taught the rudiments of learning, while other professors and teachers assisted in the development of his intellectual powers and in the completion of a most thorough education. He was prepared in a full college course of study, and in the summer of 1825 passed an examination on the whole course at Union college and received his degree with the class of that year. His early proficiency in knowledge was mainly due to his natural taste, his real love of books, his close mental application, and the teachings of a learned and painstaking father. Two years before receiving his collegiate degree he was chosen principal of the academy in the city of Hudson, N. Y., a high mark of literary honor for a youth of sixteen and one that was well merited. He retained this position four years, and was one of the youngest and most successful principals that ever took charge of a literary institution in this country.
It was during this period that the taste and inclination of young Parker for the study of the law were unmistakably unfolded; and to gratify his desires in this direction he resigned his principalship in 1827 and entered more fully upon his favorite pursuit. And so speedily did he acquire a general knowledge of the elementary principles of legal science in the office of his uncle, Amasa Parker, a distinguished counselor of Delhi, N. Y., that he was admitted to the bar in 1828, at the age of twenty-one. Promisingly opened his legal career – a career which for sixty years has reflected honor upon him and the profession he loves so well. On admission to practice he immediately entered into partnership with his uncle; and the firm of A. & A. J. Parker, of Delhi soon became widely known throughout the state. The firm did a large amount of business – larger, perhaps, than any other country office in the state.
Fully equipped by previous thorough training for the duties of his profession, and with a heart devoted to his work, our rising young lawyer closely attended the circuits of Delaware, Greene, Ulster, Schoharie, Broome and other counties of the state, as well as the stated terms of the old court of chancery and the supreme court. And so active and diligent was he in his professional work that, at the time of his appointment to the bench in 1844, he was said to have tried more cases at the circuit than any other lawyer of his age in the state. By his great industry and his remarkable promptness, never failing to keep his appointments, always ready for “work or warfare,” he was enabled to perform to the advantage of his clients, a vast amount of legal work. His constantly-growing reputation as an able advocate and an upright citizen naturally called for the exercise of his talents in other fields of human activity. From his youth up he was familiar with political science as he was with the law. And his early ambition was to entrench himself within the strongholds of democracy.
He has earnestly and often advocated the cause of the old Jeffersonian principles since the year 1828 when he cast his first ballot for Andrew Jackson, who was that year elected president of the United States.
In the autumn of 1833 the Democratic Party nominated him for member of assembly from Delaware county; and such was his popularity with all classes of citizens that he was chosen to the legislature without opposition. In the assembly he manifested the same energy of character, directness of purpose and unremitting industry that had already been the growing glory of his professional career. But other and higher political honors were in store for him. In 1835 he was elected by the legislature a regent of the University of the State of New York, being the youngest person ever chosen to that position.
In the fall of 1836 he was elected to the twenty-fifth congress from the twentieth district, then composed of the counties of Delaware and Broome. It is a striking instance, of his great popularity, that during those exciting times in our political history no candidate was nominated in opposition to him by the Whig party. It was the memorable presidential campaign of 1836, when Martin Van Buren defeated Gen. William Henry Harrison. Bitter were the strifes which followed that election; and when at the extra session of congress in September, 1837, Judge Parker took his seat, he found himself sailing upon a stormy political sea. But he possessed his soul in patience and sailed fearlessly over the troubled waters. He was a formidable opponent of the principal measures of the Whig party in congress, and an earnest leader and advocate of the administration policy. The one great measure that was agitated in congress, frequently leading to acrimonious debate, was that of the sub-treasury scheme proposed by President Van Buren and opposed by the Whig party and by some of the democrats. Judge Parker brought his rare intellectual resources and his impressive oratory to bear upon this subject in the advocacy of the measure, which, however, failed to become a law at that congress.
While in congress, Judge Parker served on several important committees, and was always an earnest supporter of his party, making some telling and elaborate speeches, among which were those on the Mississippi election case, the sub-treasury bill, the public lands and the Cilley and Graves duel.
At the close of his active and eventful congressional term he returned with renewed devotion to the practice of his profession at Delhi. He held the office of district attorney of Delaware County during a term of three years. In the spring of 1844 Governor Bouck appointed him circuit judge and vice-chancellor of the third circuit. He then took up his residence in the city of Albany, where he has since lived as one of the leading figures in his profession and in the walks of social and domestic life. He was circuit judge of the third circuit and vice-chancellor till the spring of 1847, that court having been then abolished by the adoption of the constitution of 1846.
In the summer of 1847 he was elected by a large majority a justice of the Supreme Court in the third judicial district for a term of eight years, which expired in 1855. During the year 1854 he served in the court of appeals, his associates being Judges Gardner, Denio, Alexander S. Johnson, Allen and others. His numerous and ably-written opinions of cases argued in the supreme court will be found in the first twenty-one volumes of Barbour’s Supreme Court Reports. His opinions in the court of appeals are reported in the first and second volumes of Kernan’s Reports. One of these opinions, which created no little interest at the time, was in the case of Snedeker v. Warring, involving the question whether “a statue, colossal in size, erected as an ornament on the ground in front of a country residence, and securely attached to the earth by its weight was real or personal property.” Judge Parker’s opinion that it was real property finally prevailed, and the case was so decided.
During the summer of 1853 Judge Parker visited Europe and was cordially received by distinguished lawyers and jurists of the old world. At the request of Lord Brougham he delivered an address before the Law Reform club of England, regarding the admirable workings of the legal reform that had been made in this state by the constitutional convention of 1847, in the administration of law and equity. He visited many of the famous places abroad, carefully studying the legal and educational systems of various countries, and the results accomplished by the labors of men in past centuries; and, highly pleased with what he had seen, he returned home greatly invigorated in mind and body. When the so-called “know-nothing or American party” carried the state by large majorities in 1855, Judge Parker was an unsuccessful candidate for justice of the supreme court, George Gould being elected over him.
It has been well remarked of Judge Parker, that “at no time in the history of this state have the judicial labors devolved upon a judge been more difficult and responsible than those which he was called on to discharge during his twelve years of judicial service. It was during this time that the Anti-Rent excitement which prevailed throughout a large portion of his judicial district was at its height, crowding the civil calendar with litigation, and the criminal courts with indictments for acts of violence in resisting the collection of rents. The trial of ‘ Big Thunder,’ before Judge Parker, at Hudson, in the spring of 1845, lasted two weeks, and the jury failed to agree. When the next court of oyer and terminer was held in that county, Judge Parker was engaged in holding the court in Delaware County, and Judge Edmonds was assigned to hold the Columbia oyer and terminer in his place. At that court ‘ Big Thunder ‘ was again tried and was convicted and sent to the state prison.”
In the summer of 1845, Osman N. Steele, under sheriff of Delaware county, while engaged with a posse in his official duties in the collection of rents due from Moses Earle, at Andes, in that county, was violently resisted by about two hundred men armed and disguised as Indians, and was shot and killed by them. Intense excitement prevailed in the county. A great struggle followed between those who resisted and those who sought to enforce the laws.
On the 25th of August, 1845, Governor Wright declared the county of Delaware in a state of insurrection, and a battalion of light infantry was detailed to aid the civil authorities in the preservation of order and the making of arrests. At the inquest held on the body of Sheriff Steele and at the court of general sessions the whole subject was fully investigated. Some indictments were found for murder, but most of them were for manslaughter and lesser offenses. Over two hundred and forty persons were indicted, most of whom were arrested and in custody awaiting trial at the then approaching oyer and terminer. The regular jail and two log jails, temporarily constructed for the purpose, were filled with prisoners. Under these discouraging circumstances, and with armed men stationed in the court room and throughout the village to preserve order. Judge Parker opened the oyer and terminer at Delhi on the 22d of September, 1845. A brief statement of these proceedings and an extract from the charge of Judge Parker to the grand jury will be found in the history of Delaware county, by Jay Gould, published in 1856 and dedicated to Judge Parker.
“After charging the grand jury he gave notice that whatever time it might take, he should continue to hold the court till every case was tried and the jails were cleared. The indictments were prosecuted by the district attorney, assisted by John Van Buren, then attorney-general, and by Samuel Sherwood, a distinguished member of the bar, then of New York, but who formerly resided at Delhi; and the prisoners were defended by able counsel, among whom were Samuel Gordon, Mitchell Sandford and Samuel S. Bowne.
“John Van Steenburgh was first tried and convicted of murder. Edward O’Connor was next tried with a like result. Both were sentenced to be executed on the 29th of November; then next four others were convicted of felony and sent to the state prison for life; and thirteen were sent to the state prison for different terms of years. A large number who had been engaged in resisting the sheriff, but who had not been disguised, pleaded guilty of misdemeanors. Some of these were fined, but as to most of them, and as to some who pleaded guilty of manslaughter, sentence was suspended, and they were told by the court they would be held responsible for the future preservation of the peace in their neighborhoods, and were warned that if any other instance should occur of resisting an officer, or of a violation of the statute, which made it a felony to appear for such purpose armed and disguised, they would at once be suspected, and might expect to be called up for sentence. Under this assurance they were set at liberty, and it is but justice to them to say that they became the best possible conservators of the peace, and that no resistance of process by violence has ever since occurred in that county.
“At the close of the third week of the court, all the cases had been disposed of. No prisoners were left in jail except those awaiting execution or transportation to the state prison; the military were soon after discharged and the log jails taken down, and peace and good order have ever since reigned in the county.
“A report of the trial of Van Steenburgh, with a note referring to the business of the court, will be found in i Park. Cr. Rep. 39. The sentences of Van Steenburgh and O’Connor were subsequently commuted by Governor Wright to imprisonment for life, and, about a year later, all those in the state prison were pardoned by the successor of Governor Wright.
“Great credit was awarded to Judge Parker for his successful discharge of the delicate and difficult duties devolved upon him at the Delaware oyer and terminer; and at the next commencement the degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred on him by Geneva college.”
Resuming the practice of his profession, in which he always took the greatest delight, and in which he stood in the front rank, he refused to be a candidate again for justice of the supreme court, or for judge of the court of appeals, when the democratic party in his district and in the state was again largely in the ascendency. In 1856 he was the unsuccessful democratic candidate for governor of the state, John A. King, the republican nominee, being chosen. This was the case again in 1858, when Edwin D. Morgan was elected governor by over 17,000 majority. In all those lively old contests and amidst the political vicissitudes of his party, Judge Parker always ran ahead of his ticket, thus showing that he enjoyed the respect and confidence of his many friends.
In 1867-8, he was a delegate from the county of Albany to the state constitutional convention, serving as a member of the judiciary and other committees. On his retirement from the bench in 1855, he resumed once more the practice of the law, taking into partnership with him his son, Amasa J. Parker, Jr., who had but recently been admitted to the bar, and for whom legal practice and study presented an inviting and interesting field of labor. Eleven years afterward, ex-Judge Edwin Countryman, well known as an able and judicious counselor, became a member of the firm; and under the name of Parker & Countryman, a large and lucrative law business was carried on. In the management of many important cases this firm was remarkably successful. Some of the more important cases in which the venerable judge has been engaged during the past twenty years, are those on the question of the right to tax national banks; on the title of Trinity church to property in the city of New York; on the Levy will contest; on the controversy between the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company and the Pennsylvania Coal Company; and on the boundary line between the states of New York and New Jersey.
Judge Parker was one of the founders of the Albany Law school, and for twenty years was one of the professors in that excellent institution, which is now a department of Union university.
As an author, Judge Parker’s style is clear, concise and polished. His numerous contributions to legal science are well known. He has also published six volumes of law reports, being decisions in criminal cases, and assisted in preparing the fifth edition of the Revised Statutes of this state (3 vols., 1869).
Judge Parker ranks high in point of scholarship. In addition to his acquaintance with English and French authors, he is especially interested in ancient classical literature, and, through the course of a long and busy life, has turned frequently with renewed delight to the charming pages of the old Latin and Greek authors. His private library has been selected with great care and discrimination and contains the cream of ancient and modern literature.
He has been president of the board of trustees of the Albany Female academy; president of Albany Medical College; and is at present a trustee of Cornell and Union universities.
In 1886 Judge Parker made a most generous proposition to the Y. M. A. of Albany by offering it the Bleecker fund (which had been transferred to him), for the building of a public hall, the only condition imposed upon the association being the raising of $50,000, by means of which it would receive a property worth over $130,000. The amount required was accordingly raised by subscription; the property transferred by Judge Parker, and the work of erecting a fine public hall on a beautiful site was at once commenced. This noble act on the part of Judge Parker, in connection with the generosity of many of our citizens, will be remembered with gratitude by thousands of the best and most intelligent Albanians for generations to come.
On the 27th of August, 1834, Judge Parker married Miss Harriet Langdon Roberts, of Portsmouth, N. H. She was a daughter of Edmund Roberts, the first American diplomatist in Asia, whose life was full of interest and daring adventure While at his delightful home at Portsmouth, Mr. Roberts was surrounded by several distinguished men, such as the Rev. Dr. Burroughs, Rev, Dr. Buckminster, Daniel Webster and Jeremiah Mason, besides the large family connections of his wife. Mrs. Parker’s mother was Catharine Whipple Langdon, a daughter of Woodbury Langdon, of Portsmouth, who belonged to one of the best known New England families.
For nearly half a century Mrs. Amasa J. Parker gracefully dispensed the hospitalities of the home mansion in Albany, surrounded by devoted and admiring friends.
Of the surviving children of Judge and Mrs. Parker are Gen. Amasa J. Parker, Jr., late state senator; and now Brig.-Gen. 3rd Brigade N. G. S. N. Y.; Mrs. John V. L. Pruyn, widow of the late distinguished chancellor of the university of the state of New York, Mrs. Erastus Corning and Mrs. Gen. Selden E. Marvin – all prominent in social circles, and possessing true refinement and the higher graces of Christian character.
On the 27th of August, 1884, at the summer residence of Mrs. J. V. L. Pruyn on “The Cliffs,” in Newport, R. I., Judge and Mrs. Parker kept their golden wedding. And on the 2d of June, 1887, the 80th anniversary of the Judge’s birthday, a reunion of his family and nearest friends took place in Albany, which was a very pleasant and memorable event in their history and experience. On that occasion the Right Rev. Bishop William C. Doane, with an appropriate toast, presented and read the following lines:
How shall we greet him, honored among men, Who has not only past three score and ten, But bears the weight of all these eighty years, Unbent, unbroken, eye undimmed with tears, And natural force, like Patriarch of old, All unabated; and his age untold But by his honors ! Let us write in gold The glory of such age; to which, unrolled Like a long, pleasant pathway, all the past, Filled with strong purposes from first to last. Lies bathed and basking in the sunset rays Of peace, content, renown and length of days. We hail him victor in a fight well fought.
Crowned with the laurels plucked from many a field; Who learned by teaching, and while learning taught,
And made both life and books their wisdom yield. Statesman and jurist, strong in earnest plea. And wise in counsel, judging righteously: Blest beyond men in all that sweetens life. Home, children, children’s children, truest wife: Chief among equal citizens, he bears
Our City’s name to honor high and fair: With simple ease his well-won crown he wears:
” Serus in coelum redeat: ” This our prayer.
On the 27th of June, 1889, nearly five years after so pleasant a family reunion, the estimable and beloved wife of Judge Parker, after reaching the advanced age of seventy-five, peacefully breathed her last, in the family mansion on Washington Avenue, which had been her home for forty-five years. Profound sorrow was expressed by her relatives and fellow-citizens at the departure of this “mother in Israel,” whose memory will remain among her friends as fragrant as the flowers of spring and more enduring than the sculptured marble. And now, ” her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.”
” In virtue fair, Adorn’d with modesty and matron grace Unspeakable, and love – her face was like The light, most welcome to the eye of man; Refreshing most, most honor’d, most desired Of all he saw in the dim world below.”
On Saturday, the 29th of June the funeral of Mrs. Parker was held from St. Peter’s church, with all due simplicity and solemnity; and her remains were laid in the family lot in the Rural cemetery. At the following morning service in the same church, Rev. Dr. Battershall referred to this remarkable woman in the following beautiful and impressive words:
” Yesterday on the feast of St. Peter, we said the ritual of the dead over one, who for many years was prominently identified with this parish of St, Peter’s, and the memory of whose sweet and beneficent life will long linger in this parish and in this city. Harriet Langdon Parker was a woman whom the church must needs honor, for she honored the church, and all her life was its loving and dutiful hand-maiden. She brought to the altar of Christ her strong, vigorous nature with its rare endowments of intellectual power, and trained faculty, and instinct for high and noble things. With her, religion was something more than a decoration of life, or an occasional retreat from the storms of the world. It sprung from and it gathered into itself the deepest forces of her nature. It swept into one persistent, unfaltering line of movement her whole womanhood. She carried into it, as she carried into every thing, her charity of vision and her strength of will, and it was the inner force on which her character grew and her life was lived. She could give a reason for her faith; but better than reason, there was a warm, throbbing heart beneath her faith.
“How fully and richly her character shaped itself on fixed religious principle, her devotion to the church, her attendance at its services, her large and continuous benefactions, all the flow and movement of her life bear witness. And with all that gave strength and steadfastness, there was a wealth of affection, a delicacy of mind, a refinement of thought, a tenderness of touch, which made her righteousness gracious and beautiful. From such a life, with its power of doing and its power of loving, even when gathered into that great, unseen life on which it fed, there must needs outflow influences and memories that will help us in our struggle for goodness and work for Christ.”
On the evening of the 9th of October, 1889, when Harmanus Bleecker hall on Washington avenue was opened to the public with appropriate exercises, the venerable Judge Parker – “the observed of all observers” – came forward and delivered an interesting address on the life, character and labors of Harmanus Bleecker, and of his own care in the management and disposition of so noble a trust fund for the benefit of the Young Men’s association, and the citizens of Albany. It was a proud day in the life of Judge Parker, who had lived to see the consummation of his long contemplated project, and in appropriate, impressive language he concluded his speech in the following words:
“This hall is now finished and long may it stand a monument, more enduring than brass, to the memory of Harmanus Bleecker. Not a monument of mere masonry, solid and silent, speaking only by its unchanging inscription graven upon it – but a living and speaking monument dispensing liberally its benefits and its instructions to all who enter its portals.
“Let these walls resound to the discussions of statesmen; the eloquence of orators and the strains of enchanting music; to the teachings of those skilled in art, learned in science and accomplished in literature. Let the drama here exert its magic and chastening influence, and let Terpsichore, muse of the mazy dance, find here her happiest votaries. And let this hall, by all these means, continue to add to the sum of human happiness and improvement to a time far into the distant future. ‘ Esto perpetua.’
“My own duties and responsibilities in this enterprise are now ended. But the interest I feel in its success is not lessened. My hope is high for the future. Upon those who are to administer the affairs of the association a greatly-in-creased responsibility rests. If they act honestly, faithfully and harmoniously, as I confidently believe they will, the interests of the city will be largely promoted, and they will receive the thanks, the blessings and the admiration of the people.
“But, whatever the future may be as to the result of our labors, the people of our city will never cease to honor and bless the memory of Harmanus Bleecker and his generous and unselfish wife, for furnishing to the association the means for doing so much good.”
In the study of Judge Parker’s life there is much to be learned and admired, especially by the aspiring young men of our day. The example he has set as a diligent student in youth and as a persevering young man for the attainment of the grand aims of his life are well worthy of imitation. And now with a dignified presence, a wonderfully preserved constitution, and a remarkable vitality, after the accomplishment of so much intellectual work, age still sits lightly upon him notwithstanding the weight of more than four score years. In glancing over his life and labors during this long period we may very aptly apply to him the well-known phrase: “This was the noblest Roman of them all.”
On the 13th of May, 1890, many months after the above sketch was originally prepared, Judge Parker departed this life after a brief illness, in the 83d year of his age.
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