Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

plifies our task very much; for there is scarcely any difference of opinion as to his being the ablest and most success'ful advocate at the New York bar. In the estimation of all disinterested persons, at home and abroad, who are capable of judging, he has occupied this proud rank for the last twenty years. That there are other able lawyers at the present day far be it from us to deny, nor do we deny that there are those whom some regard as equal, if not superior, to him ; but we think we are correct as to the general estimate of his talents.

Now, before making any comment on his speeches, or his mode of conducting a case, we will glance at the obstacles against which he had to contend in early life, so that the young and friendless may be encouraged by his success in surmounting them. Even physical labor is valued according to the difficulties by which it is surrounded; before we can determine whether a traveller has acquitted himself well or ill, in performing a journey of a hundred miles in a given time, it is necessary to know the character of the road over which he has had to travel. We therefore give the following brief outline of the early life of Mr. O'Conor, from facts collected from various sources: His father came to this country from Ireland at the beginning of the present century. Although belonging to the O'Conor Don family, whose lineal descent from the last of the Irish kings is beyond dispute, he was an enthusiastic republican; he was also an uncompromising opponent to British domination; and another prominent feature in his character was his devotion to the Catholic religion. He inherited a handsome property from his father; but being much more charitable than prudent, he was not long in this country when he lost all, and was reduced to extreme poverty. This prevented him from securing for his son that

* Intellectually, also, the same family has been honorably distinguished. Charles O'Conor, who was born in 1710, and who died in 1791, was so eminent an antiquary that he enjoyed the friendship of Dr. Johnson, Dr. Leland, Lord Lyttleton, and several other learned men of that brilliant epoch. His grandson, Dr. Charles O'Conor, brother of the late O'Conor Don, ranks among the most distinguished antiquaries of the present century. He is the author of several works, which exhibit much learning and research. There are none of the principal libraries of Europe in which the following are not to be found: A Narrative of the most interesting Events in Modern Irish History, 8vo.; Rerum Hibernicarum, Scriptores Veteres, 4 vols. 4to., in Latin ; The Letters of Columbanus, 2 vols. 8vo.; Bibliotheca MS. Slowensis, 2 vols. 4to. The literary tastes of the family, combined with its ancient royal lineage, have rendered it a favorite subject for the poets both at home and abroad ; thus it is, for example, that one of Campbell's finest effusions is, O'Conor's Child, or the Flower of Love lies bleeding."

liberal education which it was always his ambition that he should receive. His wife was very different from himself; very much his superior both intellectually and morally ; and it was she who had most influence on the future advocate. But she died in 1816, when he was but a mere boy. Her good precepts had their effects, however. Young Charley learned all he could where he could. At school he learned the primary English branches ; his father gave him instructions in Latin, and also managed to procure some lessons for him in French. The rest the young student did for himself, although his resources were such as scarcely to afford him a book to learn from, and in 1824 he was admitted to the bar.

The first lawyer with whom he studied is described as “a dreadfully intemperate little West Indian, named Lemoine, who had no regular practice.” His next icstructor was Joseph D. Fay, whose chief recommendation was not that he knew much about law, or had much practice, but that he had a few good books. O'Conor made the most of these, and of all others belonging to his profession of which he could obtain the use for love or money. It is said that while thus struggling with poverty and its concomitants, he was as proud as a millionaire ; but pride is not so reprehensible a feeling as it is generally represented; however, we mean that sort of pride which prevents its possessor from being guilty of a dishonorable action, and which prompts him to be truthful and honest.

In illustration of our remark that Mr. O'Conor is no politician, we will observe, in passing, that, with the exception of serving a summer in the New York Constitutional Convention of 1864, and holding the office of district attorney for some fifteen months, at the request of Franklin Pierce, until he could find a suitable person, he has never held any public office. His friends argue that he has no vanity, or no desire for notoriety, from the fact that he has never lectured, or spoken extemporaneously on any literary, scientific, or professional subject; and that, except in two or three instances, he has never made a public exhibition of himself but with pain and reluctance. We must accept the argument as a cogent one; for although, as already observed, we have never conversed with Mr. O'Conor but once, we parted with him fully satisfied that there are few if any professional men better qualified to deliver an instructive lecture, or an eloquent and interesting extempore address.

We have met with no one on either side of the Atlantic whose conversational powers seemed to us superior to his, or whose mind seemed better trained, or more analytical. His language is easy, forcible, brilliant, and accurate; and yet he is quite as willing to listen as he is to speak. He is now over sixty years of age, having been born in 1804 ; his hair and whiskers are entirely grey; his face is pale, but it is more the paleness of thought than of years. At all events, no sooner does he become interested in conversation than his whole countenance brightens, and it is not unfrequently as expressive of his thoughts as his most eloquent periods. Although generally fair and just in his criticisms on men, without betraying the least tinge of envy or jealousy, it is easy to see that he is strong, if not implacable, in his resentments ; that keen, grey eye, and thin, compressed lip, with a certain peculiar twitching at the corner of the mouth, reveal this fact, and at the same time remind us of some of the most characteristic descriptions of the ancient Celts.*

It is admitted by all that among the most prominent traits in his character are stern integrity, and a high sense of honor. Although said to be devoid of ambition, no one works harder to avoid defeat than Mr. O'Conor; or perhaps it would be more correct to say that no one exerts himself better or more fearlessly to vindicate his client. Hence it is that one who knows him well, describes his preparations as “paroxysms, and not always short ones.”

An experience of forty years at the bar leaves him without a single companion of his early efforts ; all are gone, and having no desire to compete with his juniors he avoids practice as much as possible. Except as a jurisconsult,+ or in some case of unusual importance, he no longer accepts a brief. As his life has been passed chiefly in solitary labor, seldom appearing in public except in court, his earnestness and zeal have caused many, if not the public at large, to regard him as an unrelenting and cruel spirit. This, indeed, is more or less incident to all lawyers of eminence, since from the very nature of their profession they are always battling against some one, and if they are recluses they can make few intimate friends. This may account for the fact that

[graphic]
[ocr errors]

while all acknowledge the eminent ability of O'Conor as an advocate, he has never been popular. We find a curious illustration of the public confidence in his ability as a lawyer, and his integrity as a man, in the fact that many of those who disliked him most, for the reasons mentioned, were among the first who voted for him when he was prevailed upon to become a candidate for the State Convention, organized in 1846, for the formation and adoption of the new constitution. His reply to those who wished him to become a candidate was that he could not be elected a constable ; yet, of a half a dozen different factions which exercised political influence at the time, all nominated him, with the sole exception of " the workingmen, whose rules allowed them to nominate only a working man; and the result was that he was almost unanimously elected.

His course as a member of the convention afforded the best evidence that he had no taste for political intrigue, but that he was self-willed, and would cling with tenacity to any idea, however unpopular, which he thought right. The politicians saw that they could neither convince, coax, nor bribe him, and consequently had to give him up as unmanageable. But the same untractableness that made him thus odious to men in power, or to those having sanguine hopes of soon acquiring it, rendered him quite a favorite with hopeless minorities; and this character he has sustained to the present day. As an example of the tenacity with which he clung te what he thought right while a member of the convention, we will extract a passage from his speech on the proposed section of the constitution relative to the separate property of married women. It will be seen that this shows that if he is not a politician, he has statesman-like views ; at least in regard to one kind of slavery." If he were as logical and just in his views of negro slavery as he is on that sort of bondage under which our women have to labor at the hands of their husbands, we should have no fault to find with him ; and we imagine that the most sensible of the sex themselves would regard him in a similar light. Omitting some prefatory remarks we quote as follows :

"If there was anything our institutions that ought not to be troubled by the stern hand of the reformer, it was the sacred ordinance of marriage and the relations arising out of it. The difference, he said, between the law of England and that of most other nations, was that it established the most entire and absolute union and identity of interests and of persons in the matrimonial state. It recognised the husband as thọ head of the household, merged in him the legal being of the wife so thoroughly, that in contemplation of law she could scarcely be said to exist. The VOL. XI.-NO. XXI.

6

common law of England was the law of this country, and both were based upon the gospel precept—"they twain shall be one flesh.” Pure as its origin-the fountain of holy writ—the common law rule upon this subject had endured for centuries; it had passed the ocean with our ancestors, and cheered their first rude cabins in the wilderness; it still continued in all its original vigor and purity, and with all its originally benign tendency and influences, unimpaired by time, undiminished in its capacity to bless by any change of climate or external circumstances. Revolution after revolution had swept over the home of married love, here and in the mother country; forms of government had changed with Proteus-like versatility; but the domestic fireside had remained untouched. Woman, as wife or as mother, had known no change of the law which fixed her domestic character and guided her devoted love. She had as yet known no debasing pecuniary interest apart from the prosperity of her husband. His wealth had been her wealth; his prosperity her pride, her only source of power or distinction. Thus had society existed hitherto. Did it need a change? Must the busy and impatient besom of reform obtrude, without invitation, its unwelcome officiousness within the charmed and charming circle of domestic life, and there too change the laws and habits of our people? He trusted not. He called upon not only husbands, but brothers, sons,--all who held the married state in respect, to pause and deliberate before they fixed permanently in the fundamental law this new and dangerous principle. No change should be made in the rules affecting the relation of husband and wife. The habits and manners built upon these rules, and arising out of them, could not be improved, and ought to be perpetuated. The firm union of interest in married life, as established by the common law, occasionally, in special cases, produced deplorable evils, but its general influence upon the members of society was most benign. This was exhibited in the past history of England and our own country; it was visible in the existing condition of our people. Why change the law, and by a rash experiment put at risk the choicest blessings we enjoy? Husbands in America are generally faithful and true protectors of their wives; wives in America are generally models for imitation. The least reflection inust convince that this state of manners amongst us results from the purity of our laws for domestic government. These laws ought not, then, to be charged, lest manners should change with them. The proposition came in an insidious and deceitful form; it came with professions of regard for woman, and thus won a ready access to the favor of all good men; but like the serpent's tale to the first woman, it tended, if it did not seek, to betray her. He thought the law which united in one common bond the pecuniary interests of husband and wife should remain. He was no true American who desired to see it changed. If it were changed, and man and wife converted, as it were, into mere partners, he believed a most essential injury would result to the endearing relations of married life. A wife with a separate estate secured to her independent disposal and management, might be a sole trader; she inight rival her husband in trade, or become the partner of his rival. Diverse and opposing interests would be likely to grow out of such relations; controversies would arise, husband and wife would become armed against each other, to the utter destruction of the sentiment which they should entertain towards each other, and to the utter subversion of true felicity in married life.

[ocr errors]
[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]
[ocr errors]

" This was the opinion of pure-minded Joseph Platt, of the venerable, wise, and profoundly learned Ambrose Spencer. If this Convention should change the laws, invade the sanctuary of domestic love, and en

« VorigeDoorgaan »