Men of Mark in America/Volume 1/Melville W. Fuller



MELVILLE WESTON FULLER, lawyer, jurist, the eighth chief justice of the United States, was born in Augusta, Maine, February 11, 1833. His distinguished career runs emphatically counter to the extreme theory that a man's ancestry counts for little, and that the eminence of honor and fame belong only to those who begin the ascent with bare feet. Not only was he denied in his youth the proverbial country environment often set down as a sine qua non of distinction, but his forefathers for several generations had occupied places of distinct prominence in legal and judicial life. His maternal grandfather. Honorable Nathan Weston, was chief justice of the state of Maine; his paternal grandfather, Honorable Henry Weld Fuller, a classmate and intimate friend of Daniel Webster, was for many years, and at the time of his death, a judge of probate in Kennebee county, Maine; and his father, Frederick Augustus Fuller, studied at the Harvard law school, and was a lawyer of ability and zeal. His six uncles were all lawyers.

Melville Fuller entered Bowdoin college at the age of sixteen, and was graduated in 1853. Descended from a long line of lawyers, his decision was soon made in favor of the law. He began the study of this profession in college and in the office of his uncle, George Melville Weston, of Bangor, Maine, supplementing his office study with a course of lectures at Harvard law school. Two years after his graduation from Bowdoin, he was admitted to the bar, and began practice at Augusta, entering into partnership with his uncle, Benjamin A. G. Fuller in association with whom he also edited “The Age.” This paper was one of the leading Democratic organs of the state, and, to a certain extent, a rival of the “Kennebec Journal,” at that time managed by James G. Blaine. As a hard and conscientious worker Mr. Fuller, even at this time, commanded the attention and the confidence of his community in an unusual degree, and he became member and president of the common council, and city attorney.
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But flattering as all these recognitions were, because they were far from adventitious, yet they did not satisfy the ambition of the young lawyer. He longed for enlarged opportunities. He therefore resigned membership in the council, and before the close of 1856 removed to Chicago to begin his career practically anew.

When Mr. Fuller reached Chicago he was unknown. Whatever reputation he had achieved in his brief professional life, on the banks of the Kennebee, availed him nothing, save in the consciousness that he had developed power, to which, now, must be added the all important element of courage. He was quick to decide, and the conviction struck him that he must identify himself with a new order of life and with new conditions. This he proceeded to do — to make the interests of the new community his interests — to enter into its life as fully and completely as one in his position might properly be allowed to do. To a manner that was engaging, he added a brilliancy of attainments and a readiness and eagerness for the work of his profession that soon brought him clients and an established reputation. Within the first two years of his western career he argued a case before the Supreme Court of Illinois, and extension of his practice to the United States District and Supreme courts came rapidly. It was not long until he stood well at the head of the Chicago bar. The cases which stand out most distinctly in Mr. Fuller's career as a lawyer are probably those which grew out of the prorogation of the legislature of Illinois in 1863, and the famous Cheney heresy trial. The latter case charged canonical disobedience against Bishop Charles E. Cheney, and the attempt was made by the ecclesiastical council to interdict him from acting as rector, and to prevent his farther use of the parsonage and church, as such. Dr. Cheney was defended by Mr. Fuller, and in point of thoroughness, display of ecclesiastical knowledge, familiarity with the writings of the Church fathers, and legal acumen, this defense has rarely been equaled. The case, finally, was taken up to the Supreme Court of Illinois, where it was re-presented by Mr. Fuller in a masterful and eloquent argument, and received the confirmation of that tribunal.

Another case, celebrated in legal annals, was the “Lake-front Case,” involving vast interests of large importance to the city of Chicago. This case was tried before Mr. Justice Harlan and Judge Blodgett of the United States Circuit court, and its conduct by Mr. Fuller attracted widespread attention. While Mr. Fuller’s chief claim to distinction is as a lawyer and jurist, he still performed many services of a public and political character. In 1862, he was a member of the State Constitutional Convention of Illinois, and in 1863 was elected to membership in the lower house of the legislature of that State. A lifelong Democrat, he frequently represented his party in National Conventions, being a delegate in 1864, 1872, 1876, and 1880. He placed Thomas A. Hendricks in nomination for the vice-presidency in the convention of 1876, in a notable speech, but subsequent to 1880 refrained from further active participation in party councils. He was named by President Cleveland for the office of chief justice of the United States, to succeed Morrison R. Waite, on April 30, 1888. His commission was signed July 30 of the same year, and he took his seat, as the eighth chief justice of the Supreme Court, being at the time, with one exception, the youngest member of that body.

Although Mr. Fuller's practice was quite general in its nature, yet in his later years he confined it very largely to the Federal Courts. It has been said of him that “a marked characteristic of his methods as a practitioner at the bar was thoroughness, to which end he always made a careful preparation of his cases before they came up for trial. In addressing court or jury he spoke with clearness and earnestness, and some of his arguments in important cases contain a wealth of research and scholarly reasoning. A desire for justice dominated him in the conduct of his cases, rather than a desire to win. As a fluent, earnest, convincing advocate he had few equals.”

These characteristics as a lawyer, with the judicial refinements, are equally marked in him as chief justice of our highest court. The mental quality which predominates is judgment poise. All previous prejudice, the mood of the moment, possible penalty or retribution, are dismissed or rendered colorless in the presence of a plea for justice at his hands. He possesses, too, keen analytical power, and after the test, of the law, or of logic or of facts, or of precedents has been applied, he reaches decisions from which those personal elements, which are often fraught with error, have been largely eliminated. This impersonal judgment, is the judgment of the impartial jurist. In the matter of the presentation of an opinion, as well, the chief justice has an eloquence of diction particularly persuasive. A lawyer of wide experience, a citizen of the highest type, a jurist of undoubted ability, Chief Justice Fuller has proved a worthy successor of the notable men who in the past have been elevated to our highest judicial position.

Chief Justice Fuller is a man of fine literary instincts. He is not only learned in the literature of the law, but he has an intimate acquaintance with history and literature in its broader aspects and bearings. He has at command several continental languages, and has made companions of the ancient classics. This varied scholarship is constantly reflected in the occasional addresses given to the public, and in the recognition accorded him by the several colleges and universities that have bestowed upon him their highest degree. Northwestern university and Bowdoin college gave him the degree of Doctor of Laws in 1888, Harvard university in 1891, Yale and Dartmouth in 1901.

Chief Justice Fuller was married in 1866 to Miss Mary E. Coolbaugh. They have a family of eight daughters and one son.