From Solo Country Lawyer to Chief Justice

September 15, 2011 Published Work
Connecticut Lawyer, August/September 2011

The words "Auction Today" draw me in every time. That fall day a few months ago was no different. I parked in a gravel-strewn parking lot alongside an old, brick industrial building converted into an auction house. The auction was to start in fifteen minutes.

With little time to look for possible treasure, I walked quickly along the weathered pine floors of the mill, passing the various auction items with only a glance, until I stopped at a battered shoebox. The hand-lettered sign taped to the shoebox said "Litchfield Letters," nothing more. In the shoebox were forty or fifty letters dating from the 1820's and 1830's. With the auction minutes away, there was only time to glance at the addresses on the letters but no time to read them.

All were addressed to Origen S. Seymour, Esq., Litchfield, CT. Though I had never heard of Origen Seymour, I liked his name. While that seemed, even to me, to be a weak reason to bid on the unknown, it proved to be enough. So, when the auctioneer held up the letters to begin the bidding, I joined in. In a few seconds, and for not too many dollars, Origen's letters were mine.

But, exactly whose letters had I won?

Back at home, and after some research, I was pleasantly surprised by the answer.

Origen Storrs Seymour, from a family related to the Storrs family of Mansfield, Connecticut, was born in Litchfield in 1804, graduated from Yale in 1824, studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1826. He opened a law office in Litchfield that same year. Many years later, after success as a lawyer, politician and judge, Seymour became the first President of the Connecticut Bar Association. That bit of history was easy to uncover, and it spoke of a long and productive career. But, what of the young lawyer? Was he always marked for success?

I had bought only a small collection of letters, and all were addressed to Seymour. None had been written by him, and so I had no words of his to help me understand the man.[i] Also, the letters covered a period when Seymour was between 25 and 33 years old. Could these few letters, sent to a young and unproven lawyer, predict much about his future?

The answer, I believe, is "yes." To start with, the letters showed that Seymour chose an excellent place to begin a law practice. He was Litchfield born, so he and his family were known in the area. Having connections always helps a young lawyer, and I suspect Seymour fully appreciated that. And, perhaps more importantly, in the 1820's both the village of Litchfield and Litchfield County were enjoying boom times. Litchfield was the county seat. The town had a solid banking industry. Tapping Reeve's law school, which Origen's uncle Horatio Seymour attended in 1798 and Seymour attended in 1824, was still producing bright young lawyers.[ii] Industries of all types had spread up the Naugatuck and other river valleys that drained the Litchfield Hills. The immense, virgin forests that covered the local hills had not yet been cut down in full, and lumbering and charcoal industries thrived. The local farmers prospered selling food to the growing industrial towns in the river valleys and to the port cities on Long Island Sound. The railroads that would eventually pass Litchfield by, and by doing so preserve it, had not yet come to Connecticut. In the 1820's Litchfield was still a match for nearly every city in the State. Origen had made a good choice.

As for his early legal practice, the letters indicate that Seymour did work that must have been typical for a lawyer starting on his own early in the 19th century. In addition to trial work of various types, Seymour worked on property issues, company (or trust) formation, debt collection, bank lending, the sale of livestock, seeking town assistance for the indigent, arranging widows' benefits for Revolutionary War veterans, negotiating tax abatements for veterans of the War of 1812, and advising small businesses.

In May of 1831, Nelson Brewster, an attorney in Goshen, wrote Seymour in preparation for a trial involving a suit brought by one Barrows against Greenleaf.[iii] Apparently a man named Ives, a local constable, had seized a traveling trunk belonging to Barrows as a means of recovering on a debt owed by Barrows to Greenleaf. (The suit revolved around the nonreturn to Barrows of certain clothes that were in the seized trunk.) Referencing the judge who had been assigned the case, Brewster offers some advice to his younger colleague Seymour, who would argue the case if Brewster could not attend the trial:

"I think it may be well for you to flatter [the judge] a little for he will hear it well."

Brewster's letter went on to say: "I expect to start for Hartford tomorrow and possibly I may not be here at the time of the trial – you must beat them if possible." (No emphasis added.)

Whether or not Seymour tried the case, and if he did whether he "beat them," I do not know. Nor can anyone know whether he took the advice to flatter the trial judge "a little." But perhaps, later in his career, Seymour would recall Nelson Brewster's advice. Seymour eventually served as a Superior Court judge (1855-1863), and in 1873 as Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. Sitting as a trial judge more than two decades after the case of Barrows vs. Greenleaf, Seymour may well have thought of his young self whenever a trial lawyer considered it wise to flatter Seymour "a little."

Whatever Seymour's instinct for flattering judges may have been, the letters show that even early in his career Seymour had the respect of other lawyers and his clients. In another letter from 1831 a client writes saying that he encloses payment of Seymour's invoice. The letter goes on to note:

"as I perceive you are modest in your charges I take the liberty to make it up two dollars believing that no professional man should receive less certainly than $5 per day when from home on expense."

Client satisfaction following from reasonable charges, some things are a given across the ages.

At the same time that the young Seymour was satisfying clients with both skill and reasonable fees, he crossed paths with some of Connecticut's early industrialists. In November of 1831 Seymour finds himself co-representing Jason Atwood.[iv] As one of the letters notes, Atwood is "in jail for debt" having been put there as a result of issues arising while he was "employed by Scovill [of Waterbury] as a peddler to sell gilt buttons."[v] Somehow things began to go wrong for Atwood in Cleveland in 1828, and Seymour was called in at a time when the Scovill brothers had Atwood in jail and had brought a lawsuit against Atwood for monies owed. While the letters do not reveal Atwood's fate, the Scovill brothers went from brass buttons to a brass empire, eventually employing more than 10,000 people in Waterbury alone.

In a letter from 1837 (written during a period (1836 to 1844) when Seymour served as Litchfield County Clerk), Seymour is dealing with the local iron industry. Legal work for and against local iron works was common for a Litchfield County lawyer of that era. Iron ore mining, iron smelting and production of iron products were prominent industries in the County for nearly 200 years. The industry enjoyed boom times through the Civil War, and it was not until 1925 that the last of the Litchfield County iron works closed, overwhelmed by competition from the Midwest.

Seymour also handled work for relatives, a common practice then and now for nearly all young solo practitioners. One letter written from Brattleboro, Vermont in 1831 came from E. Seymour, who in the salutation of the letter addressed Origen as "Storrs." The letter concerned the Seymour family's interest in certain "Pensyl'a lands." After discussing the Pennsylvania lands, the letter concludes on a personal and tragic note:

"We are in great affliction from the death of our little son – he died of the scarlet fever and sore throat – the complaint has proved fatal to many children in this town near us – your aunt is not in good health. Henry's death affects her very much."[vi]

Several other letters to Seymour, though not from relatives, also refer to tragic health and injury issues common to that era.

The most recently dated letter in the collection is from September 1837. Seymour was then 33 years old and only five years from being elected to his first of several terms as a State Representative. The client letter, after discussing a business matter, concludes with a personal aside reflecting the then rural nature of much of Litchfield County:

"[I am] in the middle of my Haying and Oat Harvest with dull weather. I am about half done. Hay & Most of my Oat cut … it take some labor to secure it all in particular cloudy weather. My corn is now doing well, of course late as every thing else." (Punctuation as in the original.)

Another of the letters gives a foreshadowing of Seymour's future as the first President of the State Bar Association. An undated letter, postmarked "Hartford, CT," is an invoice to Seymour for forty-four dollars payable for a large number of Connecticut Reports that had been delivered to him. Seymour is instructed to personally pay the invoice and to then distribute the Reports and collect payment from his fellow lawyers. Recent Presidents of the CBA may feel a certain sympathy with Seymour, and even conclude that things have not evolved that much from Seymour's days.

My small trove of letters ends in 1837, with Seymour only 33 years old. Yet, even these few letters from the beginning of Seymour's career suggest a young man of substance. One who is sought out and respected for his skills. Seymour's future career proved he was such a man.

In addition to being Litchfield County Clerk, State Representative (serving as Speaker in 1850), a Superior Court Judge, and State Supreme Court Judge (and for a time Chief Justice), Seymour was also a U.S. Congressman (1851-1855), the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Governor in 1864/65, and Chairman of the Commission to settle the boundary dispute between Connecticut and New York.[vii]

In 1875, late in his career, and with Litchfield and Connecticut greatly changed, Seymour was instrumental in helping to establish the Connecticut Bar Association. He then served as its first President.

It was a matter of chance that I happened upon letters that introduced me to Origen Seymour. I am very glad that chance favored me. It was a pleasure to make even the casual acquaintance of a man who set a lifetime example of service, and who left a strong legacy for those lawyers who would follow him as leaders of the Connecticut bar.

[i] The Litchfield Historical Society holds a substantial collection of Seymour family papers. In writing this article I elected to see what could be fairly surmised about Seymour from only the letters I purchased at auction. Origen Storrs Seymour deserves a more thorough look than I have given him.

[ii] Reeve's "Litchfield Law School," the first law school in the U.S., opened in 1773. The first pupil was Reeve's brother-in-law Aaron Burr. The School operated into the early 1830's.

[iii] Brewster (1793(?)-1850) practiced in Goshen and acted for years as the Goshen Justice of the Peace. Brewster's son William Root Brewster (1828-1869) served as a colonel of the 73rd New York Infantry during the Civil War. At Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, with his horse shot out from under him, William Brewster led his brigade over the two bitterest days of fighting. At the battle's end, he reported that his brigade suffered 778 injured or dead out of a total force of approximately 1,800.

[iv] This is probably the Jason Atwood who was born around 1808 in Woodbury, CT, son of William Atwood and Clarissa Martin Atwood of Woodbury.

[v] Presumably these are brass buttons of the type that were produced by many of the Waterbury brass companies, including the Scovill brass works.

[vi] E. Seymour was Epaphroditus Seymour (1783-1854), Origen's uncle. He and his wife Mary Root Seymour lost their two year old son Henry to illness in the winter of 1830. Epaphroditus Seymour was the youngest son of Major Moses Seymour of Litchfield. Epaphroditus was educated at the Morris Academy in what was then known as South Farms, CT. Epaphroditus became president of a bank in Brattleboro, VT.

[vii] The Seymour family was, in these days, widely prominent. Origen's father was Ozias Seymour, the Litchfield County Sheriff and a son of Major Moses Seymour. Ozias also ran a farm and was a pioneer in hat manufacturing. Origen's mother Salima was the daughter of Dan Storrs and Ruth Conant Storrs of Storrs, CT. Origen's wife was Lucy Morris Woodruff, the daughter of General Morris Woodruff. They had four children: Edward Woodruff Seymour (1832-1892), Storrs Ozias Seymour (1836-1918), Maria Seymour (1838-1878), and Morris Woodruff Seymour (1842-1920). Origen's Uncle Horatio Seymour was U.S. Senator from Vermont (1821-1833); Origen's cousin (his uncle Horatio's son) was twice Governor of New York and ran for the Presidency in 1868 as a Democrat, losing to Ulysses S. Grant; and Origen's son Edward was a U.S. Congressman from Connecticut from 1883 to 1887. (Edward's son was named Origen Storrs Seymour; this namesake to his grandfather had a distinguished legal career until his death at 68 in 1940.)