« PrejšnjaNaprej »
grounded in its great fundamental principles. He could analyze and generalize equally well. He easily made his way, through intricacies which puzzle and confound the mere case lawyer, to the fundamental principle which solved the problem. He would have made an admirable Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, an office he deserved and would have received but for the interference of a miserable political cabal. That great office would have been the fitting close of his professional career.
As it was, however, it had brilliant culmination in the great international tribunal at Paris, on the Bering Sea controversy. Under appointment by President Harrison, in 1893, he served as senior counsel for the United States government in that august court. His closing argument, extending over a period of eleven days, and covering three hundred and twenty-five printed pages of the official report of the proceedings, was an exhaustive, learned, and statesmanlike review of the history of the case, and of the principles of international law applicable thereto. At the close of the argument, M. de Courcelles, the president of the tribunal, said to Mr. Phelps, in the name of the Court, after allusion to the difficult part he had discharged: “It (the task) has been discharged in such a manner as fully to deserve our admiration, blending the deep science of the lawyer with literary refinement and diplomatic dignity. I beg I may be allowed to consider the laurel you have won at this cosmopolitan bar as a fair addition to the wreath of honors you have conquered on different fields, both in the New and the Old World."
But it should be said that Mr. Phelps was more than a mere lawyer. He possessed those gifts of wit and fancy which enriched and enlivened the driest themes. His tact was equal to his wit. He would flash a playful, mirth-provoking illustration into an erudite discussion of a legal problem, to the amused relief of a grave Court, and pass on without a break in the severe logic of his argument.
Who but Mr. Phelps could have convulsed Court and Bar by inimitably funny comments on the dry doctrine of estoppel en pais in a Vermont cause célèbre, now historic?
His able and scholarly address on Chief Justice Marshall before the American Bar Association, at Saratoga, in 1879, commanded the enthusiastic admiration of representative lawyers assembled from all parts of the country, and extended his reputation, not only as an able lawyer, but also as a man of broad literary culture and statesmanlike quality.
General recognition of his eminent ability and accomplishments came to him later in his life. He was more than three-score years old, in 1885, when President Cleveland sent him to the Court of St. James as resident American Minister. With what unqualified success he acquitted himself in this arena is known and acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic. In the new and broader field of diplomacy and statesmanship his success was as eminent as in his professional life.
He was a master in the art of letter-writing. His familiar letters are charming and inimitable. In these he gave full play to his wit and fancy. They reveal the sweet, genial temper of the man no less than his versatility. The same qualities pervaded his familiar conversation. His discourse, oral and written, was clear, concise, and elegant.
He had such mental integrity and clearness of mental vision, such facility and felicity of expression, such aptitude in illustration, such sense of fitness which surely set limit to undue and unwise extravagances of thought or expression, such culture and learning, combined with such genial, graceful, and winning personality, that he possessed the rare requisites of a born teacher, for the term nascitur non fit applies to the teacher not less than to the poet. His lectures on medical jurisprudence in the Vermont University, on constitutional law at Harvard University, and at Yale as Kent professor of law from 1881 to the date of his death, at New Haven, March 9, 1900, illustrated his peculiar gifts as a teacher.
In the class-room his exposition of recondite themes was masterly; stripping them of technical verbiage, he laid bare in clear, simple terms the basic principle, and inquiry could go no further. Nor was such exposition ever barren, but always enlivened at intervals by some witty or humorous turn, which, while it amused his pupil, served also to emphasize the point in hand. He loved the law and could vitalize its principles. In the class-room his very personality was an inspiration.
He was artistic in temperament in every fibre of his being. He was affluent in sympathy with the best and most beautiful in art and nature and humanity. He was high-souled, and so was fastidious. He loved what was most beautiful and harmonious in the composition of colors, what was most graceful and symmetrical in form.
He loved the mountains of Vermont. He loved the forests that crown them and the brooks that wind and sing beneath their shade. He loved the wild note of the hermit thrush and the odor of the woods.
He loved music, especially the old melodies which so sweetly interpret the old ballads of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
A nature so keenly attuned to harmonies must be sensitive to discords, and he had instinctive dislike of every shade of vulgarity, and hatred of shams and hypocrisy. He was guiltless of pretence; he always had the courage of his convictions and was fearless in their expression.
He loved his friends with loyal steadfastness. In their sorrows and trials he was as tender and sympathetic as a woman. His courtesy was unfailing. His wit never wounded nor offended. It was impersonal.
He loved and was familiar with the best English literature. His vigorous, trained intellect, his literary culture, his artistic temperament, and his great versatility would have insured his success in any field of intellectual effort. Among the distinguished statesmen, scholars, and lawyers who constitute the official life of England Mr. Phelps was an acknowledged peer. And at a banquet given by them in his honor, in 1889, at the close of his official service, he bade farewell to his friends and to England in a short, wholly impromptu speech of matchless grace and elegance. Lord Rosebery wrote the same evening to the gracious lady who for more than half a century shared the life of the guest of the occasion, and who still survives him, as follows:
“I cannot go to bed without sending you a line of congratulation on your great triumph of to-night. The assembly was unique in its character and its warmth; and what it gave in enthusiasm, Mr. Phelps restored in a speech so exquisite, that, on an occasion which seemed beyond the reach of eloquence to improve, it crowned the sensations of the audience. The only thing wanting was your presence."
The unfeigned regret of his English friends at his departure was mingled with expressions of sincere personal regard and respectful admiration for the man who had so ably and tactfully discharged the delicate and difficult functions of representative of this great government at the Court of St. James.
While Mr. Phelps's surviving friends are justly proud of his splendid record, yet not for that alone or chiefly will those who knew him best cherish his memory, but more and rather for what he was to them in his charming personality.
He has gone. “His works do follow him.” In his few (alas! too few) public addresses, thrown off at intervals in a busy professional life, he has left an enduring memorial of his mental powers and accomplishments. Valuable as they are, both in style and substance, they rather suggest the idea of how much more he might have done in the same line had he given his rare powers exclusively to the work of a littérateur and publicist. Few men possess such a range of diversified gifts. Fewer still attain success in so many diverse fields of mental effort. From the beginning to the end of his long career his intellectual growth was continuous. He never sought office nor honors.