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HONORABLE EDWARD J. PHELPS
HON. JOHN W. STEWART
THE ancestry of a man distinguished among his fellows is always a subject of interest. The law of heredity plays so important a part in the determination of the life and character that, in a sense, every man's history antedates his birth. The quality of the germ is fixed by inheritance, and its development is along prescribed lines, subject to modification under the play of the will in changing conditions.
So it comes to pass that a good ancestry is one's best inheritance, more precious than lands or houses or gold, for these are extraneous, while character is personal and abides as the supreme test of manhood.
Hon. Edward J. Phelps, the subject of this brief sketch, inherited a splendid endowment, both physical and mental. His long and brilliant career is proof that he made wise and diligent use of those natural gifts so generously bestowed.
His American ancestry was of the type of men who found and build new States — brave, clear-headed, liberty-loving, God-fearing men, pioneers and sowers of the seed of New England civilization of which this generation is reaping harvest.
William Phelps emigrated from England to this country in 1630 and founded the historic town of Windsor, Connecticut. His descendants for several generations filled prominent positions in civil life during the colonial period. John Phelps was an officer in the war of the American Revolution. Hon. Samuel S. Phelps, his son, was the father of Edward J. Phelps, and was a native of Litchfield, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale College in 1811, and the year following removed to Middlebury, Vermont, where he resided until his death, in 1855. Soon after his arrival in Middlebury he was admitted to the bar, and entered at once upon a brilliantly successful professional career, which culminated, while yet a young man, in his elevation to the Supreme Court of the State. At the bar he was the acknowledged leader, and his judicial service was not less distinguished. His judicial utterances were models of style in clearness and force of statement. He resigned from the bench to enter the United States Senate, in which he served twelve years by election, and, later, one year by executive appointment. In the roll of the Senate at that period are the names of Webster, Calhoun, Silas Wright, Chase, Benton, Clay, and others eminent if less famous. Chief Justice Chase once told the writer that in power of clear, convincing statement Judge Phelps was not excelled by any Senator of his time.
Judge Phelps was what might be termed regal in person. Of commanding stature, to rare symmetry of form he added a dignity of bearing which always commanded attention and admiration. The writer has been thus particular in describing the mental and physical qualities of the sire, because the same characteristics reappeared in marked degree in his more distinguished son.
Mr. Phelps's mother died in his childhood. None of her contemporaries are living, but the fragrance of her memory survives. In grace and beauty of person and character she was of the type of womanhood which attracts and attaches all who come within the sphere of its influence.
From such stock came Edward John Phelps.
He was born July 11, 1822; entered Middlebury College at the early age of fourteen, and graduated therefrom in 1840. He taught a family school in Virginia for a year. The year following he attended a course of lectures in New Haven Law School. Returning to Middlebury, he studied law in the office of Hon. Horatio Seymour, and was admitted to the bar in 1843. He entered immediately upon the active practice of his profession. His success was instant and complete.
His first appearance in court was marked by the same easy grace, perfect self-possession, self-mastery, clear perception and statement of points in question, and the same play of wit and apt illustration which distinguished his professional efforts in his mature and later life. He seemed to the writer, who was a youthful witness of his earliest efforts, to spring into the arena fully trained and equipped, versatile in gifts, with every faculty alert, and under instant and absolute control.
He was not a case lawyer. He was a great lawyer. He understood law as a science. He was thoroughly 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 conversa