Connecticut State Library with state seal

Memorials of Connecticut Judges and Attorneys
As Printed in the Connecticut Reports
volume 20, page(s) 7-20


The following "sketch of the life and character of the Hon. DAVID DAGGETT," whose arguments as counsel and opinions as a judge, occupy so many pages of this series of reports, is taken, with permission, from the Address of the Rev. Samuel W. S. Dutton, pronounced at the funeral of that distinguished man; and as his long and useful life has closed almost simultaneously with the termination of the present series, this seems to be an appropriate place for such a piece of biography. It may be added, that one who practised, many years, with him at the bar, and was afterwards associated with him on the bench of the supreme court, considers this sketch as strikingly faithful and characteristic of the subject.

DAVID DAGGETT was born in Attleborough, in the county of Bristol, in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, on the 31st of December, 1764; and, of course, at the day of his decease, April 12th, 1851, had passed through three months and twelve days of his eighty-seventh year. He was of that stock, which we have so much reason to honour and reverence, the Puritan stock of the New-England Pilgrims; being the fifth in the direct line of descent from John Daggett, who came over from England with Winthrop's company, in 1630, and settled in Watertown, in the Colony of Massachusetts. His son, Thomas Daggett, Esq., resided in Edgartown, on Martha's Vineyard. He removed thither, it is supposed, with the first Governor Mayhew, when he settled that island, in 1644. He married Hannah, the oldest daughter of Governor Mayhew, was a magistrate of the island, and died about the year 1690. His son, Deacon John Daggett, the second in the line from the original settler, removed, with four sons, about the year 1707, from Martha's Vineyard to Attleborough, Bristol county, Massachusetts, where he built, for protection against the Indians, what was called a "garrison house," in which he lived. It is quite remarkable, that of the four sons of this Deacon John Daggett, three have, for many generations, been represented by their descendants in New Haven; viz., Mayhew Daggett, the grandfather of the late Henry Daggett, Esq., whose residence was on the corner of Chapel and High streets; Ebenezer Daggett, the father of Rev. Dr. Daggett, Professor of Divinity, and President in Yale-College, and grandfather of the late Captain Henry Daggett, whose residence was in George street; and Thomas Daggett, the grandfather of David Daggett, whose death we now mourn. The fourth son, Naphthali Daggett, met an untimely death, by the falling of a tree in Attleborough. The fourth in this line of descent, also named Thomas Daggett, the father of our lamented friend, was a man of vigorous intellect, strong common sense, and decided and earnest religious character. I have often heard our venerable friend speak of his father's strong sympathy with the friends of the "Great Awakening," which occurred in the earlier part of his manhood, under the preaching of Whitefield, Edwards, Bellamy and the Tennents. In the controversy, which, in subsequent years, grew out of that Awakening, he was earnest on the side of its friends; so much so, that he had a partiality for the "Separates" of that day, though he never united himself with them. He was a Baptist in sentiment; and his influence as such had a modifying, though not a decisive, effect on the opinions of his son through life. Under the nurture and admonition of such a father, the son received thorough and judicious religious instruction, commended by a corresponding example; and was well trained in the principles of virtue and piety.

At the age of sixteen, he came to Yale-College, and entered the Junior Class, two years in advance; induced to choose this, rather than the nearer College at Cambridge, probably by the fact that Rev. Dr. Daggett, the first cousin of his father, who deceased the year before, had been an officer in Yale. He graduated in due course, and with high honour, in the year 1783, in the same class with Samuel Austin, Abiel Holmes and John Cotton Smith. Of this class, numbering forty-two at the time of graduation, he was the last survivor but one.* His college life, it will be observed, was during the latter part of the stormy and trying period of the American Revolution. His class entered during the year in which the British troops, under General Tryon, invaded New-Haven; and graduated in the very month in which the treaty of peace with Great-Britain was signed. When he took his second, or Master's degree, he spoke an oration of such marked excellence, that it received the honour, quite unusual in that day, of publication. Having a strong preference for the profession of the law, he commenced, soon after leaving College, the study preparatory to that profession, with Charles Chauncey, Esq., of New-Haven, afterwards a Judge of the Superior Court; and continued therein till January, 1786, a little more than two years; when he was admitted to the bar of New-Haven County, at the age of twenty-one, and immediately entered upon practice in this town. While pursuing his legal studies under Judge Chauncey, he supported himself, by performing the duties of Butler in College, and of Preceptor in the Hopkins Grammar School. A few months after he was admitted to the bar, he was chosen to the office of Tutor in Yale-College; which he declined, being eager to pursue the practice of the profession which he had chosen.

Mr. Daggett was early called into political service. In 1791, he was chosen to represent the town of New-Haven in the General Assembly; and was annually reelected for six years, till 1797, when he was chosen a member of the Council or Upper House. Though one of the youngest members of the House of Representatives, he soon became one of the most influential; and in 1794, three years after he entered the House, he was chosen to preside over it as its Speaker, at the early age of twenty-nine. To this office he was elected, year after year, till he was chosen to the Council or Upper House. This body was then constituted in a manner very different from that in which our present Senate or upper House are chosen. At the election in the autumn, twenty persons were chosen, not from particular districts, but from wherever in the whole state the ablest men could he found; and out of these twenty, twelve were chosen at the election in the spring - the twelve who had the highest number of votes - to constitute the Senate. The members of that body, thus chosen, were rarely changed. They were usually reelected, until they forfeited public confidence by malconduct, or were promoted to some higher office, or voluntarily resigned. It was thus an unusually permanent body, for an elective one, and embraced much of the political wisdom, ability and experience of the state. To this body, Mr. Daggett was transferred from the chair of the House of Representatives, in 1797; and he retained his seat there, for seven years, until he resigned it in 1804. In 1805, he was again a member of the House of Representatives. In 1809, he was again chosen a member of the Upper House of the General Assembly; and he continued to hold a place in that body, for four years, till May, 1813, when he was chosen a Senator in the Congress of the United States, for six years from the preceding fourth of March. In June, 1811, he was appointed State's Attorney for the county of New-Haven, and continued in that office, till he resigned it when chosen Senator in 1813. At the close of his Senatorial term, in 1819, he returned to his extensive practice of law, which conduced much more to his private interest than had the public service of the state, in which he had been engaged as her representative in the Senate of the United States. In November, 1824, he became an associate instructor of the Law School in this city with the late Judge Hitchcock; and in 1826, he was appointed Kent Professor of Law in Yale-College. In these positions he continued, until at a very advanced age, his infirmities induced him to resign them. In the autumn of 1826, he received from the corporation of Yale-College the honourary degree of LL. D. In May, 1826, when he was sixty-two years of age, he was chosen an Associate Judge of the Superior Court of this State. To this office he was appointed by a Legislature, in which a decided majority were opposed to him in political principles and preferences. This fact is worthy of remark, on account of its strong testimony to his preeminent fitness, at that time, for that high office; and also on account of the honourable testimony which it gives respecting his political opponents - whom he never courted, and in political conflict never spared - that in the election to an office so responsible, so remote from political interests and strifes, as that of a judge of our Supreme Court, they were willing to lay aside partisan partialities, and to be controuled by a regard to superior intellectual, legal and moral qualifications. During the years 1828 and 1829, he was Mayor of the city of New-Haven. In May, 1832, he was made Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Here, again, was singular testimony to his preeminent judicial qualifications; for, contrary to the usual custom, he was appointed to that chief place, notwithstanding the fact that he was not the senior in office among the judges on the bench. Judge Daggett continued to perform the duties of that station until December 31st, 1834; when he reached seventy years of age - the limit which our state constitution assigns to the judicial office.

Thus for forty five years, from the beginning of his twenty-sixth to the close of his seventieth year, Mr. Daggett was almost continually engaged in public service, as member and Speaker of the House of Representatives of this state, member of its Council, Senator in the Congress of the United States, and Associate and Chief Judge of our Supreme Court.

The eminence of Judge Daggett, in his profession, and among the public men of the State, is sufficiently attested, by the preceding account of the many positions of high responsibility and trust, in which he was placed, by the guardians of Yale-College, and by the people of this town, and this commonwealth; especially when we remember that the political party to which he belonged, which was dominant in the State till he was past middle life, and gave him the most of his honours, embraced, confessedly, many of the most powerful and brilliant minds of the State; and if we remember also, that some of the highest of these trusts were devolved upon him, when his political opponents had come into power, and his own party had passed into a minority.

Mr. Daggett was admitted to the bar, and entered into public life, two years before the adoption of the Federal Constitution. Of the political parties which grew out of the adoption of that Constitution, he united, as did the great body of the people of New-England, at that time, with that which was called Federal. Of this party, though he was not a mere partisan, but a true statesman, he was a firm, consistent, and thorough supporter. In the Legislature of the State, and as Senator of the United States, he was a sagacious and powerful advocate of its general principles and policy. Among its many strong men in this State, it had none stronger than he. For many years, no man in the State had so much political influence, an influence amounting so nearly to a political controul of the State, as he. And since the defeat and prostration of that party and the formation of new parties upon new issues, he, certainly, has never been ashamed, or reluctant, to have it known that he belonged to the same school of politics with Washington and Hamilton, Jay and Pickering, Adams and Ames, Ellsworth and Sherman.

If we inquire for the qualities which render Judge Daggett so able and eminent in forensic and political life, that which was, perhaps, most remarkable, was his perspicacity - his faculty of quick and thorough insight - of looking through, speedily and completely, men, measures and cases, and learning what was in them. This faculty was of great service to him in society, in political life, and in court, whether at the bar or on the bench. His knowledge of men seemed almost intuition. He looked through them at a glance, and read their characters, motives and tendencies. He knew at once his jury, the witnesses, and the opposing counsel, and understood, of course, how to deal with them. If a witness knew the truth, but was reluctant to unfold or desirous to conceal that knowledge, he perceived the fact, and well understood how to bring out his testimony. If a witness was dishonest, he saw it, and knew just where his fraud lay, and how to detect and expose it. His causes he comprehended thoroughly, and saw them in their just proportions; knowing accurately their strong, their weak, and their unimportant points - those which demanded notice and stress, those which would not bear it, and those which would occupy time to no purpose, except weariness of judge and jury.

United with this faculty, was well-balanced judgment and strong common sense. In his own intellectual efforts, he directed his force, as by a kind of instinct, to that which was useful and practicable. He was as far as possible from learned folly, intellectual quixotism, or the expenditure of acuteness to no good purpose. He could split hairs, if it was necessary: for he was acute in discrimination and profound in analysis; but he never would split hairs for nothing, or for the sake of the performance. As a lawyer and a judge, he would not be under bondage to nice quibbles or legal technicalities, but took a plain and common sense course to that which was the real intent of the law; and he preferred to lean to the side of equity and sound judgment, rather than to the side of legal formality. And, in judging of the intellectual efforts of others, he always liked those middle ground and common ground arguments, which carry the convictions of the great body of intelligent people, rather than those extreme and doubtful, though ingenious arguments, which commend themselves only to the few. And this faculty of mind, in connection with his quick and thorough perception, enabled him in arguing causes in court, to apply testimony so as to make the strongest impression of the merits of his case upon the judge, and especially upon the jury.

He had also an exquisite and quick sense of propriety or fitness. He knew how to do and say the right thing in the right time and place. He used often to remark that he admired what the Greeks call τό πρεπον: and surely, few ever understood it, or exemplified it, better than he. This quality rendered him very agreeable to others, and was of great service to him in his public life, especially at the bar. It gave him great tact. He knew just what suited what, and how to bring them together so as to produce the right result. He never did anything which was mal apropos. He never stepped on the wrong spot. He never touched the wrong spring or key. He rarely blundered in word or deed.

He abounded also in wit or humour, and had an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes, always at command, which he used to illustrate his positions and arguments, with great pertinence and felicity. He had a keen sense of the ludicrous, and remarkable power of pantomime - of imitating voice, look and manner - which he employed very effectively, when he related anecdotes, or when he wished to make his adversary appear ridiculous. He had the rare and very effective rhetorical power of passing suddenly from the humourous and ludicrous, to the solemn, vehement and impressive, and of changing the laughter of his hearers into stern conviction, or indignation, or tears.

His memory was accurate and retentive; and it had the excellent quality of retaining what was pertinent, and of letting the rest go. He took very few notes during a trial; yet everything in the case was at his command, when it was needed for use, and the right illustrations were ever ready at the right points.

He had great energy of feeling, which, kindling up as he proceeded with his cause, gave impressiveness to his words, and set his argument on fire. Through this feeling, he became warmly enlisted in the causes which he espoused, and had a singular power of identifying himself with his client.

His power of concentration also was distinguished. He was almost uniformly brief in his arguments, rarely occupying more than an hour; yet they embraced in their dense and compact but luminous volume, all that was essential, or really useful, for his purpose.

All who have heard him, agree in testifying, that his most marked peculiarity in the management of his causes, was, that he saw, and distinguished clearly, the minor and the strong points, and passing entirely or rapidly over the former, seized upon the latter with force and thorough comprehension, set them forth in all their strength, and pressed them with great earnestness and power upon the court and jury. His language, remarkable for its perspicuity, energy and impressiveness, and abounding in the strong Saxon words which are the common inheritance of all who speak the English tongue, enabled him to present vividly before others the truth, which he saw so clearly himself.

His knowledge of law was thorough and. eminently practical. He had it at command, when it was needed. His arguments, addressed to the court, were profound and luminous; and he applied to his cases the principles of law, as well as the testimony of witnesses, with great sagacity. He relied more, however, on the resources of his own mind, upon his clear and quick perceptions of the nature and relations of things, on his profound thought, and strong common sense, than upon the erudition of books; though he had a good professional library, which he used to great advantage.

His manner of speaking was calm and deliberate, when he began; but as he proceeded with his case or subject, his feelings kindled, his language glowed, his eye, tones and person spoke in unison with his words, and often, in his peroration, he overwhelmed his adversary as by a resistless torrent.

The features of Judge Daggett's intellectual character which have been mentioned, his quick and thorough insight, his well balanced judgment and strong common sense, his quick and ready perception of fitness, his wit and humour, his power of varied and felicitous illustration, his ready memory, his energy of feeling, his concentration, his clear and nervous language, his practical knowledge of law - these, joined to his qualities of person and manner - his tall and commanding form, always dressed carefully, richly, and in perfect taste, rising and dilating as he warmed with his subject, his large and piercing eye, his expressive brow, his strong-featured Roman face, his powerful voice ranging through the whole scale, from a subdued yet distinct whisper, till it sounded like a trumpet-call, his utterance varying from solemn deliberation to the vehemence of the torrent - these qualities of mind, person and manner, made him an advocate, who, in his best days, had, on the whole, no superior, if he had an equal, at the bar of Connecticut.

There are other qualities of Judge Daggett's character as a public man, which should not be omitted in this sketch.

His punctuality was most extraordinary. The pointers of the town clock, the sun itself, hardly surpassed him in this respect. His integrity was thorough, stern and exact; and secured entire confidence. He manifested particular kindness to those who were beginning life, especially in his own profession; sympathizing with them in their difficulties and anxieties, because he remembered his own. He had a just idea of the nature, and a thorough appreciation of the rules, of civility and courtesy at the bar; and observed them scrupulously in his own conduct. He was fair in his treatment of witnesses; regarding their feelings; never harsh and overbearing towards them, unless indeed they deserved severity, when he knew well how to use it; never resorting to the unscrupulous method of making an honest opposing witness appear ridiculous, or confused and perplexed, in order to impair the just force of his testimony.

He was very familiar with the Bible, which he had known "from a child," and had studied in his manhood more than any other book. The power of its self-commending truths and of its strong and popular language over the minds of men he appreciated highly. Its expressions were stored in his memory in great abundance and with singular accuracy; and he was accustomed to introduce them, when a Judge, into his charges, and especially into his addresses to the convicted, and when an advocate, into his arguments and appeals, with great pertinence and felicity, solemnity and power.

A few words respecting Judge Daggett, as he appeared in social life.

He was a true and accomplished gentleman. He was, in a very extraordinary degree, polished in his manners, gracefully and scrupulously observant of all civilities. His courtesy was remarkable. He was disposed, and his almost instinctive sense of propriety and his graceful and easy manners and language enabled him, to please all whom he met: and this made him a model of courtesy. In the performance of social civilities and duties, to relatives, neighbours, and friends, he was an example, such as is rarely, if ever, found in these days. His courtesy, his varied knowledge of men and things, his lively feelings accommodated readily to the old and the young, his cheerfulness, his wit and humour, his fund of anecdote, and his reminiscences of the past, made him the life of every social circle into which he entered.

The domestic life of Mr. Daggett was commenced early. At the age of twenty-one, soon after he commenced the practice of law in New-Haven, he was united in marriage to Wealthy-Ann, daughter of Dr. AEneas Munson; with whom he lived, in confiding attachment, and with almost reverential regard for her strong and marked intellectual and religious character, for fifty-three years, till death removed her from him for a time, in July, 1839, at the age of seventy-two. Judge Daggett's home, although filled with comforts and joys, was darkened by the sorrows of many bereavements. He had nineteen children, the offspring of his first marriage, and of the fourteen who lived any considerable time, only three survive him; and these, by the favour of Providence, have had the mournful privilege of smoothing his pillow in his last sickness, and to-day follow him to his last earthly house in the grave. So many children, with their mother, the beloved wife of his youth, he has followed, in the path of grief, to the tomb. Such was the strength of his parental feelings, that these bereavements took deep hold of him. With one of them he was completely overwhelmed - a bereavement, by the death of a son, in his nineteenth year, of unusual loveliness and promise, who bore his father's name, and had devoted himself in purpose and heart to the ministry of Christ. This was a sorrow from which he never entirely recovered; though the blow fell upon his heart forty-one years since. It is not long ago that he said to a friend: "There has not been a day in all these years, in which I have not thought of that beloved son." Thus it is, that they who die in their early promise, are embalmed in the memory, and prolong, as it were, their earthly life, by living in the hearts of surviving friends.

In May, 1840, Judge Daggett was married, a second time, to Mary, daughter of Major Lines, who, by her devoted affection and kindness, her cheerful society, and her anticipation of his every want, has been the joy and solace of his declining years; while she has made his home a pleasant resort, not only for his children and his children's children, but for all his friends.

Let us turn now, in conclusion, to view the religious life and character of our friend. Oh, that is the point to which, in this solemn hour, we look with paramount interest. His earthly honours would, in this hour, be poor consolation to us, did we not trust that he is an inheritor of the honour, pure, unfading and eternal, which comes from God. It would be mournful, indeed, to dwell upon his public services, did we not believe that he was a servant of Christ, and has heard from him the benediction, "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."

Reference has already been made to the thorough religious training which Mr. Daggett received in his childhood and youth. This "nurture and admonition of the Lord," under the parental roof, and the memories and records of his pious ancestry, had a strong influence upon him. He commenced his active life with great respect for religion and its ordinances. He began at once to be a liberal supporter of its institutions, as he was through life, and a regular and attentive hearer of the gospel in the Sanctuary; uniting himself with this ecclesiastical society, [i.e. that connected with the North Church,] of which Rev. Dr. Jonathan Edwards was then pastor. He always took a great pleasure in hearing the doctrines and precepts of God's Word thoroughly and discriminately presented and applied; though for many years he did not cordially and savingly regard them. Indeed, he was quite an enthusiast with regard to preaching, and received great intellectual satisfaction in hearing, whenever he had an opportunity, the ablest ministers of his time; and they had no better judges of their discourses than he.

The various and severe discipline of bereavement with which it pleased God to visit Mr. Daggett, had the effect to bring him near to the kingdom of Christ, especially the death of his son David, which has been mentioned, and the death of a beloved daughter, his youngest child. Soon after the death of the latter, which was in 1815, he felt constrained to commence family worship, which he continued from that time through life. Another influence, which had great and continued effect upon him, ought to be mentioned. His wife was a woman of decided piety, eminent in faith and prayer. She was in the habit, not only of praying herself for him at all times, but also of making appointment with those of her children who were Christians, at specified hours in the day, to plead in concert at the throne of grace for the conversion of the husband and the father. She always cherished strong confidence that he would be brought into the fold of Christ; and she was not disappointed.

It was not, however, till the year 1832, that Judge Daggett, in his own view and that of his friends, began a really religious life. In April of that year, during one of those "times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord," of which the Holy Scriptures speak, and which the church, in her glad experience, has so often realized, there were in this city continuous religious services for a few days. The power of the Holy Ghost was upon the community; and Judge Daggett, and many others among our elder men of distinction, were seriously moved. On one afternoon, when there was to be religious service in the evening, his wife and children observed that he walked his hall for hours, evidently in deep thought and mental conflict. In the evening, after an earnest and thorough presentation of the gospel, those who were disposed to take a position expressive of their desire to become the friends and servants of Christ, were invited to remain in their seats, while the other portion of the audience should retire. Judge Daggett remained. After a few words of explanation, direction and exhortation from a minister of Christ, those who were resolved, by the divine help, to serve and love and trust the Saviour of sinners, were invited to rise. Judge Daggett rose. And the decision, which he then, in that signal manner, expressed, he adhered to and cherished through life.

That was a period of rich grace and abounding joy in the house of our friend: for not only he, but his youngest son, then in the profession of the law, consecrated himself to Christ; and the father has often, in subsequent years, had the pleasure of listening to the gospel from the lips of that son.

Four months after the event just related, Judge Daggett, at the age of sixty eight, stood up in this aisle, near where his body now lies, and publicly expressed his repentance towards God and his faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ; avowing the ever-living and true God to be his God, and covenanting, by the help of divine grace, to give himself up through life to the Lord Jesus Christ, to be taught and governed by him, and to walk with this church in the divine ordinances.

Since that period he has acted, in the various relations of life, according to this good confession. He has been an interested and edified attendant on the services of the Sanctuary, and of the weekly meeting of the church for prayer and conference, until prevented by the increasing infirmities of age. In social religious services, he did not, (as many desired, and as indeed was very desirable,) take an active or leading part. But he felt a reluctance to take the attitude of instruction and exhortation in matters of spiritual experience, and thought, doubtless sincerely, however incorrectly, that he could be edified by others more than he could edify them.

Judge Daggett never spoke freely of his private feelings on any subject, and especially on the sacred subject of religion. Yet there were those, who, he thought, had a right to know his religious feelings; and to them he would speak willingly and freely. A little more than a year since, he had a full and unreserved conversation respecting his religious condition, hopes, and prospects, with one in whom he confided. He commenced his answer to an inquiry made on that point, by adopting as his own, the remark of a distinguished Christian minister: "I feel that it is a very solemn thing for a sinful man to go into the presence of a holy God." But he added, that he approved and loved the way of salvation by the atonement of Christ; that he daily committed his soul in love, loyalty and confidence to the Saviour of sinners; and believed that he was accepted now, and should be accepted hereafter, of him: though he was not able to sympathize as fully as he desired with the strong expressions of assurance, in which it seemed the privilege of some to indulge.

During the last years and months of his life, Judge Daggett has turned his attention with more and more of exclusiveness to religious subjects; and the reading which he has chosen to hear, has been almost wholly of that character.

Having a constitution singularly tenacious of life, Judge Daggett has had more than the usual dread of death. But in his case, as with God's people usually, the truth of "grace according to the day," was illustrated. He met death without fear or anxiety. It was quite evident to him, that this was his last illness; yet he felt no concern. And when one inquired respecting the state of his mind, he referred immediately to his conversation with the person who made the inquiry, more than a year previous, as expressing fully his present. feelings. Thus leaving himself quietly in the hands of his Saviour, he breathed his life away; and has gone, we may believe, into the rest and joy of his Lord.

*Rev. Payson Williston, Father of Hon. Samuel Williston, of Easthampton, Massachusetts.