Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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Immediately after graduation he began the study of law under the late Judge Osborne, at Fairfield, and afterwards pursued it at Norwalk, in the office of Hon. Thomas B. Butler, since Chief Justice. He was admitted to the bar in 1846, and was for a short time in partnership with Judge Butler. Mr. Ferry about this time married Miss Charlotte C. Bissell, a daughter of Governor Bissell, who with a daughter, survives him.
Mr. Ferry soon became a conspicuous character in the community in which he lived. A native of the county, of popular manners, a generous disposition, a tall and commanding figure, a highly intellectual face, of fine abilities and culture, and already a practiced and eloquent public speaker, ambitious of professional distinction, with too much pride of character to be a self-seeker and yet a natural leader, he could not fail soon to attract the public attention. He soon found himself in the enjoyment of a good practice, which steadily increased, and though he was at times drawn aside from his profession, he never returned to it without finding an immediate and abundant call for his services. While he was yet a young man he ranked among the leaders of the bar in the amount of his business and the ability and success with which it was conducted.
If Mr. Ferry had devoted his life to his profession he would have been a great lawyer. He had a fine legal mind. It was not acute and subtle, but it was broad, comprehensive, logical, quick of apprehension, and rapid in its operations. He had an excellent memory, both of facts and principles. He was not a man of especial tact, nor of artful expedients, neither was he cool, calculating and passionless; on the contrary, he was always frank, open-hearted, ardent in temperament, and naturally so impulsive that he would often have made grievous mistakes but for the restraining power of his strong common sense and clear intellect. He had an excellent knowledge of the common law as a scientific system, and loved to read the abstruse treaties of the old writers. His conservative mind was somewhat impatient of modern innovations, yet had the flexibility to recognize and adapt itself to the actual condition of things. He was not deceived by sophistries, either in his own argument or that of his opponent, but was a clear, logical reasoner, and was especially powerful as an advocate, both before juries and courts. Great responsibility never depressed him or paralyzed his efforts, but always nerved him with increased energy and power. His legal arguments and opinions were rapidly but carefully and deliberately prepared; and he was a safe and judicious legal adviser. His mode of examining a legal question was characteristic of his mind. He never counted the authorities on one side and the other, but quickly turned to the leading cases, scrutinized the reasonings of the judges, rapidly seized upon the exact point decided, and then by comparison of the cases formed his own judgment of what was the true principle, with its just limitations. In the trial of his cases in court, where of course he was most conspicuous to the public eye, he was not especially conciliatory in manner, but was always courteous to his opponent, fair and candid in his statement of law and evidence, and always bold and aggressive, winning often where a timid man would have failed. He was always ready to try his cases when reached, never appeared at a disadvantage for want of preparation, and never had to rely on the good nature of his opponent to overlook his own remissness. He was prompt, faithful and conscientious in the discharge of all his professional duties, and manly and dignified in his intercourse with clients, members of the bar and courts.
Mr. Ferry was for a short time Judge of Probate for the district of Norwalk. In 1855 and 1856 he was a member of the State Senate, and from 1856 to 1859 was State's Attorney for Fairfield County.
When he entered the legislature he was a young man, and was then for the first time in public life. He there found himself associated with gentlemen of unusual experience and ability, but his own talents soon gave him a recognized rank among the ablest of them. He now became known to the state at large, and from this time was a positive power in the affairs of the commonwealth. He acted, when in the legislature, with the so-called American party, which was then dominant, but followed his own judgment when it differed from that of the majority, and manifested the same independence of party dictation which was characteristic of him through life. The Republican party, brought into being by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, was then just beginning its existence. Mr. Ferry was among the first to see that the principle it represented was to be the inevitable issue in politics, and he fully sympathized with it. He labored zealously to bring those with whom he was then acting into a union with the new party. This result was soon substantially accomplished, and Mr. Ferry was ever afterwards a Republican, though in his later years he often differed with the majority of his party, on questions of both principle and policy.
His services as an advocate of the principles of his party were much sought and freely rendered. He entered with great zeal into the Presidential canvass of 1856, making many public speeches in this and the neighboring states. In 1857 he was nominated for Congress and was defeated. In 1859 he was again nominated. It was not then common in New England for candidates to address the people in their own behalf. Mr. Ferry yielded reluctantly to the request of the convention which nominated him, and spoke in every town in the district. The contest was considered a doubtful one, but Mr. Ferry was elected by a handsome majority, and the result attributed in great measure to his own speeches.
Mr. Ferry was in many respects remarkable as a public speaker. He possessed a fine taste, and when the occasion required it, could prepare addresses of much literary merit. His delineations of the characters of Roger Sherman and of Governor Buckingham, on presenting to Congress a statue of the former, and on the death of the latter, (Mr. Ferry's last effort,) are models of chaste eloquence, seldom surpassed in their kind. In the discussion, however, of issues before the people or in public bodies, as well as in his arguments at the bar, he never spoke to amuse or be admired, but always to convince or persuade. With perhaps a few exceptions in the earlier part of his congressional career, he always spoke extemporaneously, his preparation being a clear comprehension and firm mental grasp of his subject, and a definite plan in his mind of his mode of treating it. He began with a clear statement of the issue in hand, and proceeded in an unbroken argument to the end, always carrying his audience with him in unflagging attention and interest; and yet he never attempted to amuse his audience or relieve the tedium of his argument by anecdote, wit or sarcasm, nor to embellish it by literary quotation. So much in earnest was he that he could not have done so even of he had possessed the faculty for it. He never raised a laugh. Unless in the discussion of purely legal questions before a court, where he spoke with calmness and deliberation, he was earnest and impassioned in manner, enchaining attention, and often, as it were, compelling assent. When great interests were at stake he seemed wholly enwrapped in his subject, his large eyes flashing with enthusiasm, and his whole person giving emphasis to his utterances. His statements of propositions of law or fact were admirable for clearness and force, and his reasonings lucid and compact. The learned and the unlearned alike appreciated his eloquence, and gave him their undivided attention. His language was well chosen, but not fastidious. There was nothing sententious, brilliant or especially original in his style of expression or mode of thought, but his words, tersely and forcibly expressing his meaning, issued forth, when in his impassioned arguments, like the rush of a torrent. He never halted or hesitated in the choice of language, nor had occasion to recall a word misused, to re-construct a tangled or obscure sentence, or to re-state a proposition to make it more clear. And in this respect his manner in private conversation was the same.
In the autumn of 1859, before taking his seat in Congress, Mr. Ferry made a public profession of religion by uniting with the First Congregational Church of Norwalk; and the profession of his faith was not with him a matter of mere form. From that time to his death he was a consistent and active Christian worker. When he was at home, as long as his health allowed, he taught a Bible class in the Sunday-school, and was a regular attendant and participant in the meetings of the church. When no pastor was present he often conducted evening meetings, and delivered lectures. His successive pastors have borne public testimony to the depth and earnestness of his religious convictions and the great value of his influence. He was a man emphatically of growth in religious character as well as intellectual power and breadth, to the day of his death.
While he was a member of the National House of Representatives he delivered two elaborate speeches on the slavery question, and the threatened secession of the Southern States, in which he ably set forth and defended the principles of the Republican party, and was a member of the celebrated committee of thirty-three on the state of the Union. In 1861 he was again nominated for Congress, and was defeated.
Being in Washington at the breaking out of the civil war, he enlisted in a volunteer battalion for the temporary defense of the seat of government, and served until troops were obtained from the North. He was soon after tendered and accepted the command of the Fifth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers. He was afterwards promoted to be brigadier-general, and served through the war, with an honorable though not brilliant record.
Returning in 1865 to his profession, he was a year later chosen United States Senator for the term commencing in 1867, and was re-elected in 1872. The limits of this notice will not admit an outline of his senatorial career. Many questions of grave importance, growing out of the late war, demanded the attention of Congress. Corruption was rife in many departments of the public service. The conventional usages of the Senate restrained Mr. Ferry at first from taking a prominent part in the debates, and in the spring of 1869 an insidious disease, ultimately fatal, attacked his spine, and gradually impaired his physical powers, so that in the latter part of his career he could not mingle in the discussions to the extent that he would have desired. He was, however, always at his post of duty, and a laborious worker on committees, where he had a prominent place; and he spoke frequently, at first in more elaborate efforts, but afterwards generally in off-hand powerful arguments, inspired by his earnest and positive convictions, and remarkable for compactness, brevity and effective force. He came to be regarded as one of the ablest members of the Senate, and his acknowledged uprightness, independence and intellectual power combined to give him an influence in that body hardly surpassed by any in his time. He died with no blot on his good name, and no man ever suspected his integrity, or questioned his purity or his personal honor.
At his death his associates in Congress and his brethren at the Fairfield County bar paid fitting tributes to his memory. Hon. Carl Schurz, who was one of the most eminent members of the Senate during six years of Mr. Ferry's service, in opening a public lecture at Norwalk shortly after the decease of the latter, spoke as follows:
"I see around me the life-long friends and neighbors of Senator Ferry, now no more; a man whom I cherished as a dear companion and associate, and to whom I looked up as one of the foremost men of the republic, in talent, integrity and patriotic spirit. More than almost any one I knew did he possess those qualities of mind and character which just at this period of our history are so greatly needed for the guidance of public affairs. There was in him a clearness and grasp of judgment which no sophistry could baffle, a sense of right and wrong which no party spirit could stagger; a depth and strength of conviction which no self-interest could obscure; a force of will which no opposition could bend; an independence and pride of genuine manhood which no frown of power could frighten, and no blandishment could seduce. Had his body been as strong as his mind and heart, he would beyond doubt have compelled universal recognition as one of the very first of statesmen in American history.