Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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DAVID CURTIS SANFORD, Associate Judge of the Supreme Court of Errors of this state, died at his residence in New Milford in Litchfield county on the 10th day of May, 1864, at the age of sixty-six years.
Judge Sanford was born in that part of New Milford which has since been incorporated as Bridgewater. His early opportunities for education were limited and he was self-made. His father was a country merchant, with only a common school education, but with an acute and inquiring mind, and with a great fondness for mathematics, in which he attained to a remarkable proficiency. These qualities he transmitted to and stimulated in his son. The son assisted him in his business and acquired a good common school education, but enjoyed no other educational advantages except for a term or two at an academy. With this preparation he commenced the study of the law at the early age of nineteen; first, for a short time in the office of Hon. Perry Smith at New Milford, and soon after for a considerable time in that of Hon. Seth P. Beers at Litchfield. He subsequently completed his three years of study at the law school of Judge Chapman at Newtown, and was admitted to the bar in Fairfield county in August, 1820, at the age of twenty-two.
He immediately opened an office in New Milford, but within a few months removed to Litchfield, and there devoted himself assiduously to such business as he was able to obtain, and especially to professional improvement by constant attendance upon the courts held there and by study. The advantages offered by Litchfield for such professional improvement were at that time very considerable, and were the chief inducement to his location there. Gen. C. F. Sedgwick, the only surviving member of the bar in that county now in practice who was then contemporary with him, in an address to the court, upon presenting the action taken by the bar respecting the death of Judge Sanford, alluded thus to the manner in which be pursued his great purpose: - "He would have attracted the attention of a stranger coming into the court house by his personal beauty and polished manners. He would also have been noticed as watching carefully the proceedings of the court and listening to the remarks of the counsel and the judges and to the statements of witnesses with eager attention; thus learning law in every practical way."
Soon after Mr. Beers, with whom he had studied and who was then in a very extensive practice at Litchfield, invited him to a partnership, which he accepted. Their connection continued until Mr. Beers accepted the office of Commissioner of the School Fund and left the business entirely to Mr. Sanford.
He continued in full practice at Litchfield until 1832. Judge Bissell had then been elected a judge of the Supreme Court and left an opening at Norwalk, and Mr. Sanford was induced by the solicitation of many prominent citizens of that place and a desire to escape from the rigorous winter climate of Litchfield, to remove to Norwalk. The bar of Fairfield county was then one of great ability. Roger M. Sherman, Thaddeus Betts, Eliphalet Swift, Charles Hawley, Simeon H. Minor, Reuben Booth, Henry Dutton and Daniel H. Belden, were among the older members, and there were well read and acute minds among the younger ones, and it was not an inviting field for an ordinary man. Mr. Sanford took position in the front rank of those of his own age and felt assured of an honorable and successful career in that county; but soon after a severe domestic affliction depressed his spirits and unfitted him for the contests which his position required, and he returned to New Milford, where be ever afterwards resided. Here, upon returning to business, he soon acquired a full and lucrative practice, which continued until his elevation to the bench.
As a lawyer Mr. Sanford was faithful, industrious, discriminating, courteous arid successful. He was not brilliant as an advocate or public speaker, but was ready, clear, convincing and effective in the presentation of truth, and that was all he aimed at or desired.
He avoided rather than sought the distinctions and excitements of political life. He held the office of State Attorney for a time, but that was in the line of his profession. He was also once induced to accept an election to the state senate. This was in the year 1854, and as chairman of the judiciary committee he took a leading part in moulding the legislation of that year. The law relating to intemperance, then enacted, which embraced every provision and sanction which could make such a law effective, and avoided every constitutional objection which could make it nugatory, was drawn by him. That law, substantially as drawn, deprived by repeal of a single provision only, remains upon the statute book, too just and perfect to be changed or repealed, and too stringent and effective to be enforced without the aid of a public sentiment determined upon an utter extirpation of the evil; but a monument of the legal skill and acumen of the draftsman. During that session Mr. Sanford was elected a Judge of the Superior and Supreme Courts to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Chief Justice Church and the promotion of judge Waite to the office of Chief Justice.
As a judge, he was kind, courteous, patient and dignified in his manner; prompt, impartial and accurate in his rulings, and clear and intelligible in his charges, when sitting in the Superior Court; and he commanded in an eminent degree the respect and confidence of the profession. Upon the Supreme Court he was attentive, watchful and investigating, weighing critically every argument and authority, and arriving slowly but surely and independently at his conclusions. No member of the court in later years was listened to in consultation with more respect, or with a stronger expectation that his views of the pending case, when matured, would be comprehensive and his conclusions correct. His opinions are on record in the nine preceding volumes of the reports and compare favorably with those of the most distinguished members of the court. They are remarkable for their studied exactness of language and clearness of expression, as well as for their adherance to the law as authoritatively settled. Few judges ever recognized more fully the duty of a court to declare, not to make the law. While possessed of a minute and thorough knowledge of technical law, he was yet never disposed to sacrifice justice to mere technicalities, where the obstacle was not insuperable, and no judge ever had a higher or more positive sense of justice than he. He was a man of the highest integrity, scrupulously honest and honorable in his professional practice while at the bar, and on the bench absolutely beyond the approach of any selfish or impure motive. The virtuous integrity with which he administered his high office could not be surpassed. Not even a suspicion ever assailed it. In the administration of criminal justice he was regarded as inclining to severity, and he was certainly free from any weak concession to crime; but this grew out of no severity of character, but was only the righteous indignation of a just and virtuous man against those who disturbed the peace and order of the community, which be loved with all his heart. There was no harshness in his nature. A more gentle, kind, modest, humble man never lived. His heart was full of good will to men, and he longed for nothing more than for the suppression of vice and the establishment of virtue in the community.
Judge Sanford had such a quietness of disposition and utter unobtrusiveness and even self-depreciation, that he was disinclined to assert himself or to be aggressive in his intercourse with his fellow men; but there was no want of decision in his character, and no lack of positiveness in his positions upon all moral questions. He never faltered in any matter of duty. He was for many years a devoted friend of the temperance movement. He was also in thorough sympathy with the growing anti-slavery sentiment of the free states, and no man in the country was mere earnestly and profoundly in sympathy with the loyal sentiment of the northern states during the war brought on by the southern rebellion.
Judge Sanford was from early life a communicant in the Episcopal Church, but his religious character went far beyond mere profession. This was his crowning quality and deserves more than a passing notice. Such examples, though by no means wanting in our profession, are yet too rare to be allowed to pass into forgetfulness, and are too precious not to be held up for the contemplation and study of the members of a profession, secular in its character, engrossing in its demands upon the time and thoughts, and, to those who are not firm in moral convictions, too often hardening and demoralizing in its influence.
While no one who knew him at all could fail to perceive that be was a thoroughly conscientious and religious man, yet it was only upon more intimate acquaintance that one came to know of the profoundness of his moral convictions and sentiments, and it was in the quiet of domestic life that his character disclosed itself in its greatest beauty. He loved his home. The ambitions of men he knew little of. Indefatigable in the discharge of those public duties which so frequently called him from home, he returned thither with a love which no honors of public life could impair. His thoughts lingered about the earth as he was departing from it only because of those so dear to him whom he left behind. On his death bed he said to his pastor, "The fear of death has passed away, and all my attachments to the world are broken; the only remaining affection I have is for those I love best, and it is hard for one to depart who is bound to earth by such ties as I am." While he lay sinking gradually and waiting for death he said, "How gently Christ is leading me;" and again and repeatedly remarked, "How gently I am let down." Thus he passed peacefully away, closing a pure and just life with a serene and beautiful death.
The writer knew him intimately, and knows that he would have preferred to leave behind him the record of a true Christian life rather than that of an able and honored judge, and that these pages should express and perpetuate his tribute to Christian faith rather than ours to his honored memory. It is the happiness of the writer that in making it a tribute to both, he can indulge his own love both for the man and for the faith which adorned his life.