Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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While at Middletown at this term of the court, I took a final leave of my friend Elihu Spencer, then on his death-bed, and a few days after was called to attend his funeral obsequies. He was my intimate friend, and I regarded him with such affection and respect, and he stood so high too in his profession, that I feel unwilling that he should pass away without a brief notice in these reports.
ELIHU SPENCER was born in Warren, Trumbull County, Ohio, on the 29th of February, 1820. He was a grandson of Hon. Isaac Spencer, for many years Treasurer of the State of Connecticut, and great-grandson of Gen. Joseph Spencer of East Haddam, who was a distinguished officer in the Revolutionary army. His father, Elihu Spencer, who was a lawyer by profession, and a man of superior mind and character, died a few months before his birth. While he was in his infancy, his mother removed to Connecticut, her native state, and after a few years came to Middletown to reside, where she has ever since remained. Here, at the Wesleyan University, her son received his classical education, and afterwards established himself in the practice of his profession, having spent elsewhere a portion of the time during which he was a student at law. He was her only child, and, with rare dutifulness and devotion, he cherished her as the companion of his life, forming no domestic ties that could divide his affections. Inheriting from her uncommon strength of mind, he learned from her a habit of independent and vigorous thinking and a high sense of honor and self respect that were marked features of his character. She survives him in a more than renewed widowhood.
In his professional character he united with a rare high-mindedness and aversion to everything unfair or dishonorable, a singularly clear and philosophical comprehension of the science of law. With a good memory, enabling him to refer with readiness to all the leading cases in the English and American reports, he yet relied far more upon the thoroughly digested principles which he had extracted from the cases. His mind was rarely at fault upon a point of law. He saw at a glance what general principle was applicable to any question in hand and seemed to have at command the exact limitation of the principle. His mind was one of uncommon compactness, tenacity, and logical acuteness, and although predisposed to theoretical speculation, yet it was not wanting in practical soundness. His manner, both before the court and in the intercourse of life, was marked by great modesty and unobtrusiveness and by a quiet and gentlemanly dignity. He was absolutely without pretension, in part from an inadequate estimate of himself, and in part and perhaps mainly from great refinement of mind and a delicacy of perception in matters of taste. His language in addressing the court was always lucid and vigorous, and while sufficiently copious was never redundant. He was a man of too much simplicity to deal in expletives of language or manner. He had little imagination and never affected it. He dealt wholly with the reason and with the higher moral perceptions, never with the mere passions or emotions of men.
He was a man of much general cultivation, familiar with the best departments of literature and philosophy and with some of the physical sciences. For one so quiet and retiring as he, he was singularly decided, and, when occasion required, fearless, in his condemnation of what he considered wrong. He had a sense of right that no precedent or authority could shake. This independence of authority and his habit of subjecting every proposition to the test of reason, led him to some religious opinions, honestly held, never discredited by a lax morality of principle or practice, and never urged upon others, but which differed in some important respects from those generally entertained by christians. He regarded with much interest the philanthropic and reformatory movements of the day, and, in particular, was from early life a warm friend of the temperance cause. He sympathized also very decidedly with the anti-slavery sentiment that was gaining ground in the free states, and, in later life, withdrew from the political party, with which he had been for many years connected, to unite with the one that was organized to oppose the extension of slavery.
On the reconstruction of our judiciary system in 1855, he was urged by his friends to accept the office of Judge of the Superior Court, and would have been elected to that office with, it is believed, the support of all parties, but for his persistent refusal to allow his name to be used. It is believed by those who knew him best that he would have made an excellent judge. It is certain that no man in the state would have had in a higher degree the public confidence. His health was at this time beginning to fail, and had been seriously affected by the great amount of labor which he had been compelled to perform as a member of the legislature during that session. This state of his health was an important consideration with him in declining the office, but he was also in no small degree deterred from its acceptance by an extreme sensitiveness to any possible suspicion that he might have had a judgeship in view, in the active part which he had taken as a member of the Judiciary Committee in preparing and procuring the passage of the bill. In the spring of 1857, he was nominated by the republican party for the office of Lieutenant Governor, but declined the nomination.
One so unobtrusive as he, neither aspiring to nor accepting any of those higher public offices that help a man to at least an historical preservation of his name, is likely soon to be forgotten by all but those who personally knew and esteemed him, and is, for that reason, especially deserving of a memorial in the records of the profession which he adorned; while those who desire the elevation of the character of that profession, will be glad to have treasured for its benefit all of such an example that so brief a memorial can preserve. It is to be regretted that it must be so brief as to be rather a mere tribute of respect to his memory than an adequate portraiture of his character.