HENRY MATSON WAITE, late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Connecticut, was born at Lyme in this state, on the 9th day of February, 1787, and died at that place on the 14th day of December, 1869.
On his father's side he was descended from an old and highly respectable family, originally English. An ancestor moved from Sudbury, Mass., to Lyme about the commencement of the eighteenth century. Among the descendants of this ancestor who have been distinguished in this state may be mentioned Marvin Wait, a prominent lawyer of New London in his day, and John Turner Wait, his son, now one of the foremost lawyers of Eastern Connecticut. His mother was a Matson, of an equally honorable race. She was a sister of Gov. Buckingham's mother, who was in many respects a remarkable woman.
Judge Waite prepared for college at Bacon Academy, Colchester, then the most flourishing institution of the kind in the state, and had for his schoolmates the late Gov. Ellsworth, his brother Henry L. Ellsworth, Henry R. Storrs, and others who have since been men of mark in the country. In 1806 he entered the Sophomore class in Yale College, and was graduated in 1809 with high honors. Soon after this he taught school for a short time in Fairfield county, and began the study of the law with Joseph Wood, Esq., of Stamford. For about a year he was assistant preceptor of Bacon Academy, and then recommenced his legal studies with the Hon. Matthew Griswold at Lyme, occasionally reciting to and receiving instruction from Gov. Roger Griswold, one of the ablest men whom the state has ever produced.
After being admitted to the practice in New London county in 1812, Judge Waite opened an office for a short time at Middletown, and then returned and devoted himself to his profession in his native town. In January, 1816, he married Maria Selden, a daughter of Col. Richard Selden of Lyme, and granddaughter of Col. Samuel Selden, a distinguished officer of the Revolution. This family has given many eminent men to the country, among whom the most conspicuous at the present day are Judges Samuel Lee Selden and Henry R. Selden of the state of New York.
In the years 1815 and 1826 Judge Waite represented the town of Lyme in the General Assembly, and in 1830 and 1831 he was a member of the Senate for the 9th district. In both bodies his good sense, his rectitude of purpose, and conceded ability gave him, even when in a minority, a full share of personal influence. In politics he belonged to the old Federal party, and when that had ceased to exist, and had become with many a theme of derision, he adhered to its principles and defended its character.
In consequence of the pecuniary embarrassments and changes in the condition of property which followed the war of 1812, there was a large amount of litigation, and he went immediately into a full and profitable practice. This, his character for integrity, industry, promptness, and sagacity, and especially his prestige of success, enabled him to retain and increase during the whole of his professional career. It was his habit to be thoroughly prepared in season both on questions of law and fact, so as to be able to seize the earliest moment to press his cases to trial, and he thereby avoided, as far as lay in his power, "the law's delay," which has tended so much to sully the fame of an honest and honorable profession, and to bring reproach upon the administration of justice.
He never affected what is usually understood as the art of oratory, depending mainly upon voice, gesticulation, posture, and expression of countenance--what the great Athenian pleader denominated "action." But his judgment in selecting the prominent points of a case and skill in applying the evidence, his perspicuity of language, and earnestness of manner, and perhaps as much as any one quality, his subtle knowledge of character, rendered him a successful advocate with the jury.
It was, however, rather in questions of law that his strength especially lay; and his legal erudition, patient research, power of discrimination and terseness of argument, were fully appreciated by an able and learned court.
On the retirement of Judge Daggett in 1834, Judge Waite was elected a Judge of the Superior and Supreme Courts. In 1854 he was advanced to the position of Chief Justice, and this high office he held until the 9th of February 1857, when he arrived at the age of seventy, the constitutional limit of his official term. During this period of more than twenty-two years be enjoyed the perfect confidence, respect and esteem of the bar and of the entire community. To the younger members of the bar he was particularly kind, and many who now occupy the front rank in the profession remember gratefully the aid and encouragement which they received from him in their earlier efforts.
He was careful in forming and modest in expressing his legal opinions, but was firm even to boldness in adhering to them when he conscientiously believed them to be right. Hence it will he observed in examining the reports that he was not unfrequently in a minority, and sometimes stood alone among his brethren; yet it is safe to say that not very often have his decisions been reversed by the ultimate judgment of the bar. In the language of another, "he contributed his full share to the character of a court whose decisions are quoted and opinions respected in all the courts of the United States and the highest courts of England." The degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred upon him by Yale College in 1855.
Soon after Judge Waite left the bench he became subject to a painful malady from which he suffered greatly, but with entire patience and cheerfulness, with an unclouded mind and an undiminished fondness for intellectual and social enjoyment to the close of his life. Mrs. Waite, who was in every respect worthy of him, and contributed much to his success and incalculably to his happiness, died a short time subsequently to the fiftieth anniversary of their marriage. This occasion had been celebrated with great satisfaction by a large circle of relatives and friends.
Two of their sons, Morrison R. Waite and Richard Waite, are now eminent lawyers in the state of Ohio.
In his official stations Judge Waite was able, upright, and impartial; in private life he was just and true, pure in his morals, exemplary in his habits, and faithful in the discharge of all his duties.