Strangers to Us All
Lawyers and Poetry

Edward Christopher James

New York

The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography 370
(New York: James T. White & Co., 1899)(vol. 9)

The following biography of Edward C. James is extracted from a longer profile which appeared in the Albany Law Journal (vol. 63, no. 5)(pp. 173-181)(May, 1901):

"Edward Christopher James was born at Ogdensburg, St. Lawrence country, New York, on the 1st day of May, 1841.

. . . .

Colonel James received his early education at the common schools, the academy at Ogdensburg and at Dr. Reed’s Walnut Hill School at Geneva, New York. He was about to enter college, when the Civil War broke out and he relinquished his personal plans and entered the service. He was appointed lieutenant and adjutant of the Fiftieth New York Volunteers, in the Army of the Potomac. During the peninsula campaign of 1862 he acted as assistant adjutant-general of the Engineer brigade and as aide-de-camp to General Woodbury. Subsequently he became major of the Sixtieth New York infantry which then formed a part of the army of West Virginia. Soon he rose to be lieutenant-colonel of the One Hundred and Sixth New York Infantry and later became its colonel, serving in the West Virginia campaign in the fall of 1862 and in the spring of 1863. On several occasions he commanded a brigade, although at this time he was scarcely twenty-two years of age. An early instance of his ready resourcefulness in planning and his quick resourcefulness in planning and his quick courage in execution is furnished by a striking incident in his career which happened at this time. He was senior colonel in command of a brigade composed of two regiments, which was guarding a pike road on the way to Gettysburg. One night, as evening came on, his scouts reported a large body of the enemy approaching in such a manner as to cut off any chance of immediate escape. Soon the scouts reported that the approaching troops comprised the whole Confederate army, under the command of General Lee himself. Col. James immediately ordered his men to scatter over a large extent of country, to form a long line of pickets, building numbers of bonfires and creating all the outward signs of a large body of troops. By this means he contrived to delay the march of the Confederate army until he was enabled to withdraw his men and escape under cover of darkness. It is said, that on this occasion, he even carried out a flag of truce and met General Lee, in the guise of an aide-de-camp of one of the major-generals of the Union army. The training received in the army lasted him throughout the rest of his life; in that school he had acquired the power to think quickly, to rely upon his own judgment and to act undismayed by any burden and responsibilities he might incur.

He left the army in 1863 on account of physical disability incurred in the service and commenced the study of law at Ogdensburg with well-developed habits of self-discipline and concentration, and with the ability to triumph over defeats, which comes to most men only after years of experience. Col. James was accustomed to answer, when asked what college he had attended, that he was graduated from the University of the Army of the Potomac and that he knew of none better for the purpose of making men.

In the fall of 1863 he was admitted to the bar. Immediately he began to be known in the country round about for his industry and his promising ability. He practiced law in Ogdensburg until about 1881 and there he acquired in the broad and thorough practice of the busy country lawyer that thorough foundation in practice and in the fundamental principles of law which stood him in such great stead in his subsequent career.

In 1864 he formed a partnership with Stillman Foote, surrogate of St. Lawrence county, under the firm name of Foote & James. This firm was continued for ten years. Then for seven years Colonel James conducted his practice alone. Again, in 1881, he formed a partnership with A.R. Herriman, now surrogate of St. Lawrence county, whom he left in charge of his Ogdensburg office when he came to New York. There he removed in 1881, feeling that his talents called for a wider field for their exercise. Practicing alone for some years, he later formed the firm of James, Schell & Elkus, of which he continued a member until the time of his death.

At first he was practically unknown in the city of New York, but by his tireless industry and his great ability he rose steadily until soon he was known to the courts and to his fellow lawyers as one of the most active and successful men at the trial bar. His reputation and his success increased rapidly, until some time before his death he had reached the eminent position of the widely acknowledged leader of the trial bar. His fame was not confined to New York city or to New York State alone, but extended throughout all the land, until he was known as well in the West and in the South as in the immediate vicinity of his active labors.

He was essentially an 'all-around lawyer,' and his range in the trial of cases was most extensive. Criminal trials, equity cases involving highly complicated questions in the law of trusts, will contest in the Surrogate’s Court of before a jury, actions to recover for personal injuries, patent cases, cases of every kind and description were tried by him with equal facility and success. His arguments before the court upon appeal were as notable as his addresses to juries in the courts below. It is difficult to say in which branch of court work he was most successful. He was eminent alike in the trails before the court at Special Term, in jury trials and in all branches of work in the appellate courts. He was a master of all the many kinds of legal work which fall to the lot of the active practitioner. To pass from the trial of an elevated railway land damage suit, involving delicate questions in the law of real property and of damages together with the power of the State to exercise its right of eminent domain, directly into an argument upon appeal in an intricate will contest was an achievement which he accomplished so frequently and with such great ease as to make him the wonder not only of his colleagues and associates at the bar but of the members of the court as well. He was exceedingly industrious. In the preparation of a case for trial he spared neither his own nor his assistant’s labor. His trial briefs contained a discussion of every fact and of every question of law which might possibly be involved in the case. He left nothing to chance; everything that industry, ingenuity and experience could foresee was anticipated, with the result that he became known as a counsel who was always prepared for any contingency which might arise upon the trial of an action. He loved the work of the trial and the preparation for the trial. The trial itself was always a pleasure to him, and thus it was that each case, no matter how dry or obscure, received from him the same careful attention. So continuously had he appeared in court for so many years before his death that he has been aptly called 'the only American barrister.'

He was one of the last and the greatest of the old race of advocates who delighted in spending all their time in court. It has been said that one of the greatest compliments paid to him by his fellow members at the bar was the fact that he was a lawyer’s lawyer. Much of his work came from his colleagues at the bar, who realized better than any layman his great fame and his wonderful success in his chosen work. He was one of the few men who were as successful in dealing with the questions of law which arise upon the trial of a case and upon appeal, as he was in arguing the facts before the court or a jury.

His printed briefs on appeal alone consist of over sixty large volumes.

Physically he was splendidly equipped to endure the constant strain of almost continuous court work. Over six feet in height, erect, broad-shouldered and of massive build, he possessed a magnificent constitution.

In a court he towered above those about him and, when he spoke, his deep voice and his strong personal magnetism immediately attracted and held the attention of court and jury alike. His personal magnetism was one of his most distinguishing characteristics and this, together with his kindliness and courtesy to all with whom he was brought in contact, made friends both of the lawyers to whom he was opposed in the most bitterly fought contests and even of the judges whose rulings and actions he had occasion severely to criticise in the higher courts. He was ever alert and active to take advantage of any opportunity which might arise to gain a point. He avoided entering into discussions of petty technicalities which did not enter directly into the questions involved, but stood broadly upon the merits of his case. But through all his trials, a lighter vein was constantly in sight. Col. James dearly loved a good joke, and his flashes of humor and witty repartee were constantly relieving the dullness and tedium of even the most stupid and uninteresting of cases.

Before a jury he was incomparable, his commanding presence, his impressive delivery, and clear, simple, logical statements carried conviction with them. He never posed; he was always genuine and straightforward and addressed jurymen as though he were one of them, seeking simply to bring before them the facts in the case. He never bombarded a jury with rhetorical statements or declamatory phrases. He made it a rule never to misstate the facts nor to attempt to avoid discussion of facts which told against his side of the case. He brought out himself everything which could be told against his client, upon the theory that it was far better to have the jury or the court hear the adverse facts from him than from the other side. The judges before whom he practiced, and his opponents in the most bitterly contested cases, remarked and relied upon his fairness in stating his own and his adversary’s position, whether concerning a fact or the purport of a decision. Col. James excelled in mastering the most the most intricate states of fact and his statements of fact were always as noted for their fairness as for their lucidity. In a most complicated case in the Court of Appeals, where he was opposed by several of the most eminent lawyers of the time, Col. James delivered a statement of facts which he required two and a half hours to set forth. The opposing counsel who followed him, recognized as the leader of the bar, stated that this was one of the ablest statements of facts that he had ever heard delivered, and said that the facts of the case were so fairly and impartially stated that it was unnecessary for him to add to them, and, therefore, he would confine his attention simply to the law of the case.

Col. James’ theory was to marshal his facts simply and directly, in such manner that they should present their own conclusions. He felt that it was of more importance to get the jury to grasp such facts as bore favorably upon his side of the case than to insist upon his contention in long and elaborate argument. He realized that the jury were plain men who would form their own opinions and were capable of thinking for themselves.

He used to say, 'never let them believe that you are thinking for them, because every man wants to think for himself, but so marshal your facts that they cannot avoid thinking the way you want them to think.'

Jurors have said that when he reasoned out a case, there was no escape from his logic and the desired conclusion was forced upon them. His mental attitude in his dealings with courts and juries, and his opponents has been aptly described as that of “intellectual integrity.”

As a cross-examiner he was especially famous, being one of the four lawyers distinguished by Judge Patterson, of the Appellate Division, who ranked him with Mr. Choate, Mr. Parsons and Mr. Coudert, as one of the great cross-examiners of the day.

His first important case after he came to New York was on the retainer of the Attorney-general, to compel the New York Central Railway Company to perform its public duties in the operation of its road, which was then suspended on account of the freight handlers’ strike. In this case, he was opposed by Roscoe Conkling, and his argument before the court was highly successful and attracted widespread attention for the striking ability it displayed.

The prominent cases with which he was connected are in fact almost innumerable. Many attracted wide public attention at the time, and others resulted in the final determination of questions of law of far-reaching importance. In fact, it may be said that there is no branch of the law in this State to-day but shows the influence of his indefatigable industry and his tireless research."