Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

Oscar Lovell Shafter

Vermont & California

Oscar Lovell Shafter
Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography

Abby Maria Hemenway (ed.), Vermont Historical Gazetteer: A Local History of all the Towns in the State, Civil, Educational, Biographical, Religious and Military. Vol. V. The Towns of Windham County (Brandon, Vermont: Published by Mrs. Carrie E. H. Page, 1891) [Vt. GenWeb transcription of the original text]:


Memorial of Oscar L. Shafter, being words spoken at his Burial by Rev. Dr. Stebbins. A sermon preached on the following Sunday by Rev. L. Hamilton. A sketch of the life and character, given before the Supreme Court of California by Hon. John W. Dwinnelle. Lines to his memory from the New York Evening Post—-SAN FRANCISCO, 1874.—Pamphlet 25 pp.


An Extract.

OSCAR LOVELL SHAFTER, L. L. D., late Associate Judge of the Supreme Court of the State of California; born in Athens, Vt., October 19, 1812; died in Florence, Italy, January 23, 1873; funeral at the First Congregational church, Oakland, Cal., March 24, 1873.

"Energy, endurance of labor and a kind of mountainous good sense that sees men and things as they are and goes free of all cant, were eminent in him. In his statement of principles, he could have had few superiors. He had that appreciation of the unity and generalization of truth that gives dignity to the intellect, and the perspective of moral grandeur to all principles. When theories of deep human interests were touched, his mind kindled along its summits with find enthusiasm of poetic feeling and right. It sometimes lay calm, silent, sullen as the sea and rolled with sleepy strength, and in all the manifestations of his intellectual activity, there was something of that repose which is the measure of reserved power and background of all greatness. He was a pleasant companion and good talker. A man with wide discourse of reason, unimpassioned, yet of fine sensibility, his whole nature, by the eternal weight of moral gravity, surging toward the truth. Thus I understood him.—-Rev. Dr. Stebbins

"Eminent among the higher order of minds stood the late Judge Shafter, a type of the time, he ran through the progress of the age in his own experience. His father was a man of much force of character and large influence with his neighbors. His mother was a woman of rare intelligence. At an early age death deprived him of her counsels, but he cherished her memory with a deep tender reverence. At about fourteen he was placed at a Methodist Academy in Wilbraham, Mass. He completed the course in his school, and finally graduated at the Methodist University at Middletown, Conn., studied law at Cambridge, and commenced practice in Vermont, where his powers soon placed him in the foremost rank of his profession. His coming to this State (California) in the Fall of 1854, then immediate recognition of his abilities, his law partnerships with the first legal talent of this State, his firm stand as an anti-slavery man, his self-consistent adherence to this stand through all the exciting scenes that had followed, his election to the Supreme Bench of the State in 1863, his unimpeachable and even unsuspected integrity as well as ability in that position for four years, then the sudden failing of his health, compelling his resignation, his efforts for recovery, the hope growing fainter till the final word flashed under the sea is well known. As a judge, his impartiality commended a confidence that was well nigh perfect. The suspicions of a bribe never rested on him. There was something in the man corruption dared not approach. He was also merciful. He gave without ostentation, but liberally and continuously. One who had the best opportunity to know, writes of him: 'I know personally of tens of thousands of dollars disbursed by him without any hope of return.' He was severely logical in his mental processes, but along with this went an endowment of the keenest sensibility. When thoroughly roused in his own utterances, the golden ingots of his logic would melt and flow in streams of burning emotion. There was a large measure of that 'sort of religious sensibility' which is said to have marked the speeches of WEBSTER'S prime. But it was in his own family that these tender qualities showed themselves in their fullest power. I think we may truthfully add, also, that he crowned his other virtues by walking humbly with his God." Rev. L. Hamilton.

The body was taken to the Oakland Cemetery and deposited in the family vault. Among those present, beside the family member friends, were a very large number of the San Francisco and Sacramento Bar.


"He completed his law studies under Judge Story at the law school of Harvard University; commenced practice at Wilmington, Vt., in 1836 or 1837; became a member of the Legislature; was the candidate of his party for Representative in Congress, Governor and United States Senator; married to Miss Sarah Riddle in 1840; six children survive.

Judge Shafter arrived at San Francisco November 13, 1854, without his family, and immediately entered upon the practice of his profession, in connection with the leading firm of Halleck, Peachy, Billings & Park. During the next ensuing year, until the arrival of his family, he kept a journal, in which he entered his impressions of the climate and the scenery of California, his views of the society and of the practice in the court, many current events, some biographical sketches and notices and analysis of the books which he read; but more especially was this brief diary remarkable for its manifestations of his deep affection for his family and other relations, for his diffidence of his own ability, and for the gradual growth of a self-confidence that he was equal to contend with the foremost of the bar. It was during this period that he received intelligence of the death of two children within the period of one month. [An only son of seven years, and an infant daughter that he had never seen.]

It was sometimes said of him while at the bar, that he was slow in the preparation of his cases. As a consequence he was very successful at the bar, and his decisions were rarely questioned. While at the bar nobody was more scrupulous than he in the respect with which he treated the judiciary, both in language and bearing, and when he came to the bench he magnified his high office in the same spirit.

He was very successful in gathering the material rewards of his professional labors, and by their judicious investments accumulated in an opulent fortune. He was an ardent student of nature, and loved to be a boy again, amid mountains, forests, fields and waters. And on such occasions he showed an apt familiarity with the best poets of the English language, which caused it be said of him: 'He was a learned lawyer of an older school. Hon. John W. Dwinnelle


[Written upon receiving the letter communicating the death of his two children. Poets and Poetry of Vermont, 1858]


I left them in their mountain home,
One sad, sad day—
I clasped them to my yearning heart,
Then tore myself away.
What cheered me in that hour of gloom?
What hope illumed the sea,
As o'er the boundless deep I sped—
That boundless of the free?
And then the far-off bourne was reached,
What gave to purpose power
To whelm me in the strife of men,
And gild each lonely hour?
The hope that when the strife was done,
The labor and the pain,
To clasp them, in my mountain home,
Unto this yearning heart again.
That hope's no more! My baby died,
Like flower upon its stem;
And now my boy—for him has pealed
The solemn requiem.
Oh! When across the wide, wide sea,
The winged death-knell come,
Then on my lips' high altar stone,
Grew dim the vestal flame.
The filial hope the heart possessed,
To cheer his parents' age
To stay their footsteps toward the tomb,
Their dying pangs assuage.
My son! My son! My only son!
My joy, my hope, my pride!
Oh! Life was severed from its ends,
And darkened when he died!
He's gathered to our early dead
In his exultant morn,
Before the mid-day strife came on,
Or rose disclosed its thorn;
The lust of gold—the heart of pride,
Ambition's fitful dream,
The monumental woes that rise
Above the ills between.
The broken hope, the exile's pain,
Temptation's trial hour,
And all the waste and wreck of life
And sin's destructive power,
By early death he's rescued from—
By early death set free;
And can I know the gain to him
And mourn the loss to me?
Father, console Thy smitten ones,
Forgive the tears that rise;
Our children—angels round Thy throne—
But win us to the skies.

Journals & Correspondence

Flora Haines Loughead (ed.), Life, Diary and Letters of Oscar Lovell Shafter, associate justice, Supreme Court of California, January 1, 1864, to December 31, 1868 (San Francisco: Blair-Murdock Co., 1915) [online text]