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Public Life and Character of Governor Mattocks

Source: Rev. V. Goodwillis, “Public Life and Character of Governor Mattocks,” from Abby Maria Hemenway, editor, Vermont Historical Gazetteer: A Magazine Embracing a History of Each Town, Civil, Ecclesiastical, Biographical and Military, Volume 1, Addison, Bennington, Caledonia,Chittenden and Essex Counties (Burlington, Vermont: Miss A.M. Hemenway, 1868).

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[Peacham, Caledonia County, Vermont]

PUBLIC LIFE AND CHARACTER OF GOVERNOR MATTOCKS.

BY REV. T. GOODWILLIS OF BARNET,

Editor of the Vermont Hist. Magazine:

You write to obtain information of the public life and character of Gov. MATTOCKS, from one who was acquainted with him.  It is true I was long acquainted with him, but not intimately, till the last years of his life.  I send you the following sketch drawn from personal knowledge and other sources:

Hon. John MATTOCKS was born at Hartford, Conn., March 4,1777.  His father, who was treasurer of the state of Vermont from 1786 to 1801, came with his family about the year 1778 or 1779, and settled in Tinmouth, Rutland county, Vt.  His youngest son became the fourteenth governor of Vermont.  Having been admitted to practice law before he was 21 years of age, he opened an office in Danville, Caledonia county, and commenced the practice of his profession in 1797, but the next year removed to Peacham in the same county, where he resided till his death.  In a few years he became a celebrated lawyer, and ultimately a very popular man, being elected to every office for which he was a candidate.  He was one of the great men of Caledonia county, indeed he was one of the eminent men of the state of Vermont.  He practiced law about 50 years, the most of the time in the courts of four counties.  He has often been engaged in every jury trial at a whole session at the county court, and won every case.  He represented Peacham in the legislature of Vermont in 1807, and again in 1815 and 1816, and also in 1823 and l824; and was a member of the constitutional convention of 1835, when the measure for a state senate was adopted, and which he advocated.  During the last war with Great Britain he was brigadier-general of militia in this part of the state.  He was judge of the supreme court of the state in 1833 and 1834, but declined a reelection on

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account of domestic afflictions.  He was a representative in congress from Vermont in 1821-1823, 1825-1827, and 1841-1843, and was governor of Vermont in 1843-4.  It is the opinion of good judges that in many respects he resembled the celebrated lawyer, Jeremiah MASON of New Hampshire.

He did not receive a liberal education, but was a self-educated man.  “My brother,” said he, “rode through college to the law, but I came up afoot.”  He possessed in an uncommon degree “the sanguine temperament,” as physiologists call it, being distinctly characterized by vigor, vivacity and activity of mind, a ready and retentive memory, lively feelings and a humorous disposition.  Indeed so strong and active were his mind and memory, that a book which a good lawyer would take a number of days to master thoroughly for practical purposes, he could devour and digest in a day, storing its contents away in his capacious memory ready for future use.  His wonderful talent of appropriating the contents of books enabled him, though altogether a practical man, to obtain a tolerable knowledge of standard English, and the current literature of the day, as well as a considerable acquaintance with history.  His style, as may be seen in his reported judicial opinions, was direct and forcible, using few words to convey his thoughts.  His concentration of mind and power of analysis and illustration were so great that he had an admirable faculty of presenting facts and points in a clear and convincing manner, and his address had a peculiar aptitude to the case under consideration.

In stature he was about 5 feet 10 inches high, with a large robust frame inclined to corpulency, but with a very healthy appearance.  Active, energetic, industrious and prompt, he did much work, which was well done and done in due season.  He had a superior way of examining witnesses, but his great and universally acknowledged power as a lawyer was advocacy before a jury.  Here he stood unrivaled among great lawyers.  His success was almost certain, especially when he had the closing argument.  His power as an advocate was not owing to his eloquence as an orator.  It did not consist in long and loud speaking.  He had not a copious flow of fine words “like flaxseed running out of a bag” to use one of his own comparisons with respect to flowery pleading and preaching.  He employed no rhetorical flourishes or fanciful sketches to fascinate the jury.  But in a familiar and colloquial manner he talked the whole matter over with them and he talked his side of the case into them.  In a manner really ingenious and artful, but apparently frank, fair, and artless, he convinced them that his client was in the right and ought to gain the case.  He seized upon the strong points of his case with consummate skill and ability and urged his natural and simple logic with such power and perspicuity that any man of common sense could easily comprehend the case.  He excelled also in making the most out of a series of circumstances, not always harmonious, and was long celebrated for his skill and tact in managing criminal cases.  His knowledge of human nature, which was deep and extensive, he successfully employed in his profession.  As a book lawyer he was not so remarkable, for although he had such an acquaintance with the books as readily to find what he wanted, yet his mind was too active and impulsive to plod patiently among authorities.  So acute and rapid were his mental operations that he grasped a knotty point instantly, as if by intuition, and solved the legal problem in some quick mysterious manner quite incomprehensible to ordinary minds.  As a judge he was cautious and upright, desiring to do justice to all.  His reported dissenting opinions given in the Supreme Court with respect to the Christian sabbath agrees with the word of God and the laws of the state.  His views on this important subject were sound and Christian.  He had warm sympathies for his fellow-men, and could not have been an oppressor, a persecutor, or an inquisitor, had he lived in the dark ages when oppression and superstition prevailed.  Ever ready to relieve the poor, his charities were like numerous rivulets which water a wide space.  When a member of congress and governor of the state he took an early and decided stand against human bondage.  In a speech he made in congress when he presented a petition for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, he said, “I present this petition because I believe in my soul, that the prayer thereof ought to be granted, so as to free this land of liberty from the national and damning sin of slavery in this our own bailiwick, the District of Columbia.”

As he was intelligent and social, his conversation was interesting and instructive.  He was universally acknowledged to be a keen and ready wit.  The lightning-like operations of his mind and his prompt memory, always gave him ready command of all his resources, which were numerous and diversified.  His wit consisted in combinations of these materials adapted to the subject and

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occasion.  His witty sayings were sometimes very pungent, but in general they were harmless pleasantries.  His fund of anecdotes was inexhaustible, and both in public and private, he illustrated the subject with pertinent anecdotes well told in few words.  His conversation was sprightly, and he enjoyed a hearty laugh.  He was fond of joking, even with strangers.  One evening at the place of his residence, he heard an agent of the Colonization Society represent its claims in a manner so forcible that he thought him a good beggar in a good cause.  The next morning the agent called upon the governor and in a general conversation, asked him “what is the chief business in this place at present?”  “Begging,” quickly replied the governor, “is now the chief business,” at the same time slily slipping some gold into the agent’s hand, for which he thanked him.  “Not at all,” said the governor, “I thank you, sir.”  “Why thank me?” asked the agent.  “Because,” answered the governor, “you let me off so easy.”  In a tight pinch he was very adroit in devising ingenious and prompt expedients for effectual deliverance from difficulty.  He wrote such a hasty and imperfect hand, that sometimes he could not read it himself, but which, his brother, a lawyer in the country, could decipher.  Going to trial before the County Court on one occasion he had such difficulty to read the writ, though written with his own hand, that the judge questioned the correctness of his reading, when he instantly gave it to his brother, saying, “You are college learned, read that writ.”  At one time when returning from the court at Guildhall, he lodged on Saturday night in the town of W., then a new settlement, where they had no public worship.  The next day he went home through Barnet, intending to worship with the Presbyterians in that town (whose religious principles and practices he esteemed so highly as to refer to them with approbation in a reported opinion he gave from the bench of the Supreme court), and to hear their venerable minister, Rev. David GOODWILLIS, whom he held in high estimation, preach.  The next morning the sheriff from Barnet arrested him at his residence in Peacham and took him to Barnet, to be tried upon a charge of violating the law of the state by traveling on the sabbath in prosecution of his secular affairs.  Arraigned before a sage Scotch Presbyterian justice, he called for a jury, and by exercising his right of challenge, he got a number of Presbyterians on the jury, knowing they were strict observers of the sanctity of the sabbath.  Having produced his testimony, he freely admitted that he went home from court on the sabbath, but in his defense he said, “The court at Guildhall set so late on Saturday I had not time to go home that evening, the next morning I found that there was no public worship in the town of W., where I lodged on Saturday night.  It being my custom to attend church on sabbath, I came to Barnet to worship with the Presbyterians whom I knew to be sound in the faith and right in practice, and to hear their intelligent and pious pastor preach.  But I was disappointed, for when I came to their church door I found that their worthy minister was officiating out of town that day.  I was then halfway home, and instead of returning to the place whence I came that morning, I went home, knowing my residence was in a better place than the wicked town of W. where there is no church, no clergyman, no public worship, no sabbath and no religion.”  The court having heard his witnesses and defense, immediately withdrew the action and discharged him from arrest.  He then generously entertained the court with and company at his own expense.

About the time he became governor of the state, I was sent to him by the board of trustees of Caledonia County Academy to procure from him a piece of his land to complete the site for the new academy.  When shown what was wanted, he instantly gave it as a donation to the academy, although the land was a part of his mansion garden.  After returning to his house, we engaged for some time in relating anecdotes, respecting the folly and wickedness of dueling, as a member of congress had been lately murdered in a duel.  About to depart I related an anecdote, which convulsed the governor with laughter.  I bid him farewell and left him still laughing heartily, but the next time I saw him, which was not long afterwards, oh how sadly changed!  The shocking death of his youngest son, a college graduate, then at home, produced lamentable effects upon his mind and body, which lasted so long as he lived, although he recovered from them in a good degree.  But there is reason to believe that a gracious Providence overruled this heart-rending event for his spiritual interest and eternal welfare.  At the grave of the deceased, he said to the multitude that attended the funeral, “With the mangled body of my son, I bury my ambition and love of the world, and God grant that they may never revive.”  Regretting the errors and delinquencies of his past life, he settled his

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worldly affairs, made his last will and testament, declined a re-election to the office of governor of the state, and joined the Congregational Church of Peacham, of which he continued a member till death.  His creed was Calvinistic, embracing the great doctrines of the gospel.  He always preferred such sermons as were deeply doctrinal and practical.  Through life he refrained from secular affairs on the sabbath, and it was his constant practice to attend church on that holy day.  He was never rude nor insolent, but courteous to all.  He was particularly spoken of; and is gratefully remembered by many, for the assistance and encouragement he almost uniformly gave to young men, and markedly so to those of his own profession.  He always acted in an honorable manner towards his fellow lawyers and judges, and his clients were his firm friends.  His great success as a lawyer, though his charges not were [sic] exorbitant, laid the foundation of an ample fortune.  Besides the donations bestowed on his children after he gave them a liberal education, his property at death was valued at $80,000.  He died August 14, 1847, aged 70 years.  His funeral was attended by a great concourse of people from different and distant parts.  Three sons survived him — one of whom became a clergyman, another a physician, and a third a lawyer.

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