Bios of Notable Americans
Illinois Chief Justice Sidney Breese
|BREESE, Sidney, a Senator from Illinois; born in Whitesboro, N.Y., July 15, 1800; attended Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y., and was graduated from Union College, Schenectady, N.Y., in 1818; moved to Illinois; studied law; was admitted to the bar in 1820 and commenced practice in Kaskaskia; appointed postmaster of Kaskaskia in 1821; prosecuting attorney of the third judicial circuit 1822-1826; United States district attorney for Illinois 1827-1829; was the first reporter of the proceedings of the State supreme court in 1831; held several commissions in the militia and served as a lieutenant colonel of Volunteers in the Black Hawk War in 1832; circuit judge of the second district 1835-1841; judge of the State supreme court in 1841-1842; elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate and served from March 4, 1843, to March 3, 1849; unsuccessful candidate for renomination in 1849; chairman, Committee on District of Columbia (Twenty-ninth Congress), Committee on Public Lands (Twenty-ninth and Thirtieth Congresses); member, State house of representatives 1851-1852, serving as speaker in the former year; judge of the circuit court of Illinois 1855-1857; judge of the supreme court of Illinois from 1857 until his death; served as chief justice 1867-1870, 1873, and 1874; died in Pinkneyville, Perry County, Ill., June 27, 1878; interment in Carlyle Cemetery, Carlyle, Ill.|
BREESE, Sidney, jurist, was born in Whites-bore, Oneida county, N.Y., July 15, 1800. He graduated at Union college in 1818, studied law, and removed to Illinois in 1821, where he was admitted to the bar. He successively filled the offices of town postmaster, assistant secretary of state, state's attorney, and United States attorney for Illinois. He was a commissioned officer in the state militia and served as Heutenant of volunteers, during the Black Hawk war. He was appointed circuit judge in 1835, and judge of the supreme court of the state in 1841. In 1843 he was elected to the United States senate, as a democrat, serving until 1849, and during his sen-atorship, while chairman of the committee on public lands, he made a report favoring the establishment of a transcontinental railway. He was a member of the house of representatives of Illinois, and in 1850 was elected its speaker. In 1855 he was again appointed judge of the circuit court and was chief of the court. In 1857 he was elected justice of the supreme court of the state, and in 1873 became chief justice, holding the office during his lifetime. He was one of the originators of the Illinois Central railroad, and from 1845 to 1849 regent of the Smithsonian institution. He published a volume of "Decisions of the Supreme Court" (1829); a work on "Illinois" (1869); and another on the "Origin and History of the Pacific Railroad" (1869). He died at Pinckneyville, Ill., June 27, 1878.
Sidney, born July 15, 1800: who married Eliza daughter of William Morrison (who
emigrated from Pennsylvania to Kaskasia, I11., in 1790) of Carlyle, Clinton Co. II1., a lady
of French descent--now living as his widow, Sept. 4, 1823; and died June 27, 1878, a
Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois, leaving five children, two daughters and three
sons, of whom Samuel Livingston is now a Commandant in the United States Navy.
Judge Breese was graduated at Union College in 1818, receiving the third honor of his
Class, after Alonzo Potter, late Bishop of Pennsylvania, who had the first, and George W.
Doane, afterwards Bishop of New Jersey, who had the second. Soon after his graduation,
on the invitation of Elias Kent Kane, a protege of his father, and at one time a
fellow-student at Union, though a graduate of Yale in 1813, who had already begun the
practice of law at Kaskasia in what was then the Territory of Illinois, Sidney Breese went
there in his eighteenth year, and began to identify himself with that part of our country
where his name was destined to become so eminent, by commencing the study of law in
Kane's office. Years later he told me that he "studied law under the trees;" by which he
meant, I suppose, that the foundations of his legal learning were mainly laid by his own
study, of the books. Such was undoubtedly the origin of that profound knowledge of the
principles of law which afterwards distinguished him. He was admitted to practice in
1820; but, having failed, through diffidence (an infirmity which he never wholly threw off),
in his first appearance in court, he came near to abandoning his profession.
The next year, however, he took it up again; in 1822 he was appointed State's Attorney; about four years later President Adams made him United States Attorney for the State of Illinois. "In 1831 he proposed to the judges of the Supreme Court to report all their decisions. The result was 'Breese's Reports,' printed at Kaskasia in 1831, and which was the first book printed in Illinois. The reporter himself 'set up,' it is said, more than one page of the volume."
He enlisted as a private, but was soon made Lieutenant-Colonel, in the Black Hawk war. He was raised to the bench in 1835, as Circuit Judge, and retained that position till 1842, when he was elected Senator of the United States for six years from March, 1843. Upon his retirement from the Senate he resumed the practice of law, and in 1857 was elected to the Supreme Court, to fill a vacancy, and again, in 1861, for the full term of nine years. "In regular course he became Chief Justice," and this high position he held three times, continuing to be a Justice of the Supreme Court till the day of his death.
"Breese's Reports," covering "the decisions of the Supreme Court for the first eleven years of its existence," was modestly announced by the editor as prompted by "a desire to discharge in some degree that duty which one of the sages of the law has said 'every man owed to his profession.' But he did much greater service to the law, in the course of his judicial life, by his own decisions.
Said one of his associates on the Bench:
Another has said:
"His style was singularly perspicuous. As specimens of fine writing it is my judgment his opinions will suffer nothing in comparison with the best of the most distinguished jurists of this country and of England. In clearness of expression and splendor of diction they are fashioned after the best models."
I also quote the following words of the Attorney General of Illinois in 1878:
If we turn from the court-room to consider Judge Breese as one of our national councillors, we find, to use again the words of an associate judge, that
"His career as a statesman was brief, brilliant, and was marked by great results. "But few possessed the sagacity to discern in the distant future those great measures and plans that would rend to 'the advantage and prosperity of the Nation.' He served but one term in the United States Senate, but it was at a time when it contained Webster, Calhoun, Benton, Clay and other great men of that period. Brief as was that period, his senatorial labors will lose nothing in comparison with those of the most distinguished men of that body, if we shall judge by the results achieved. The plan of constructing the Illinois Central Railroad from Cairo to Galena, an enterprise that has done as much as, if not more than, any other to develop the resources of the State, was first prominently brought forward by him, and its practicability demonstrated. It was his privilege, from his position in the Senate [as Chairman of the Committee on Public Lands], to first bring to the notice of the American people that other great measure, the conception of a railroad to the Pacific coast, to connect with the railroads in process of construction from the East, to constitute a great thoroughfare for the commerce of the world across the Continent, from ocean to ocean, an undertaking so great in its proportions that even Benton, bold and adventurous as he was, deemed it impracticable. His report made to the Senate on that subject shows a forecast of grand events, that were to affect the commerce of the entire civilized world, that was possessed by few of his contemporaries."
As to his political principles, he was a Jeffersonian Democrat, "and at an early day declared his adherence to the letter of the Federal Constitution, and his opposition to the enlargement of any of its provisions by liberality of construction;" and he denounced centralization as contradistinguished from the sovereignty of the States in the control of their own affairs. But he was not an advocate of the doctrine of secession, though I remember that he spoke to me, during the late civil war, of the burning of western crops as fuel, for want of a market, and hinted at the possibility that the Western States might yet be torn from the Union for the sake of a free passage for their harvests down the Mississippi.
"Repeatedly" was he "presented, without any action on his part, in conventions for nomination for Governor; and, had he given any encouragement to such a proceeding, might have long ago been the Executive of the State. In like manner his name" was "frequently connected with . . . the democratic nomination for the Presidency; but here also he abstained from any effort .... "
He was one of the first Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. The whole life of Judge Breese was singularly identified "with the origin, development and progress" of the commonwealth in which he cast his lot in boyhood, during a period of sixty years. Without any of the arts of a demagogue, and though sometimes imperious, he was universally held in the highest respect for his vigor and acuteness of mind, his sagacity, and his scholarship even in fields apart from his profession: and no calumny ever tarnished his name. His personal character was marked, especially in his later years, by a dignified gentleness, no less than by power of command. His more personal character was well portrayed by a member of the Illinois Bar who said:
"By nature of social habits, he loved his friends, and while conveying instruction appeared as if he were receiving it. Familiar with the best authors in the English as well as other classics, he drew upon them freely. He loved every kind of rational amusement, such as the drama and poetry, and visited the galleries and museums of art whenever he could avail himself of such opportunities. He was indeed a connoisseur as well as critic in art matters.
"He cherished no hatreds, and never manifested any malice toward individuals. When he manifested resentment, it was always toward some person whom he supposed guilty of an outrage against justice, sound morals, or the public interest.
"He never paraded his personal griefs in conversation; nor did he complain of offenses committed against himself. Fraud, duplicity, gross breaches of professional integrity and trust were ever sure to kindle his indignation; and in these cases he was frequently called upon to exercise a prudent control over his temper.
"But such was the charity of that temper toward an enemy, or any person he disliked, that he never trusted himself to speak of him except to praise some of his better qualities. And his estimate of the character of such a person would be as calm and dispassionate as if he had been pronouncing a judicial decision between some parties to a record in this court whom he had never seen to know.
He believed in the three cardinal principles of a Christian life: Faith, Hope and Charity; but he believed also that the greatest of these was Charity."
But he was not only a foremost and accomplished actor in great public affairs: his education and tastes fitted and led him to be their historiographer. In a printed memorial of his life, which I have been using freely, reference is made to a "scholarly address spoken in the Hall of the Capitol upon the earl), history of Illinois;" and he left in manuscript "a very interesting account of the first settlements within the territory now comprised in the limits of the State, containing also a graphic account of the discoveries of Marquette and other bold adventurers of that period.
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