Emory Washburn

Last updated

Emory Washburn
22nd Governor of Massachusetts
In office
January 12, 1854 January 4, 1855
Lieutenant William C. Plunkett
Preceded by John H. Clifford
Succeeded by Henry J. Gardner
Member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives
In office
Member of the Massachusetts Senate
In office
Personal details
Born(1800-02-14)February 14, 1800
Leicester, Massachusetts
DiedMarch 18, 1877(1877-03-18) (aged 77)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Political party Whig
Signature EmoryWashburnSignature.png

Emory Washburn (February 14, 1800 – March 18, 1877) was a United States lawyer, politician, and historian. He was Governor of Massachusetts for one term (from 1854 to 1855), and served for many years on the faculty of Harvard Law School. His history of the early years of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is still considered a foundational work on the subject.

Governor of Massachusetts head of state and of government of the U.S. commonwealth of Massachusetts

The governor of Massachusetts, officially the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is the chief executive of the Government of Massachusetts and serves as commander-in-chief of the commonwealth's military forces.

Harvard Law School law school in Cambridge

Harvard Law School is the law school of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Founded in 1817, it is the oldest continuously operating law school in the United States and one of the most prestigious in the world. It is ranked first in the world by the QS World University Rankings and the ARWU Shanghai Ranking.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court the highest court in the U.S. state of Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) is the highest court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The SJC claims the distinction of being the oldest continuously functioning appellate court in the Americas, with a recognized history dating to the establishment of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature in 1692 under the charter of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.


Born in Leicester, Massachusetts, Washburn attended Dartmouth and Williams before studying law. After establishing what grew to become a successful and distinguished law practice in Worcester, Washburn entered politics as a Whig. After serving several years in the state legislature, he was elected governor in 1853. Despite his support for a reform-minded agenda, he was swept out of office on the Know Nothing tide in 1854.

Leicester, Massachusetts Town in Massachusetts, United States

Leicester is a town in Worcester County, Massachusetts.

Dartmouth College private liberal arts university in Hanover, New Hampshire, United States

Dartmouth College is a private Ivy League research university in Hanover, New Hampshire, United States. Established in 1769 by Eleazar Wheelock, it is the ninth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States and one of the nine colonial colleges chartered before the American Revolution. Although founded as a school to educate Native Americans in Christian theology and the English way of life, Dartmouth primarily trained Congregationalist ministers throughout its early history before it gradually secularized, emerging at the turn of the 20th century from relative obscurity into national prominence.

Williams College liberal arts college in Massachusetts

Williams College is a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It was established in 1793 with funds from the estate of Ephraim Williams, a colonist from the Province of Massachusetts Bay who was killed in the French and Indian War in 1755.

Washburn joined the faculty of Harvard Law in 1856, where he was a popular and influential figure until his retirement in 1876. His publications, in addition to his history of the SJC, include a history of his hometown of Leicester and numerous treatises on legal subjects.

Early life

Emory Washburn was born on February 14, 1800 in Leicester, Massachusetts to Joseph and Ruth (Davis) Washburn, both of whom came from families with deep roots in New England. [1] [2] He was the sixth of seven children. His father died when he was seven years old, and the local pastor, Zephaniah Swift Moore, became a major influence in his early years. He first attended Leicester Academy, and then entered Dartmouth College, where Moore taught languages, at the age of thirteen. [1] [3] He accompanied Moore when the latter moved to Williams College in 1815, graduating two years later in a class of seven; he was influential in establishing an alumni association at Williams, serving as its first president. [3]

Leicester Academy

Leicester Academy was founded on March 23, 1784, when the Act of Incorporation for Leicester Academy was passed by the Massachusetts General Court as a private, state chartered institution. The charter issued to the Academy bears the bold signature of John Hancock, Governor of Massachusetts; and Samuel Adams, President of the Senate. The Academy opened on June 7, 1784 on land donated by Jewish merchant Aaron Lopez in Leicester, Massachusetts. The purpose of Leicester Academy was to promote piety and virtue; and for the education of youth in the English, Latin, Greek, and French languages, together with writing, arithmetic and the art of speaking.

Alumni association association of graduates

An alumni association is an association of graduates or, more broadly, of former students (alumni). In the United Kingdom and the United States, alumni of universities, colleges, schools, fraternities, and sororities often form groups with alumni from the same organization. These associations often organize social events, publish newsletters or magazines, and raise funds for the organization. Many provide a variety of benefits and services that help alumni maintain connections to their educational institution and fellow graduates. In the US, most associations do not require its members to be an alumnus of a university to enjoy membership and privileges.

Our judgements [are] like our watches: none go just alike but each believes his own.

Washburn notation made while a law student [3]

Washburn then embarked on the study of law, first with Charles Dewey, a Williamstown judge and lawyer, and then at Harvard Law School under Asahel Stearns. Although he did not graduate from Harvard, he was admitted to the bar and opened a practice in Charlemont, Massachusetts. After six months there he returned to his hometown of Leicester, where he practiced until 1828. In that year he moved to Worcester, where he would live and practice for the next thirty years. [3] In 1830 he married Marianne Cornelia Giles, with whom he had three sons and one daughter. [4]

Williamstown, Massachusetts Town in Massachusetts, United States

Williamstown is a town in Berkshire County, in the northwest corner of Massachusetts, United States. It shares a border with Vermont to the north and New York to the west. It is part of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts Metropolitan Statistical Area. The population was 7,754 at the 2010 census. A college town, it is home to Williams College, the Clark Art Institute and the Tony-awarded Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Asahel Stearns American politician

Asahel Stearns was a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts.

Admission to the bar in the United States

Admission to the bar in the United States is the granting of permission by a particular court system to a lawyer to practice law in the jurisdiction and before those courts. Each U.S. state and similar jurisdiction has its own court system and sets its own rules for bar admission, which can lead to different admission standards among states. In most cases, a person is "admitted" or "called" to the bar of the highest court in the jurisdiction and is thereby authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction. In addition, Federal Courts of the United States, although often overlapping in admission standards with states, set their own requirements for practice in each of those courts.

Political career

Washburn was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1826, serving two terms; his only notable activity was in committee work preparing a feasibility study for a railroad from Boston to the Connecticut River. He was a regular supporter of the Western Railroad in its efforts to develop the railroad westward from Boston. [5] Washburn asserted that railroads could "... ward off the attack of any invader." [6] He would serve in the state legislature again in 1838 and 1877. From 1830 to 1834 he served on the staff of Governor Levi Lincoln, Jr., and in 1841 he was elected to the State Senate, where he served two years. In the second of those years he was chairman of the judiciary committee. In 1844 he was appointed a justice of the Court of Common Pleas, a post he held until 1847. [7] During these years he also established and maintained what was described by one of his peers, George Frisbie Hoar, as one of the largest and most successful law practices in Worcester County, [8] partnering with John Davis among others. [9]

Massachusetts House of Representatives lower house of U.S. state legislature

The Massachusetts House of Representatives is the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court, the state legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is composed of 160 members elected from 14 counties each divided into single-member electoral districts across the Commonwealth. The House of Representatives convenes at the Massachusetts State House in Boston.

Boston State capital of Massachusetts, U.S.

Boston is the capital and most populous city of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States, and the 21st most populous city in the United States. The city proper covers 48 square miles (124 km2) with an estimated population of 694,583 in 2018, making it also the most populous city in New England. Boston is the seat of Suffolk County as well, although the county government was disbanded on July 1, 1999. The city is the economic and cultural anchor of a substantially larger metropolitan area known as Greater Boston, a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) home to a census-estimated 4.8 million people in 2016 and ranking as the tenth-largest such area in the country. As a combined statistical area (CSA), this wider commuting region is home to some 8.2 million people, making it the sixth most populous in the United States.

Connecticut River River in the New England region of the United States

The Connecticut River is the longest river in the New England region of the United States, flowing roughly southward for 406 miles (653 km) through four states. It rises at the U.S. border with Quebec, Canada, and discharges at Long Island Sound. Its watershed encompasses five U.S. states and one Canadian province, 11,260 square miles (29,200 km2) via 148 tributaries, 38 of which are major rivers. It produces 70% of Long Island Sound's fresh water, discharging at 19,600 cubic feet (560 m3) per second.

In 1853 Washburn traveled to England to research English constitutional law. While he was away, the Whig Party nominated him as its gubernatorial candidate; he did not learn of his nomination until his ship reached Halifax, Nova Scotia. [10] In the election he defeated Henry W. Bishop (Democrat) and Henry Wilson (Free Soil) with 46% of the vote. Since a majority of votes was at the time required to win, the election was determined in the state senate. [11] Washburn was the last governor elected in this fashion (plurality voting was enacted in 1855); [12] he would also be the last Whig governor. [13] During his one year in office, he successfully promoted and enacted significant pieces of legislation on a broad social welfare agenda, including measures concerning debt relief, assistance to the poor and insane, and financial aid for female medical students. [10]

Constitution of the United Kingdom The principles, institutions and law of political governance in the United Kingdom.

The constitution of the United Kingdom is the system of rules that shapes the political governance of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK constitution is not contained in a single code but principles have emerged over the centuries from statute, case law, political conventions and social consensus. In 1215, Magna Carta required the King to call "common counsel" or Parliament, hold courts in a fixed place, guarantee fair trials, guarantee free movement of people, free the church from the state, and enshrined the rights of "common" people to use the land. After the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution 1688, Parliament won supremacy over the monarch, as well as the church and the courts, and the Bill of Rights 1689 recorded its fundamental unit of right in "Person" and that the "election of members of Parliament ought to be free". The Act of Union 1707 unified England, Wales and Scotland, while Ireland was joined in 1801, but the Republic of Ireland formally separated between 1916 and 1921. By the Representation of the People Act 1928, almost every adult man and woman was finally entitled to vote for Parliament. The UK was a founding member of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organization (WTO). The principles of Parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law, democracy, and internationalism guide the UK's modern political system to advance the social and economic development of its people.

Democratic Party (United States) Major political party in the United States

The Democratic Party is one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with its main rival, the Republican Party. Tracing its heritage back to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison's Democratic-Republican Party, the modern-day Democratic Party was founded around 1828 by supporters of Andrew Jackson, making it the world's oldest active political party.

Henry Wilson 19th-century American Vice-President, politician, and general

Henry Wilson was the 18th vice president of the United States (1873–75) and a senator from Massachusetts (1855–73). Before and during the American Civil War, he was a leading Republican, and a strong opponent of slavery. Wilson devoted his energies to the destruction of the "Slave Power" – the faction of slave owners and their political allies which anti-slavery Americans saw as dominating the country.

Henry Gardner defeated Washburn in the 1854 governor's race. GovHenryJGardner.jpg
Henry Gardner defeated Washburn in the 1854 governor's race.

One major event that took place during Washburn's tenure was Anthony Burns' arrest and trial under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The case galvanized anti-slavery activists, who protested outside the courthouse and sought both legal and extra-legal remedies to secure Burns' release. [14] Washburn refused to intercede in the matter, bringing criticism, and Burns remained in custody at the time Washburn left office. [15] Burns was eventually returned to slavery, after which abolitionists purchased his freedom. [16]

The 1854 campaign saw the rise of the secretive Know Nothing movement in Massachusetts politics. Washburn stood for reelection, but the Whig party apparatus was generally unaware of Know Nothing strength and dismissive of its candidates. One commentator described the Know Nothing slate as "spavined ministers, lying tooth-pullers, and buggering priests", and Washburn's opponent, former Whig Henry J. Gardner, as a "rickety vermin" who stood no chance of winning. [17] The outcome of the November election was a landslide: Washburn received only 21% of the vote, [18] and Know Nothing candidates won every major state and Congressional office, as well as most of the seats in the state legislature. [19]

Law professor

The following year he was offered a position as a lecturer at Harvard Law School, which became a full professorship in 1856. The seat had previously been occupied by Judge Edward G. Loring, who Harvard's Overseers refused to retain after he ruled that Burns be returned to slavery. For the next twenty years, Washburn served as one of three dominant figures (along with Theophilus Parsons and Joel Parker) in shaping the law school's practices and curriculum. Legal historian Charles Warren wrote of the three, "Parker was the great lawyer; Parsons the great teacher; and Washburn, the great man." [20] The three men established a collegial and open learning environment at the law school. Washburn produced a significant number of legal treatises and books during his Harvard tenure; his Treatise on the American Law of Real Property formed the basis for Harvard's courses and later textbooks on the subject for the next century. His interests in history and the law were comingled in these years, with a number of his publications covering aspects of both subjects. [21]

An 1895 depiction of the 1854 protests surrounding the arrest and trial of Anthony Burns The rendition of Anthony Burns in Boston.jpg
An 1895 depiction of the 1854 protests surrounding the arrest and trial of Anthony Burns

In 1860 Washburn joined in public calls for the repeal of the state's personal liberty laws. These laws, which were designed to make enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as difficult as possible, were characterized by their opponents as an affront to the interests of slave owners, and as a source of heightened tension between north and south. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Washburn led calls for harmony in the law school, which had students from both northern and southern states. [22] He also served, despite his relatively advanced age, in a home guard militia unit, and supported the war effort by writing, giving speeches, and donating money. [23]

Washburn was a popular and dedicated teacher. Students would sometimes attend his lectures just to hear him speak, and he was always willing to help students with matters both academic and personal. [24] He also regularly assisted recent graduates as they made their way into the profession. [25]

In 1870 the Law School hired Christopher Langdell to be its first dean. Langdell began to institute significant changes in the school, which Washburn for the most part went along with. [26] He finally resigned his professorship in 1876, and opened a law practice in Cambridge. He was encouraged to run for United States Congress, but refused. He was instead convinced to stand once again for the Massachusetts House, to which he was elected. He died in office on March 18, 1877 in Cambridge, and was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. [27]


Washburn had a long and abiding interest in local and state history. In 1826 he published a short history of Leicester in a Worcester magazine. This work formed the basis for his Historical Sketches of the Town of Leicester, Massachusetts, published in 1860. [28] He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1827, beginning a lifelong association with that organization. [4] He served as the society's secretary for foreign correspondence from 1866-1867, and then secretary of domestic correspondence from 1867-1877. [29] A large portion of his personal and business papers also resides within its collections. [30] He later became a contributing member to the New England Historical and Genealogical Society and was a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. [31] In 1840 he published Sketches of the Judicial History of Massachusetts, which provides a basic history of the colonial Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature (antecedent to the current Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court) and its justices. Biographer Robert Spector describes it as "the starting point and basis" for legal historical work relating to the court. [28] Washburn considered himself to be more of an antiquarian than a historian: he believed it important to conserve artifacts and historical information, leaving the interpretation of those to others. He wrote of the importance, for example, of the need for the state to preserve its own historical documents (something not given much attention in its early years). [32]



  1. 1 2 Warren, p. 202
  2. Ammidown, p. 219
  3. 1 2 3 4 Spector, p. 119
  4. 1 2 Spector, p. 120
  5. Spector, p. 122
  6. Angevine, R. G. "Individuals, Organizations, and Engineering: U.S. Army Officers and the American Railroads, 1827-1838." Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001): 292-320. Project MUSE. Web. 5 Jul. 2016. <https://muse.jhu.edu/>
    :Citing Emory Washburn, Speech of Emory Washburn, Delivered in the House of Repre sentatives of Massachusetts, Feb. 14,1838, on the Bill to Aid the Construction of the Western Rail Road (Springfield, Mass., 1838)
  7. Spector, pp. 122–123
  8. Warren, p. 203
  9. Reno, p. 700
  10. 1 2 Spector, p. 124
  11. Holt, pp. 786–787
  12. Formisano, pp. 334–335
  13. Holding, pp. 77–79
  14. Von Frank, pp. 133–148
  15. Von Frank, p. 239
  16. Von Frank, pp. 288–291
  17. Mulkern, p. 75
  18. Gienapp, p. 136
  19. Mulkern, p. 76
  20. Spector, p. 125
  21. Spector, pp. 126–128
  22. Warren, pp. 262–265
  23. Warren, p. 274
  24. Warren, pp. 313–314
  25. Warren, p. 315
  26. Warren, pp. 362–401
  27. Spector, p. 134
  28. 1 2 Spector, p. 121
  29. Dunbar, B. (1987). Members and Officers of the American Antiquarian Society. Worcester: American Antiquarian Society.
  30. Emory Washburn Papers
  31. Reno, p. 701
  32. Spector, p. 128

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Political offices
Preceded by
John H. Clifford
Governor of Massachusetts
January 12, 1854 January 4, 1855
Succeeded by
Henry J. Gardner