MELVILLE W. FULLER

Source: Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County, Illinois with Portraits 3rd ed. revised and extended (Chicago: Calumet Book & Engraving Co., 1895), pp. 127-129

MELVILLE WESTON FULLER.  The following sketch of Chief Justice Fuller was written by the late Major Joseph Kirkland for the “History of Chicago,” published by Munsell & Company, by whose permission it is here reprinted:

Chief Justice Fuller traces his descent direct to the “Mayflower.”  His father was Frederick A. Fuller, and his mother Catherine Martin Weston.  His grandfather on the mother’s side was Nathan Weston, Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Court; and his uncle, George Melville Weston, was a prominent lawyer of Augusta.  Melville Weston Fuller was born February 11, 1833, at Augusta, Maine, and grew up with good educational advantages.  He was prepared for college at Augusta, and entered Bowdoin College in 1849, where he was graduated in 1853.  Thence he went to Dane Law School (Harvard), where so many of our western jurists have earned their diplomas.  He is described as having been a rather aimless youth, but in college a model student, with a special gift for public speaking.  He began his law practice in Augusta, but finding business lacking, he employed his time and eked out his income by newspaper work; a circumstance to which is doubtless due something of the literary facility which has always formed a strong feature in his career.

An interesting fact connected with this journalistic experience is this: At a certain session of the Legislature which Melville W. Fuller reported for the Augusta Age (which he and his uncle, B. A. G. Fuller, published together), James G. Blaine was engaged as correspondent of the Kennebec Journal.  Though opposed in politics, the two men were always personal friends, and at last, by a curious coincidence, found themselves in Washington together; the one Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the other Secretary of State.

Mr. Fuller’s success in Augusta as a lawyer was in proportion to the law business of the place, and so not large or satisfying.   His success in politics was in proportion to his ability, and therefore excellent.  At twenty-three he was City Attorney and President of the Common Council of Augusta.

Still, it must have been unconsciously borne in upon him that Augusta and Maine, always loved and honored by him, were, after all, a “pent-up Utica” to such a soul as his.  He must, at least, see the great West.  In 1856 He came to Chicago, meeting here his friend and fellow-townsman, Mr. S. K. Dow, a practicing lawyer, who urged him to emigrate, offering him a place in his office and, at his choice, either a partnership in the business or a salary of $50 per month.   He chose the latter, and worked on those terms five months, living within his income.  But scarcely a year had passed before he began to do a fine and profitable business, which went on increasing with remarkable speed and steadiness up to the time of his leaving the Bar for the Supreme Bench.

In politics he was a stanch Democrat, and by friendship and sympathy a warm adherent of Stephen A. Douglas. At Mr. Douglas’s death in 1861, he delivered the funeral oration, his speech being a masterly production.   In the same year he was elected a member of the Constitutional Convention, and two years later we find him in the Illinois Legislature.  Here he gave the same strenuous support to the war which was offered by other Douglas men; he was a Unionist, but not an anti-slavery man or Republican.  The war Democrats were in favor of the war as they thought it should be conducted, giving their adherence to the McClellan plan as being the most certain to triumph and restore the integrity of the country.

Here it seems well to quote from some fine verses written by Mr. Fuller long afterward.  They are on the death of General Grant, and show at once a loyal feeling for the great soldier’s services and a true poetic thought and diction; a power of composition rare in the learned, practiced and successful lawyer:

 

                               Let drum to trumpet speak–
                    The trumpet to the cannoneer without–
                    The canon to the heavens from each redoubt,
                          Each lowly valley and each lofty peak,
                    As to his rest the great commander goes
                    Into the pleasant land of earned repose.
                                         *             *             *             *

                               Not in his battles won,
                    though long the well-fought fields may keep their name,
                               But in the wide world’s sense of duty done,
                    The gallant soldier finds the meed of fame;
                    His life no struggle for ambition’s prize,
                    Simply the duty done that next him lies.
                                         *             *             *             *

                               Earth to its kindred earth:
                    The spirit to the fellowship of souls!
                    As, slowly, Time the mighty scroll unrolls
                               Of waiting ages yet to have their birth,
                    Fame, faithful to the faithful, writes on high
                    His name as one that was not born to die.

Mr. Fuller was a hard worker in his profession; and it is said of him that in any case his stoutest fighting is done when the day seems lost, when he is very apt to turn defeat into victory.  He is reported to have had, during his thirty years’ practice, as many as twenty-five hundred cases at the Chicago Bar; which, deducting his absence at the Legislature, etc., would give him at least one hundred cases a year; fewer, necessarily, in the earlier part of his practice, and more afterward.  This shows a remarkable degree of activity and grasp of business.  He has never made a specialty of any kind of law, though there are some wherein his name scarcely appears; for instance, divorce law and criminal law.  Among his many cases are Field against Leiter; the Lake Front case; Storey against Storey’s estate; Hyde Park against Chicago; Carter against Carter, etc., and the long ecclesiastical trial of Bishop Cheney on the charge of heresy.

His partnership with Mr. Dow lasted until 1860. From 1862 to 1864 his firm was Fuller & Ham, then for two years Fuller, Ham & Shepard, and for two years more Fuller & Shepard.  From 1869 to 1877 he had as partner his cousin, Joseph E. Smith, son of Governor Smith, of Maine.  Since that time he has had no partner.  His business was only such as he chose to accept; and his professional income has been estimated at from $20,000 to $30,000 a year.  His property includes the Fuller Block on Dearborn Street, and is popularly valued at $300,000.

He was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions of 1864, 1872, 1876 and 1880, always taking a prominent place.  Just after Mr. Cleveland’s first election to the Presidency, Mr. Fuller called on him in Albany, and Mr. Cleveland at once conceived for him a very high appreciation.  On the death of chief Justice Waite it seemed desirable that the new Justice should be taken from the West; and Mr. Fuller’s liberal education, the catholicity of his law practice, his marked industry, ability and command of language – all these, joined with his devotion to the principles of his party, made him a natural choice for nomination to the position.  High and unexpected as was the honor, Mr. Fuller hesitated before accepting it.  If it satisfies his ambition in one direction, it checks it in another.

The salary of the Chief Justice of the United States is $10,500 a year; very far less than the gains arising from general practice in the front rank of lawyers, or from service as counsel of anyone of hundreds of great corporations.  So there comes a kind of dead-lock; if a man happens to be born to riches, he is pretty sure never to go through the hard work which alone gives leadership in the law.  If he starts poor, then, having his fortune to make, he cannot take Federal judicial office, that being a life-long position.  The only way in which the Federal Bench can be appropriately filled, under the circumstance, is when by chance a man prefers power and dignity to mere riches; or where his success has been so sudden that he is able (and willing) to accept a judgeship as a kind of honorable retirement from the struggle and competition of practice.

Aside from these considerations, Mr. Fuller felt a natural hesitancy in undertaking a responsibility so trying and hazardous.

As to the money obstacle, Mr. Fuller probably felt himself, through his great and rapid success, able to afford to accept the appointment.  He accepted it, was hailed in his new dignity with genial cordiality, and has filled the office with unimpeachable credit and honor.

Mr. Fuller’s first wife was Miss Calista O. Reynolds.  She died young, after bearing him two children.  He married a second time, taking to wife Mary Ellen, daughter of the distinguished banker, William F. Coolbaugh.  His family now consists of eight daughters and one son; and his domestic and social relations are as happy as it is possible to imagine, the young ladies being full of gaiety and loveliness in all its styles and types.  He himself is never so well content as in his own household, making merry with all. It is even whispered that should his resignation not throw his own party out of the tenancy of the office to which it chose him, he might give up the irksome and confining dignity and the forced residence in a strange city, and return to the West, to the city of his choice, to the home of his heart.

                                – Submitted on May 15, 2000 by Sherri Hessick ( shessick@flash.net )