Martin I. Townsend
City of Troy

Information on this page is from History of Rensselaer Co., New York by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, published in 1880.

MARTIN INGHAM TOWNSEND, of Troy, N. Y., is descended of ancestors who, for more than two centuries, have dwelt in this country. His primal progenitor in America was Martin Townsend, of Watertown, Mass., who was born in 1644, fourteen years after the settlement of Boston. In 1668 he married Abigail Train, and their youngest son, Jonathan, was born in 1687. Removing to Hebron, Conn., Jonathan married, and one of his children, who was named Martin, was born in 1727, and married Rhoda Ingham. Among the descendants of Martin and Rhoda was a Martin, who was born at Hebron in 1756, and who married Susannah Allen, of Hancock. This Martin had four wives besides Susannah, and eighteen children. One of these children was Nathaniel, who was born Sept. 4, 1781, and who died July 20, 1865. In 1805 he married Cynthia Marsh, who was born March 5, 1783, and who died April 2, 1876. Of their four children, three still survive, one of whom is Martin I. Townsend, the subject of this sketch, who was born at Hancock, in Berkshire Co., Mass., on the 6th day of February, 1810.

As has been already noted, he inherits on his father's side the blood of the Inghams of Connecticut and of the Trains of Massachusetts. Through his mother he claims descent from Miles Standish, the citizen-soldier of the Pilgrim Fathers, and also from Henry Adams, of Braintree. In 1816, Mr. Townsend removed to Williamstown, Mass., and was educated at the common schools of that village, at the academy there situated, and at Williams College. At the latter institution, he was graduated in 1833; and at the commencement of his class, by reason of his scholarship, he received the second appointment in the literary exercises of that occasion. He took his master's degree in regular course, and was honored with the degree of LL.D. by his alma mater in 1866.

After graduating, he read law for a few months in the office of David Dudley Field in New York City; but, having removed to Troy, N. Y., on the 1st of December, 1833, he immediately thereafter entered the office of Henry Z. Hayner as a law student, and so continued for a year and a half. In May, 1835, he became clerk in the office of his elder brother, Rufus M.Townsend, and in 1836 became his partner in the practice of law. The connection thus formed still continues. It was in 1836 also that he married Louisa B., the daughter of Oren Kellogg, of Williamstown, a lady who for more than forty years has aided in making his cheerful life still more cheerful, and who, by her noble presence and pleasing ways, like mellow sunlight, surrounds him with homelike happiness as he treads with unfailing step and buoyant mien the bright pathway of his autumnal days.

In 1838, Mr. Townsend was a candidate for Member of the Assembly when his party - which was then the Democratic Party - was in a minority of about one thousand in the city of Troy. In the canvass, he ran far ahead of his ticket, but was defeated. He was the district attorney for the county of Rensselaer from 1842 to 1845. He represented the Eighth Ward of Troy in the Common Council of that city from May 1842 to May 1843 and from March 1856 to March 1858. He was a Member for the State at Large of the Constitutional Convention of the State of New York in 1866-67. By a strict attention to his duties, and by his graphic and intelligent expositions of the subjects which were considered by that body, he won the esteem of his learned associates and maintained the honor of the district in which he specially represented. In the year 1869 he was nominated on the Republican State ticket, without his knowledge, for the position of attorney general, but was defeated, with the other State candidates associated with him, by the machinations and overwhelming frauds - as they are now recognized to be - of Tammany Hall. In 1872, Mr. Townsend was chairman of the New York Republican delegation in the convention at Philadelphia, which renominated Grant for the Presidency. It will be remembered that Mr. Greeley was then the candidate of the opposition. Mr. Townsend, in announcing the vote of New York, spoke as follows: "The Empire State, by the unanimous voice of her delegates, has instructed me to cast her seventy votes for that man of whom our distinguished fellow-citizen Horace Greeley has said, 'He never has been beaten and he never will be,' Ulysses S. Grant." He was chosen by the Legislature in 1873 as regent of the University of the State of New York to fill the vacancy occasioned by the death of the Hon. John A. Griswold. In the fall of 1874 he was elected representative in the 44th Congress for the 17th Congressional District, and was re-elected to the same position in the 45th Congress in the fall of 1876.

In his chosen profession of the law Mr. Townsend early gained a prominent position, which he not only maintained while the men with whom he began his career surrounded him, but which he still maintains as he encounters the young blood and the fresh vigor of a new generation. While serving as district attorney of the county of Rensselaer, he secured the conviction of Henry G. Green and Henry Miller upon the charge of murder, and both of these offenders suffered the extreme penalty of the law. Always believing that a slave escaping into a free state must, under the Constitution, be returned by the federal government to his master [sic], Mr. Townsend was most active in extending to the slave so escaping every right that the law could give him, and all the aid which would naturally flow from a sympathizing humanity. He vigorously defended the only two slaves in Rensselaer County who appealed to the courts for protection during his connection with the bar. To one of these, Antonio Louis, who was arrested as a fugitive in 1842, liberty was granted; and to the other, Charles Nalle, freedom came on the 27th of April, 1860, he having been taken on that day by a mob from the custody of the United States marshal while Mr. Townsend and other gentlemen were waiting in the office of the late George Gould, justice of the Supreme Court, for the return of a writ of habeus corpus that had been issued on behalf of Nalle.

He was associate counsel for the defense in the celebrated trial of Henrietta Robinson for the murder of Timothy Lanagan. Mrs. Robinson was known as the "veiled murderess," from the fact that she persisted in wearing a veil which concealed her face during the trial, and which no threat nor inducement could lead her to remove, except for a few moments on two or three occasions. The trial commenced at Troy on Monday, May 22, 1854, and was concluded late in the evening of Saturday, on the 27th of the same month, by the rendition of a verdict of guilty. Mr. Townsend's argument on this occasion was based upon the idea of the insanity of the prisoner at the time the alleged crime was committed, and was peculiarly eloquent, comprehensive, discriminating, and exhaustive. The cases adduced by him in support of this theory were specially applicable, and the references to authorities in maintenance of his position demonstrated the research, investigation, and study which he had bestowed on the subject. Sentence of death was not passed upon the convicted woman until June 14, 1855, more than a year after the close of the trial. The execution was appointed for Aug. 3, 1855, but on the 27th day of July, a week previous to the fatal day, Governor Clark, in the exercise of the great prerogative of his office, commuted her sentence to that of imprisonment for life in the Sing Sing prison. There she was soon after taken, and there she remained until a few years ago, when she was placed in the asylum at Auburn for insane criminals. In the thoughtful mind, the question arises whether the insanity which affected her in prison, and has now settled down on her permanently, as is probably, was not in 1853 the shadowing cloud that then obscured on her troubled nature the distinction between right and wrong, and, as her learned advocate claimed, produced in her an abnormal and irresponsible condition.

Mr. Townsend has always held an advanced position in law reform, and was early a favorer of the measures lately adopted by this State, enabling husbands and wives to be witnesses for and against each other in civil actions, and allowing alleged criminals to testify in their own behalf. For more than forty years he has been connected with most of the important litigations in Rensselaer County, always maintaining the character of a zealous, indefatigable, and accomplished lawyer. In arguing a question of law to the court, the clearness with which he defines his position is specially noticeable. A statement of the principle supposed to be involved is followed by the application of that principle to the case in hand, and then, by apt illustration and by subtle and cogent reasoning, the legal aspect of the case is developed, and the particular rule which should govern in its decision is evolved and proclaimed. But it is before a jury that the strong and salient powers of his mind are most apparent. His analysis of the subject in hand is searching, skillful, and exhaustive. Not a point that [he] can make for his client is left undisclosed, not a statement hurtful to him is adduced, but it is sifted with the most penetrative scrutiny and surrounded with all the doubts that can be raised as to its truthfulness. If he is engaged for the defense in a criminal case, and if it has been shown that his client possesses any trait of character that challenges admiration, such possession is enlarged upon until it spreads out like a mantle of broadest charity, and is made to cover any inequalities of disposition, temper, or conduct that may have been developed to that client's disadvantage. Yet while his defense is obstinate and protective, his attack is trenchant, aggressive, and pertinacious. The war is carried into the enemy's country with such dash and courage, and with such an appearance of belief in the strength of every position taken, that not unfrequently, in desperate cases even, "out of the nettle danger" he has plucked "the flower safety."

As a politician, Mr. Townsend, during his whole career, has been true to his convictions; and those convictions have not sprung from a low standard of political ethics, but have been always referable to an elevated idea of the value and right of personal liberty. He was a Democrat until 1848, but was at all times unhesitatingly and openly opposed to slavery, and when in that year the convention that nominated General Cass for President of the United States resolved that it was proper that the Territories of the nation should become slave soil, he snapped the ties which had bound him since manhood to a party that had thus disregarded its own traditions, and addressed the first public meeting convened in the United States to protest against the pro-slavery action of the Democratic party. That meeting was held at Troy, on the 3d day of June, 1848, and for the consideration of those assembled on that occasion he prepared and presented a series of resolutions advocating the principles of free soil, free speech, and free men, and these resolutions were then adopted. From that time forward he has always been the able and conscientious apostle and advocate of those principles and aspirations, which, lying at the foundation of the movements of the Barnburners of New York, who in 1848 nominated Martin Van Buren for the Presidency, became more clearly defined in the position of the Free-soil Democracy as taken by them in the nomination of John P. Hale for President in 1852, and which culminated in the formation of the Republican party, when it first presented itself as a national organization in 1856, and nominated John C. Fremont for the Presidency.

During the Rebellion [the US Civil War, 1860-65], he was the earnest and outspoken upholder of the government in its efforts to maintain the integrity of the Union. So marked was his advocacy, and so unsparing was he in his denunciation of the traitors and treason, that during the draft-riots of July 15, 1863, the mob sacked his house in Troy, and either carried off or destroyed or injured nearly all articles of personal property that it contained. On becoming a member of the House of Representatives, he at once assumed the position of a careful observer of all that was passing about him, and was at all times ready to approve or condemn intelligently the various measures presented to him, in common with other members, for consideration. But it was not until the House entered upon the discussion of the Centennial Bill that all its members became aware of the mental energy, keen humor, brilliant thought, and illustrative power embodied in the personality of Mr. Townsend. On the 20th of January, 1876, in a speech favoring the appropriation named in that measure for securing the success of the centennial celebration of the origin of the nation, he took occasion to display the inconsistencies of those who opposed the appropriation on the ground that it was contrary to the Constitution. During its delivery he received the marked attention of all present, and his effective sallies of wit and searching analyses of conduct, illumined with occasional pleasantries enunciated with clearness and made completely impressive by the force of his own indomitable and peculiar oratory, raised him at once to the level of the most practiced debaters of the House. Commenting upon this speech, one who heard it wrote, "No printed report can convey a sense of the impression produced on the delighted audience, nor show how deftly, in the midst of all the merriment, the logical results of the war, the clemency of the Union, the worth of the nation to all its citizens, and the wisdom and right of the United States to set forth evidence of its advancement at Philadelphia were all stated with that power of suggestion which is often more potent than labored argument."

The editor of Harper's Weekly, introductory to an epitome of his speech, said, "It was a perfect rebuke to the insolence of Mr. Hill, and it was a distinct announcement to that gentlemen and his friends that, although they have 'come back to the Union to stay,' they have not come back to rule. The gayety [sic] of the speech, its wholesome humor, and its kindly and friendly spirit did not in the least conceal the clear perception and the resolute conviction and determination of the speaker. The undertone was one to which every generous and loyal American heart resounds. Indeed, there cannot well be found a more characteristic and admirable expression of the feeling and purpose of the dominant party in this country than this speech of Mr. Townsend's. There is no vindictiveness of feeling, no rancor, no desire to recall the war for the sake of crimination, no feeling but a hearty wish for concord; but also no forgetfulness of the facts of our history and of human nature, no doubt of the absolute justice of the cause of the Union in the war, no question of the infinite national dishonor and degradation wrought by the long ascendency of the Democratic party; a profound contempt for the old-fashioned slave-holding violence and the Northern subservience to it which have reappeared in the Democratic House; and an equal scorn of the fine-spun quiddities of 'strict constructionists.'" --Harper's Weekly, Feb. 19, 1876.

Among his other able speeches [were] his argument in favor of transferring the Indian Bureau to the War Department, delivered April 28, 1876; his observations on the protection of the Texas frontier, presented on July 12 and 18, 1876; and his remarks relative to the settlement of the title of Governor Hayes to the office of President of the United States, made on Jan. 26, Feb. 20 and 21, and March 2, 1877. But not alone as a lawyer and politician is Mr. Townsend distinguished. As a man of high culture and of attainments in the field of letters is he also well and favorably known. Among his miscellaneous writings are several of a high order. His essay entitled "Saxon and Celt," being a brief argument designed to show the influence of the Bible; his address on "Labor" before the alumni of Williams College; his occasional papers and his speeches, as set forth in the debates of the Constitutional Convention of the State of New York, all evince extended reading, thorough research, and a full appreciation of the topics severally presented.

The extract following is from the address above alluded to:

"That man who fells the giant forest which for ages has dominated the soil, or turns the flowery sod upon the boundless prairie and commits to its bosom the bread-yielding corn,

That man whose moistened brow and stalwart arm are bending over the fierce fires that sparkle in yonder workshop as the earth-born metals are moulded to meet the million wants of life,

That man whose ceaseless toil brings low the hills and exalts the valleys, or who delves in the bowels of mountains, old as the morning of creation, that he may prepare a highway for the commercial and social intercourse of man,

Each of them is doing the will of God, and performing the work which he has for each of them to do.

They are all 'dressing and keeping' God's garden, and subduing the earth which they inhabit. From the hum of yonder spinning-wheels and factory-looms there rises an anthem more sacred than choir of cloistered nuns ever hymned;

And that tireless mother, whose waking eyes prevent the watches of the night, as she plies her busy needle to clothe and feed her little ones, is offering to God a sacrifice sweeter than the Arabian incense which burns upon priestly altars.

Let none who serve their race, their country, or their family by active labor, whether mental or physical, for a moment doubt that their work shall be accepted by Him whose eye sees all, and whose rewards, the consequences of well-doing, can no more fail than can the system which He has instituted and which He constantly upholds."

Mr. Townsend now holds the office of United States District Attorney for the Northern District of New York, to which office he was nominated on the 6th day of February, 1879, his sixty-ninth birthday.*

* Contemporary Biography of New York.

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