Lake County Ohio GenWeb

Peter Hitchcock

This biography is taken from History of Geauga and Lake counties; Williams Brothers, 1878.

Transcribed and submitted by Becky Falin, 1996.

Peter Hitchcock, chief justice of Ohio, was born October 19, 1771, at Cheshire, New Haven county, Connecticut, - died March 4, 1854, at Painesville, Lake county, Ohio. He received a common-school education until his seventeenth year, when he entered Yale College. The means of his father being limited, he was compelled to defray the greater part of the expenses of his education by his own efforts. He taught school during vacations and part of the college terms, in this way supporting himself, but seriously lessening his facilities for study. Hard-working, painstaking, and correct in life as he was, he yet was unable, because of his difficultires to graduate in 1801 with more than a fair degree of credit. After leaving college he studied law, and in March, 1804, was admitted to practice. He had studied diligently, and showed such aptitude for his chosen profession that his examination was decidedly creditable. He opened an office in Chelshire, and for two years practiced law with fair success, earning the reputation of being well qualified, diligent and attentive to business. In 1806, having married in the previous year, he decided on trying his fortune in the west, and removed to the Connecticut Western Reserve in Ohio, settling in Burton, Geauga County, where he took up a farm and retained his residence on it until his death. His life at that period was laborious and the rewards scanty. He taught school at times to eke out his scanty means, practiced in the courts when clients could be had, and spent the remainder of his time in clearing up and cultivating the farm. His distance from the county-seat, at a time when travel was slow and tedious, added to the disadvantages under which he labored. But he steadily won his way in the good opinion of people. His law business increased, and its territorial scope was enlarged until it extended over the entire Western Reserve, throughout which he soon acquired the reputation of a leading lawyer. In conducting his cases he was compelled to trust principally to the knowledge of the law acquired in his preparatory studies, as books were scarce in that part of Ohio, and his opportunites for reading were scanty. Yet he came to the trial of his causes well prepared; he was skillful in eliciting and arranging his proofs; he possessed a familiar and persuasive eloquence, united with a happy faculty of taking a natural view of the most intricate and complex case, and so simplifying it as to render it easily understood and clear to men of ordinary comprehension; and he had a talent sufficient to grapple successfully with any amount of new and unexpected matter of law or fact that should happen to be thrown suddenly upon him, and handle it apparently with the same ease that he managed a case composed of the simplest elements. To all this he added the moral influence of a high character of candor, personal integrity, and fairness.

The men with whom he was brought into competition in the bar of the Western Reserve were many of them lawyers of distinguished ability, possessed of intellectual and material advantages of which he had been deprived by his circumstances, yet he held his own with the best of them, and secured and maintained a leading place. The confidence reposed in his abilities and character by his neighbors was shown by his election in 1810 to represent the county in the lower branch of the Ohio General Assembly. On the conclusion of his term in 1812 he was chosen to serve in the Senate, and was re-elected in 1814, and served a portion of that time as speaker. As a member of the General Assembly, whether in the House of the Senate, he occupied a prominent position. In the fall of 1816, at a warmly-contested election, he was returned to the Congress of the United States, and took his seat as representative in that body in December, 1817. Before the close of his Congressional term he was, in 1819, by the Legislature of Ohio, elected ajudge of the Supreme Court of the State, for the constitutional term of seven years. In February, 1826, he was re-elected for a similar term. At the close of his term, in 1833, political differences prevented his re-election, and he was sent by his district to represent it again in the Senate for the term between 1833 and 1835, and for one session of that term he was again speaker of the Senate. In 1835 he was once more returned to his seat on the Supreme bench. On the close of that term partisan opposition kept him out of the position for two or three years; but in 1845 he was again chosen, and retained the place until 1852, when he retired at the age of over seventy years, after a public service in law-making and law-expounding of more than forty years, during which time he had labored with singleness of purpose for the public good, and enjoyed the respect of political opponents as well as of political friends. His political affiliations had been originally with the party that brought Jefferson, Madison and Monroe to the presidency, and he took a foremost part in advocating the principles of the party. He sustained the war of 1812, and was a zealous supporter of his party's politics. But he advocated the election of John Quincy Adams, and ever afterwards acted with the Whig party, whose principles, he claimed, were the same that he had supported in his former party connection. This alleged defection excited great animosity on the part of his former political associates, but as he rigidly guarded himself from carrying his political feelings upon the bench, that animosity gradually died out.

A practical test of public opinion in regard to him was furnished in the election of delegates to the convention for the revision of the constitution of Ohio, in the spring of 1850. The district in which he resided was entitled to three delegates, and was pre-eminently the home of Freesoilism. That party outnumbered each of the others by some five hundred or a thousand votes. The Free Soil men placed in nomination a full ticket of men of their own party. The Whigs and, Democrats combined to defeat this ticket. The Whigs had the majority of votes, but not sufficient to give them full claim to two out of three delegates. It was proposed, therefore, that the Democrats should have the nomination of the Whigs to be placed on the ticket. The offer was accepted, and the Democrats, with great unanimity, named him as their first choice, although he was the great leader of their political opponents, and the man of most influence among them. He then held the office of chief-justice of Ohio, and with much reluctance accepted the nomination. He however did so, and, with the whole ticket, was elected in spite of a severe and bitter opposition, receiving the full Democratic support. He took his seat in the convention at its opening, served faithfully on the most important committees, thoroughly examined every subject discussed, and took a prominent part in the most important debates. He had a thorough knowledge of the old constituion and its workings, and his ripe experience was especially valuable in pointing out the defects of the old system and suggesting remedies. Some of his suggestions were embodied in the new constituion, and others dropped as being too much in advance of public opinion at the time. With the instrument as finally adopted he was not quite satisfied, but he voted for it, believing it to be an improvement on that of 1802, and was anxious for its adoption by the people, and used his influence to that end. His labors in the convention did not prevent the performance of his usual circuit duties on the bench, nor his sitting as a member of the court in band; but the two offices occupied his whole time, and made that year one of hard work. He had the satisfaction, however, of receiving the hearty approval of his constituents.

As a judge he was laborious, systematic, punctual and attentive, dispatching business with a peculiar facility, although not without deliberation. He was rarely, if every, in a hurry, though always full of business. He readily ascertained the points in a case which were decisive of its merits, and his mind seemed at once to reject everything immaterial. He read all the papers in a case, his retentive memory enabling him to master and hold all the facts contained in them, so that he would, almost uniformly, state with accuracy the exact point upon which the case turned, and name the evidence that bore it. This faculty enabled him to concentrate his whole mind upon the question in hand, to recur in debate, without loss of time, to the proof that would correct or strengthen a first impressions, and, united with his habit of persevering with an investigation once begun until he had finished it, enabled him to turn off, in perfect manner, a mass of business that quicker, but less methodical minds, would not be able to dispose of with equal promptness and effectiveness. An active and efficient member of the society and of the church, he was there, no less than when representing the people in the Legislature, in Congress, and in convention, or while discharging the duties of chief-justice of the State, the same self-possessed, imposing, but modest, unassuming, unofficious man of influence; the same unobtrusive individuality of character and sterling rectitude of conduct, in all stations of life, secured the respect and confidence of all who came in contact with him. He possessed a strong physical frame, and during the considerable portion of his life, especially during the last twenty years of it, was favored with good health, and was capable of uncommonly severe mental endurance. His strong natural faculties had been improved by constant habits of sobriety, personal restraint, and untiring industry. He was a sincere Christian, a helper and friend to the needy and afflicted, a liberal supporter of benevolent enterprises, a good neighbor, and his domestic affections were especially strong and tender. He was married in 1805 to Miss Nabbie Cook, of his native town, and reared to maturity three sons and four daughters. His death took place at the home of his son, Hon. Reuben Hitchcock, in Painesville, March 4, 1854, when on his way home from attending the Supreme Court at Columbus, where over-work had brought on a severe illness. It was mourned througout the State as a severe public loss, and resolutions of respect were adopted by the bar generally, and in the Legislature.

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