Biography of William L. Learned


AN ALBANY jurist whose long and interesting career has reflected no little credit upon himself as well as upon the city of his adoption, is the Hon. William Law Learned, of the supreme court. He was born on the 24th of July, 1821, at New London, Connecticut, and is the son of Ebenezer Learned and Lydia Coit, his second wife. His ancestry is of English origin. His ancestors emigrated to this country at an early day, and settled in Charlestown, Mass. The first admission to the First church of Charlestown was that of his ancestor, William Learned, in 1632. Both his grandfathers, Amasa Learned and Joshua Coit, were men of excellent character, learning and ability in their day; and both of them were members of congress about the beginning of the present century.

The father of the present judge was for many years a practicing lawyer, and later in life became a cashier in one of the state banks of Connecticut. He was a man of sound and excellent judgment, and of the purest integrity. At an early age he was graduated from Yale College, and after teaching school for a few years he entered in the practice of his profession at New London.

In the pleasant town of New London, William L. Learned spent his earliest years, under the careful and tender instruction of intelligent and loving parents. He early manifested a strong taste for learning, and the highest ambition of his boyhood was to become, like his father, a good lawyer. He first attended the union school at New London, where he enjoyed the best facilities for acquiring knowledge of the elementary branches of education. His school-boy days were well improved. He was always conscientiously devoted to his books. The pleasures of science and literature even then possessed far greater attractions for him than the usual sports of boys of his age. And every passing month showed some advance up the hill of learning. At the school of New London he was thoroughly prepared for a collegiate course, and, in 1837, at the age of sixteen, he entered the freshman class of Yale College, then under the presidency of the late Jeremiah Day. Here he continued his studies with increasing devotion and marked success. If any study was of more special interest to him in his college curriculum it was that of ancient classical literature. He loved to pore over the pages of Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Tacitus, Livy, Homer, Herodotus, Zenophon and Demosthenes. By this admirable discipline he laid the foundation of his own critical taste and simple, correct and polished style of composition. At the junior exhibition of his class Mr. Learned had the appointment of the Latin oration. He delivered a Latin poem. During his college course he contributed to the Yale Literary Magazine two or three Latin poems besides an article in English. He was a member of the Linonian society, one of the three societies which then included all of the students. His popularity made him also a member of several of the smaller societies, or class societies as they are called, among them that which is known by the somewhat piratical name of “The Skull and Bones.”

On graduating from Yale College in 1841, with high honors, he was appointed salutatorian of his class, and delivered an oration which displayed superior scholarship and was received with applause by the faculty of the college, the students and the cultured audience. Among Judge Learned’s class-mates at Yale were Joseph F. Barnard, Lucien C. Birdseye, Gilbert Dean, all of whom became justices of the supreme court of the state of New York; William E. Robinson, prominent in political circles; B. G. Northrup, an educator; Stephen D. Law, author of works on the law of patents; Rev. Thomas F. Peters, noted for his works of benevolence in the city of New York; and Donald G. Mitchell, who has given to the world, under the pen-name of “Ik Marvel,” his “Reveries of a Bachelor,” and other pleasing and popular contributions to American literature. On leaving the halls of old Yale College, with his mind now fully decided upon the choice of a profession, Mr. Learned entered the law office of William F. Brainard of New London, where he took up and studied with a new satisfaction and pleasure the leading text-books on the law. After a year thus spent, he came to Troy, N. Y., and continued his legal studies in the office of Gould & Olin of that city. Mr. Learned was peculiarly fortunate in becoming a student of these well-known counselors, the former of whom for his high attainments in the knowledge of the law was, in 1855, elected a justice of the supreme court of the state of New York for the third judicial district. Mr. Learned’s associate in the law office of Gould & Olin was George C. Waite, a brother of the late lamented justice of the United States Supreme Court.

In the autumn of 1844 our future judge was admitted to the bar at Rochester during the meeting of the old ” supreme court of judicature of the people of the state of New York,” over which Chief Justice Samuel Nelson presided, with Esek Cowan and Greene C. Bronson as associates. The student career of young Learned thus closing with a studious, successful and honorable record, he was now duly qualified to enter the broad arena of forensic work and warfare. The selection of a location was the next thing to be considered by him, and after taking a careful survey of inviting fields of labor, he finally decided upon Albany. In this decision he made no mistake. He has always been proud of the city which he selected as a permanent residence, and Albanians have always respected and honored him for the true professional and social qualities which he possesses. Coming here in 1845, he formed a co-partnership a few years later with Gilbert L. Wilson, who afterward accepted the position of secretary of the New York Central Railroad Company. After some years James C. Cook became a member of the firm, and on the retirement of Mr. Wilson, Messrs. Learned and Cook continued the co-partnership. Rufus G. Beardslee, now a prominent lawyer in New York City, was also for a time one of the firm. This firm was not long in gaining an excellent reputation, and its legal business continued daily to increase. In 1867 Mr. Cook retired permanently from the practice of the law, and thenceforth Mr. Learned carried on his law business without a partner. For three years he engaged in his professional work with marked success, showing much ability and learning in his legal arguments, which were expressed in strong, convincing language. His forensic efforts have always showed the solid work of the finished scholar and deep thinker, rather than the more flowery display of the mere rhetorician.

On account of his eminent abilities, his extensive knowledge of the law in all its various departments, his high sense of honor and manliness in the management of cases, and his supreme devotion to the business of his profession, he was soon to occupy a higher position in the walks of legal life. In 1870 Rufus W. Peckham, one of the justices of the Supreme Court, was elected a judge of the court of appeals, when a vacancy was created on the bench of the supreme court. This vacancy Governor John T. Hoffman promptly filled by appointing Mr. Learned to the position. It was a well-deserved tribute to a studious and rising lawyer, whose substantial qualities and rare endowments were becoming more widely known, and who was well calculated to adorn so honorable and responsible a place.

In the fall of 1870 Judge Learned was nominated by the democrats as a justice of the Supreme Court in the third judicial district for the full term of fourteen years. He was triumphantly elected over his republican opponent, the late eloquent Henry Smith. He was the first judge elected for the term of fourteen years. The judicial career of Judge Learned now opened with bright promises for the future – a career which has been one of unremitting labor and great acceptance to the public during a term of eighteen years.

Among the earliest cases which came before him was one which excited great interest in the city at the time; the trial of Filkins for a dangerous assault upon an express messenger, connected, as was thought, with a large robbery from the express company. The prosecution was conducted by Rufus W. Peckham, Jr., then district attorney and now a judge of the court of appeals and by the late William J. Hadley, and the defense by Nathaniel C. Moak and S. W. Rosendale, and all the counsel showed distinguished ability.

A few years afterward another case, which was marked by many striking features, was tried before him; that of Lowenstein for the murder of Weston, in which the discovery of the crime and of the criminal illustrated remarkably the old saying that “murder will out.”

In 1874 Judge Learned was appointed one of the faculty of the Albany Law school – now a department of Union university – of which Hon. Ira Harris, Hon. Matthew Hale and Isaac Edwards were members. Here Judge Learned opened the treasures of his extensive legal learning to the students in elaborate lectures on the civil law, equity and the trial of causes. These lectures, requiring so much time and research to prepare, he has continued to deliver for the benefit of the law students during the last fourteen years.

Throughout all these lectures he has endeavored to impress upon the students the thought that the science of the law is and should be the science of the just and the right, and that purity and goodness of character are important elements in legal training.

The lectures on the civil law were an attempt to give some knowledge of a subject which has received too little attention from American law students, and to awaken and an interest in the just and equitable principles of the Roman law. It was hoped that .students here might follow the example of modern teachings in England.

As to the trial of causes Judge Learned desired to give the students some practical ideas of the skill by which an advocate is successful, and of the right mode of using their legal knowledge, and to caution them against the errors into which counsel often fall. The lectures on this subject have been found especially interesting to the students. Instruction in law schools is generally directed to the rules and doctrines of law. It is seldom that an effort is made to guide the young lawyer in his labors as an advocate. The absence of any instruction of this kind led Judge Learned to the preparation of these lectures, which treat of the practical matter of preparing causes for trial, of presenting the evidences and of summing up the case.

For some years Judge Learned has been president of the faculty and of the board of trustees. The Albany Law School has for many years been one of the branches of Union university, and hence as president of the board of trustees of the school, Judge Learned has been one of the governors of the university.

In 1875, Gov. Tilden appointed Judge Learned presiding justice of the third department, in the place of Hon. Theodore Miller, elected to the court of appeals. His associates were Hon. Douglass Boardman of Ithaca, and Hon. Augustus Bockes of Saratoga Springs. Soon after assuming the duties of presiding justice, Judge Learned pronounced his first opinion in the case of Gould v. The Town of Oneonta reported in 3 Hun, 404. His numerous opinions, which have so enriched the volumes of Hun, are expressed in a style of great perspicuity, vigor and terseness, with a most thorough examination and analysis of the intricate cases under consideration. His charges to juries are noted for their direct, able and impartial presentation of the points of law. The preparation of lectures on the civil law and his admiration for its doctrines have led him, in some degree, to the study of that noble system. And this study has given him broader views of legal principles than would be obtained by a close following of some of the harsh and technical rules of the common law. Justitia est constans et perpetua voluntas jus suum cuique tribuendi.

On the expiration of his term of office, in 1884, Judge Learned was re-nominated by the democrats as a justice of the third judicial district, and after a spirited contest was elected over Hobart Krum, Esq., of Schoharie, the republican candidate. This was the time of the presidential election, and Judge Learned’s vote was larger than that of the democratic electors. He was again appointed presiding justice of the third department; this time by Gov. Cleveland. His associates were then Justice Bockes and Justice Landon, Justice Boardman having been assigned to a new department. Since Judge Learned was appointed to the general term the unremitting labor of himself and of his associates has greatly reduced the calendar and has removed all ground of complaint as to delay in that court. Though not very active in political warfare, the judge has been a life-long democrat of the Jeffersonian school. In 1878 he received from Yale College the degree of LL. D. For many years he has been president of the Albany Female academy; and trustee of the Albany academy; both of which institutions he is justly proud. He has delivered literary addresses on many occasions, edited several works, and contributed largely to the periodical law and magazine literature of the day. He edited several years ago, an edition, published by Munsell, of Madam Knight’s Journal, an interesting account of a journey taken in early times from Boston to New York, and also an edition of Earle’s Microcosmography. He has interested himself in genealogical researches and published in 1882 a volume containing the genealogical history of his family. Besides his large law library, he has a fine private collection of miscellaneous books in all departments of general literature, among which are included many rare and costly illustrated works.

Judge Learned has been twice married. His first wife was Phebe Rowland Marvin, a daughter of the late Alexander Marvin of this city, and of Mary E. Pepoon, his wife. By his first wife Judge Learned had three daughters. His present wife was Katharine De Witt, a daughter of the late Clinton De Witt, a very prominent lawyer of New York City, and of Elsie Van Uyck, his wife. Abraham De Witt of this city, a son of Clinton De Witt, maintains the high credit and standing of his father in the same profession.

Judge Learned’s eldest daughter married John De Witt Peltz, a successful lawyer, who practiced for several years in this city. In the spring of 1887, Mr. Peltz, on account of the illness of his wife, moved to Colorado Springs, Col., with his family, where Mrs. Peltz died, November 23, 1888, leaving two sons surviving her. After his wife’s death, Mr. Peltz remained for some time at that place, having an extensive and increasing legal business there. But he has now returned to Albany and has resumed the practice of his profession here.

The late Billings P. Learned, president of the Union bank in this city and an active and influential citizen, was an older brother of Judge Learned.

Like some of his brethren on the bench Judge Learned is not without the rhyming faculty, which he has occasionally exercised for the gratification of his friends.

Distinguished alike for his profound knowledge of the law, and his general literary acquisitions, affable and modest in his manners, conscientious and upright in the discharge of his public and private duties. Judge Learned has reached the zenith of his usefulness with the satisfaction of rounding out a life well-spent in the cause of judicial integrity, in the advancement of science and literature, and in being a friend and advocate of the highest interests of his fellow-citizens. 29



Noted living Albanians and state officials , A series of biographical sketches. 1891.

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