Biography of George W. Kirchwey


AMONG the younger members of the Albany bar, whose attainments, not only in his special profession, but also in the wide range of general literature, have already gained for him distinction and honor, is George W. Kirchwey, of the law firm of Eaton & Kirchwey, and dean of the Albany Law School.

Born on the 3d day of July, 1855, in the city of Detroit, Mich., he is the oldest child of honored parents who are still living in our midst. He was reared in an atmosphere of ideas, and does not remember the time when he did not have a book in his hands. He would have been a dull boy if he had not been something of a philosopher even in childhood. But he was not a dull boy and he made good use of the advantages which were thus afforded him. Home education in Detroit was followed by regular instruction in the schools of Chicago, to which city Mr. Kirchwey removed with his family soon after the outbreak of the civil war, in 1862. Nine years later, in the fall of 1871, the family removed to Albany, which has proved to be its permanent home.

After arriving in Albany George spent a year in one of the public schools and then entered the high school, where he received his preparation for college. He was then a bright, active, thoughtful boy of sixteen, and from the testimony of his teachers and fellow-pupils, was a faithful and successful student, taking the highest stand in his classes and distinguishing himself particularly in his literary work and in debate. He was throughout his course a leader among his fellows, with whom he was deservedly popular, and in the debating society of the school gained a reputation for forcible and convincing oratory and parliamentary ability which has not been surpassed in the school since his graduation, fifteen years ago. At the commencement of his class he delivered the valedictory oration and was awarded the medal for the best graduation essay in a class of fifty. He has ever since been looked upon as one of the brightest of the many able graduates of that flourishing institution. He retains a lively interest in and a warm affection for the school, frequently serving on its examination committees, and he was one of the leading spirits in the organization of its alumni association, of which he was for several years the president.

On leaving the high school with such an enviable record he entered Yale College in the fall of 1875, in a class numbering two hundred men. From the first he applied himself with ardor as well as with all diligence to the severe labors of his college course. His earnest and well-directed efforts were crowned with an unusual measure of success. He gained literary and classical prizes even in his freshman and sophomore years. In his junior year he became the most prominent man of the year in college by the brilliant effort with which he captured the junior exhibition prize, one of the most coveted honors of the course at Yale. His oration on that occasion, on Richelieu, won for him the praise of the faculty as well as of his fellow-students, and is reputed never to have been surpassed on that stage.

After these successes and the distinction which they brought him, he was the inevitable choice of his class for the position of class orator, and of the faculty for the place of honor (after that of the valedictorian and salutatorian) on the commencement stage. His class oration, on “Democracy and the Individual,” was a profound and noble effort, and more than justified his selection to represent the class on the most memorable occasion of its course in college.

Kirchwey was perhaps the busiest man in his class, if not in New Haven, during his commencement week, in the summer of 1879, is he had, in addition to his class and commencement orations, to take part in the great contest for the DeForest medal, which rounds up the career of each class at Yale college. He was one of the six men selected by the faculty, on the ground of scholarship as well as literary ability, to take the Townsend prizes and speak in the college chapel in competition for this medal, and he was confessedly second in the contest only to his distinguished fellow-townsman, Louis Judson Swinburne, to whom the medal was awarded. Besides the brilliant Swinburne, whose untimely death occurred only a few years ago, this class was distinguished by the fact that it included three other Albanians of unusual ability and rare promise. These were Harry James TenEyck, whose brilliant career at college was followed by a few years of increasing usefulness and growing distinction here in his native city, and whose recent death we have not yet ceased to mourn; James W. Eaton, Jr., distinguished equally as a lawyer, a shrewd politician and a graceful after-dinner orator, who is the law partner of Mr. Kirchwey and his associate in the law school, and the rising and successful young specialist, Dr. David Fleischman.

After graduating with such exceptional honors, Mr. Kirchwey immediately returned to Albany and commenced the study of law in the office of Stedman & Shepard, then one of the leading law firms in this city and of which the honored Stephen O. Shepard was counsel. Of this office he was managing clerk for three years, during which he worked and read law incessantly and at the same time made the most of the exceptional opportunities in the way of practice which his responsible position with this important firm afforded him. He prepared himself for his life-work with characteristic deliberation and thoroughness. He was a sound lawyer before he applied for admission to the bar, which he did in the fall of 1882.

In the spring of the following year, after having spent six months in practice in New York city, he formed a partnership with his friend and former classmate, Mr. James W. Eaton, Jr., which still continues. After the usual painful experience of young lawyers in establishing a practice, the tide, as it always does, when energy and perseverance are combined with talent, turned in favor of the young firm, until at present it enjoys a large and lucrative, as well as growing practice. While undertaking general law cases Mr. Kirchwey has paid particular attention to corporation law and numbers many corporations at Albany and elsewhere among his clients.

During his legal practice he has devoted much of his spare time to literary labors. He has written frequently on historical, political and legal topics for papers and legal periodicals. He has read an occasional paper before the Albany institute, and, in 1886, he delivered a notable and stirring Fourth of July oration in the city hall in Albany. He contributed some chapters to Mr. James W. Eaton’s admirable edition of Reeve’s Domestic Relations, published in 1888, and is now engaged on an important piece of legal writing, which, however, will probably not see the light for at least a year to come. Three years ago he was selected by the regents of the University of the state of New York to undertake the important work of editing the Clinton papers – an invaluable collection of historical material contained in the state library – and for a year he devoted himself assiduously to the congenial task which had been entrusted to him, when the exigencies of his growing practice compelled him to surrender it. During his incumbency of this office, brief as it was, he succeeded in collecting a great deal of valuable historical material and in laying the foundation of more than one historical work, which it is hoped he may some day have leisure to elaborate and complete.

In politics Mr. Kirchwey has always been a republican, but he was one of “the immortal army of martyrs” who, in 1882, 1884 and again in 1888, voted for the democratic candidate, and it is not recorded of him that he has yet repented of his ways. He has, ever since his school days, been deeply interested in all the reform movements which have successively swept over the social and political fields. He has done good service in the cause of civil service reform, in whose doctrines he is an ardent believer. He is the permanent secretary of the Albany branch of the Civil Service Reform league, of which the Hon. Matthew Hale is president, and is also a member of the Reform club of New York. He has never sought a political career nor held a political office. Nevertheless his time and talents have ever been at the service of every worthy cause which claimed them, and offices of trust and honor have more than once been conferred upon him. He is a member of the American Historical association, and of the Albany institute, in whose work he takes a great interest, and of whose publication committee he is the efficient chairman; he is a member of the Fort Orange and Press clubs, a trustee of the Female academy, secretary of the Yale Alumni association of eastern New York, etc., etc.

Mr. Kirchwey is preeminently a scholar. He has been a life-long student, a great lover of books, devoting many a leisure hour to the companionship of those silent but eloquent friends of the spirit. Even from his boyhood he has been an omnivorous and inveterate reader. The range of his reading was remarkable. Before he went to college, at the age of nineteen, he had read the works of Carlyle, Emerson, Froude, Matthew Arnold, Darwin, Spencer and many more of the masters of modern literature, science and philosophy – besides all the fiction that he could lay his hands on. These tastes and characteristics have remained with him and become a part of him. He has been heard to say that much, if not the best part of his education, at school and college, was gained by him in this way, without the assistance of texts and teachers. Since that time his favorite studies outside of law, have been in the departments of history, political and social science, etc. He has read widely in general jurisprudence and has not allowed the severer duties of his profession to keep him a stranger to the history and literature of the law. In addition to the acquirement’s already dwelt upon, it may be added that Mr. Kirchwey is a classical scholar and linguist of no mean attainments, having a good command of the German and French as well as of the Greek and Latin languages, and being a competent as well as an enthusiastic admirer of the literatures embodied in those tongues.

It is not surprising that greater honors and heavier responsibilities were in store for one with such qualities of mind and such capacities for work. Accordingly, upon the resignation of the Hon. Horace E. Smith, the honored head of the Albany Law School, a year ago, the position of dean of the school with the professor’s chair, vacated by Prof. Smith, were at once offered to Mr. Kirchwey and accepted by him. He has entered upon the exacting duties of his high office with characteristic ardor, energy and industry, with most exalted ideas as to the part which the law school should play in the education of coming generations of lawyers, and with a determination to raise the Albany Law School to the first place among American schools of law. No one who knows the man and the opportunity will doubt the results of his efforts. His distinguished associate in the faculty of the law school, Prof. Irving Browne, thus speaks of the beginnings of the new administration in a recent number of The Green Bag:

“George W. Kirchwey, one of most brilliant and best educated of the young lawyers of Albany, was, by the unanimous voice of the faculty and trustees of the school, chosen to succeed Mr. Smith. He is thirty-four years of age, and was graduated at Yale in 1879. He brings to his arduous post the gifts of youth, energy, tact, physical and mental vigor and power of expression, and the acquirements of professional and general scholarship in a remarkable degree. The opening of his administration has been characterized by an unusual measure of success, and the faculty predicts for him great eminence as an instructor, and an increase of usefulness and prosperity for the school. Mr. Kirchwey has adopted a new and most effective method of instruction, based upon the Harvard system of teaching by leading cases. His lectures, which are entirely extemporaneous and are combined with the discussion of carefully selected cases previously assigned to the class, have resulted in stimulating the interest of the students to a most gratifying degree.”

It was most fitting that this young and gifted son of old Yale should be placed at the head of an institution over which, in past years, had so ably presided Ira Harris, Amos Dean and Isaac Edwards – those great jurists and instructors in legal science. To this honorable place Mr. Kirchwey is entitled by his culture and attainments as a scholar, his profound knowledge and practical experience of law, his clear, logical mind, his high executive ability and remarkable industry, with all the amenities that grace his social life and the rare, sterling qualities of his private character. Under his administration there will doubtless be infused a new, glowing spirit into a time-honored institution, from which so many now distinguished members of the bar have gone forth to engage in the contests of legal warfare as well as into the higher walks of public life.

It may be of interest in this, the forty-first year of the Albany Law school’s useful existence, to give a list of the faculty with the subjects taught by them respectively. They are as follows: Hon. William L. Learned, LL. D., president of the board of trustees; professor of Equity and lecturer on The Trial of Causes; George W. Kirchwey, dean of the law school, professor of Jurisprudence and the law of Contracts and Evidence; Hon. Matthew Hale, LL. D., professor of Personal Rights and Torts, and lecturer on Professional Ethics; Charles T. F. Spoor, processor of Practice Round Pleading; Irving Browne, professor of the law of the Domestic Relations 2nd Criminal Lazy; Nathaniel C. Moak, lecturer on Books and Judicial Systems; Maurice J. Lewis, M. D., lecturer on Medical Jurisprudence; James W. Eaton, Jr., professor of the law of Real and Personal Property and Wills; Hon. Judson S. Landon, LL. D., professor of Constitutional Law; Hon. Hiram E. Sickles, lecturer on the Sources of Municipal Law.

In spite of the demands which the duties of this important position make upon his time and energy. Dean Kirchwey has not allowed it to interfere with the exacting labors of his large and growing practice, nor has he abated the energy with which he has thrown himself into the various activities of his busy life.

In the autumn of 1883 he married Dora Child, only daughter of the Rev. Rufus Wendell, formerly of Albany, i by whom he has had two children, a son now five years of age and an infant daughter.



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

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