Chapter I. Ancestry.

From: The Life and Letters of Christopher Pearse Cranch (1917)
Author: Leonora Cranch Scott
Published: Houghton Mifflin Company 1917 Boston


CHRISTOPHER PEARSE CRANCH was born in Alexandria, District of Columbia (now in Virginia), March 8, 1818, the youngest son in a family of thirteen children. In his Autobiography he says:—

  My first recollections date from the house in Washington Street, when I was about four or five years old. I was taught to read by my sister Nancy. When she was eight or nine years of age, she died. Every one loved her. About this time my sister Mary also died. She had been married to her cousin Richard Norton about a year, and died soon after confinement, with a daughter, who also died. About a year later Mr. Norton died, from some virulent fever badly treated by an ignorant physician. The deaths of these two elder sisters were my first great griefs, and made a deep impression on me. . . .

  At this time I was sent to a large day school kept by a man named Bonner. He was a great tyrant, and was noted for devising all sorts of strange, and sometimes cruel, punishments for the boys.

  While occupying our house in Washington Street, our family used to pass the summer on a farm in Virginia, about four miles to the southwest, which went by the name of “Suffield.” The house was a small, plain, wooden farmhouse. The farm, if I remember, consisted of very poor, clayey land. My brother Richard was the farmer. We raised vegetables, rye, wheat, oats, etc. I remember no cultivated fruit on the place but small apples. There were plenty of fine wild blackberries, and I think some huckleberries. We had two or three farm-horses, and among my early recollections were the excursions I used to make, with my brothers John and Edward,—one six, the other four years older than myself,—to the apple trees, where we gathered the apples in bags, and brought them home on horseback.

  We boys used to go about, barefooted, a great part of the summer. Our faithful companion everywhere was our dog Watch. He was a beautiful, white dog, with a fine head, and handsome brown eyes, soft and curly hair, and a splendid, bushy tail. He seemed to be a mixture of the setter and the Newfoundland. He was the most honest, the most affectionate, the most playful, the most brave, the most faithful creature that ever honored the canine race. He was just the age of my sister Abby, and lived with us seventeen years, dying at last of old age, long after we removed to Washington.

  Our family at this time consisted of my father and mother, my brothers William, Richard, John, and Edward, our sister Elizabeth, about eight years older than I,—myself, and two younger sisters, Abby and Margaret.

  In 1828 we moved to another part of Alexandria, which went by the name of the “Village.” The house was a large and pretty frame dwelling, in the southern suburbs of the town, not far from Hunting Creek, a branch of the Potomac River. On the southern side of the house was a veranda of two stories, overlooking a yard with a semicircle of tall Lombardy poplars, a well of water, and a large garden with an abundance of fruit and flowers. The roses were particularly plentiful and fine. In the centre of this garden was a large summer arbor, with seats, and covered with multiflora roses. We had strawberries, gooseberries, cherries, damsons, peaches, and fine winter pippins. At the bottom of the garden was a small building used by my father as a library and law office. It was here that my brother Edward and I used to copy the pictures in India ink out of Rees’s Cyclopædia. On the left of the garden was a barnyard and stable. From the upper story of the veranda there was a fine view of the majestic Potomac, and the sails constantly gliding up and down the river. It was a beautiful place, and to this day it mingles with my dreams. But the situation was not healthy, all that region near the Creek being subject to fever and ague, at which I took my turn along with the others.

  A third severe family bereavement was the death of his brother Richard, who was drowned while making a topographical survey on Lake Erie, near Meadville. Of it the Autobiography says:—

  The party were on the Lake when there came up a sudden squall. The boat was capsized and my brother, though a good swimmer, was drowned before he could reach the shore. . . . I was then twelve years old. Our brother was about twenty-five. . . . I never shall forget what a dark day that was, when the tidings of this event reached us. I can well remember how all the family were plunged into grief and tears. I can see even now, my uncle James Greenleaf (then making us a visit) sitting in silence, with one arm around each of my younger sisters. We all loved our brother Richard dearly. Our father and mother looked upon him with just pride in his noble and manly qualities. He was the strongest and most active of the family. I remember seeing him lift three fifty-six-pound weights with his little finger. He was a good swimmer and skater. He was fond of agriculture; he had a great deal of mechanical talent and used to construct little machines of various sorts. I remember his making some sky-rockets and shooting them off. He was affectionate and upright and a great favorite wherever he was known. He would take us with him to Washington—six or seven miles off—to see the Inauguration of John Quincy Adams as President, in the Capitol.

  I shall always remember this pleasant house at the Village as the happy suburban home, where, in spite of these domestic sorrows, we children found such ample scope for play, such delight in our beautiful garden, such amusement with the dogs, the chickens, the ducks, the hayloft, and the rural surroundings.

  It was there I first began to amuse myself with drawing, and in learning to play on the flute. And it was there that I attempted my first versification, a paraphrase from Ossian.

  My father was tall and erect, with marked features, and was sometimes taken for General Andrew Jackson, but there was no real resemblance. He was serious and somewhat taciturn; of a quiet temperament; inclined to melancholy; but serene and self-contained, with a mild and sweet expression on his face, much aided by his steadfast, religious faith. He was devotedly fond of children, and was like the still water that runs deep, in his warm sympathy and affection. He was a conscientious and hard worker; was subject to headaches, but usually enjoyed good health, and died at the ripe old age of eighty-six, having been fifty years on the bench of the District Court. Between him and my mother there was always a devoted attachment. My mother’s temperament was more cheerful and hopeful than his. From my father we children stood somewhat at a distance in our lighter talk and laughter. But our mother was full of fun, and we never stood in the least awe of her. We confided to her all our joys and sorrows. She must have been quite pretty when young, and I think my father might have been considered handsome.

  My mother was very industrious and regular, and a good housekeeper. Both our parents were early risers. My father, from my earliest recollection, held family prayers, reading from the Episcopal Prayer-Book, although he was a Unitarian, while we all kneeled. We were all expected to attend church regularly. A trace of Puritanic tradition may have been seen here and there. Sunday was strictly kept, and there never was any card-playing. Whist was a game I learned some time after I began preaching, and played it on Saturday nights. The only games we knew in the house were chess, backgammon, and checkers. My father was fond of chess, but despised backgammon as a game of chance; while my uncle James Greenleaf, who spent almost all his evenings with us, was devoted to this rattling game. I don’t think my mother ever played at any game. She was usually too busy sewing or darning stockings, or attending to the various duties of housekeeping.

  In Mr. Cranch’s memoir of his father, written for the New England Historic-Genealogical Society, he says:—

  It is fitting that I should trace something of the honorable genealogy of the subject of this memoir. The blood and the principles of Puritan ancestors were in him by pure descent. On the paternal side they were all Englishmen. His great-great-grandfather, Richard Cranch, the first of his name of whom anything is known, was said to have been a rigid and uncompromising Puritan. His great-grandfather, Andrew Cranch, carried on the business of serge-making, largely, in the town of Kingsbridge, Devonshire, where were born his son John, and John’s son Richard, the father of William [Christopher’s father]. These ancestors were all men of worthy character. In religion they were dissenters.

  Of the Honorable Richard Cranch, my grandfather, a brief account must here be given. He was born in 1726, in Kingsbridge, Devonshire, came to America in 1746, at the age of twenty, and settled in the old towns of Braintree, Quincy, and Randolph. He was a watchmaker, and for some years pursued this business in Braintree. He was also postmaster of the town, held a seat for a number of years as representative in the General Court, and afterwards as senator of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was also for some years one of the judges of the Court of Common Pleas. Though self-educated, he was a scholar of wide attainments, and was especially learned in theology. He was the intimate friend of John Adams, and of the Reverend Doctor Mayhew, and the associate of several distinguished men of his time. He is frequently spoken of with affection and respect in John Adams’s Diary. In one place, Mr. Adams says: “Was there ever a wit who had much humanity and compassion, much tenderness of nature? . . . Mr. Cranch has wit and is tender and gentle.” In another place he speaks of Mr. Cranch’s “mathematical, metaphysical, mechanical, systematical head.” And again he mentions him as “the friend of my youth, as well as of my riper years, whose tender heart sympathizes with his fellow creatures in every affliction and distress.”

  He was an ardent patriot during the Revolution. In 1780 he received the honorary degree of A.M. from Harvard College. He was tall, grave, and dignified; and in his features is said to have home a remarkable resemblance to the portraits of John Locke, the philosopher.

  In 1762 Richard Cranch was married to Mary Smith, elder daughter of the Reverend William Smith, of Weymouth, Massachusetts, whose other daughter, Abigail, afterwards married John Adams.

  To Richard and Mary Cranch were born three children,—Elizabeth, who married the Reverend Jacob Norton; Lucy, who married her cousin, Mr. John Greenleaf; and William, their only son. Judge Richard Cranch and his wife lived chiefly in Quincy, and died there at advanced ages, within a day of each other, in October, 1811. This was in the old Cranch and Greenleaf homestead, a plain, large, frame house with an avenue of fine elms in front of it, kept up in the family for three generations as the old Greenleaf home.

  William Cranch was born in Weymouth, in 1769. His education seems to have been entirely at home under his mother’s tuition and superintendence, until he was put under the charge of his uncle, the Reverend John Shaw, of Haverhill, to be fitted by him for college. In 1784 he entered the Freshman class at Harvard. His friend and cousin, John Quincy Adams, was his classmate. A little letter from William at Harvard in his eighteenth year, to his father, bears witness to his studies: –


  I intended to have walked to Boston to-day, but having an invitation to dine at Mrs. Forbes’, I determined to postpone it. If you could spare me a little money and send it by my chum, who will bring you this, I should be exceedingly obliged. If it is not convenient, Sir, I beg you would not send it, for I am in no immediate want of it. I fear, Sir, you think my demands too frequent. If it were in my power to make them less so, I should certainly do it.

  There is an Exhibition appointed for some time in next month. There will be a Latin oration, by whom is not yet determined, a forensic, a conference upon Law, Physic, and Divinity, by J. Q. Adams, Moses Little, and Nathaniel Freeman, and an English oration by Bosenger Foster. A Syllogistic Disputation, a Greek oration, a Hebrew oration, and a Dialogue. The Corporation have met, but have not yet determined about the Commencement. If they do not grant our request, we shall petition to the Board of Overseers.

With every sentiment of duty and affection, believe me your

Obedient son,


  In the memoir of his father, just quoted Mr. Cranch, says:—

  The life of a judge, however eminent and however well appreciated and honored by the members of the legal profession, is not one which usually makes a glittering show to the public eye. How little is known, outside the courts and law-offices, of the learning, the intellectual grasp, the patience, the industry, the conscience, the courage, the clear, calm power of detecting principles amid the tedious detail of facts and precedents, and of thoroughly winnowing truth from error, which are required in this profession! Such acquirements and qualities make little noise in the world; but like the silent forces of nature, they are none the less effective and beneficent.

  The Honorable William Cranch, LL.D., Chief Judge of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, is a name well known among lawyers and jurists, through his Reports of the Supreme Court, and the cMes in his own court for forty years; and especially distinguished in the district, where, for over forty years of his life, he held his office, and resided, and where he died, full of years and honors. But apart from his legal and judiciary connections, he lived a comparatively retired life, uncheckered by any remarkable events. He was one of that noble fraternity of quiet thinkers and workers, of all times and professions, who are content to do their duty thoroughly and well, careless of the shining honors of fame; or else who fail to achieve those honors, because by temperament too unambitious to grasp them, or from love of their work, and conscientiousness in the discharge of it, too devoted to their daily tasks to weigh their labors against their deserts, to consecrate their days to some useful but unapplauded sphere of life.

  In 1787 William Cranch graduated with honors; and the same year commenced the study of law in Boston, with the Honorable Thomas Dawes, one of the judges of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. In 1790 he was admitted to practice law in the Court of Common Pleas, at the age of twenty-one. He began practice in Braintree, but afterwards removed to Haverhill, where he boarded in Mr. Shaw’s family, and attended the courts in Essex County, and at Exeter, Portsmouth, and other places in New Hampshire. In 1798 he was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court.

  His prospects now encouraged him to make preparation for domestic life in Washington; and on April 6, 1795, he was married in Boston to Miss Ann (Nancy) Greenleaf, the youngest daughter, in a large family, of William Greenleaf, Esq., merchant of Boston, who had been, during the Revolutionary War, high sheriff of Suffolk County, including Boston. She was the sister of Mr. James Greenleaf, also of Mrs. Judge Dawes and of Mrs. Noah Webster. Returning early in the summer to Washington with my mother, he commenced housekeeping under happy auspices, and worked diligently. . . .

  Two years later he received a proposal from Mr. Noah Webster, that they should together undertake a daily paper in Boston, . . . and that my father should be the editor. In this proposal he held out inducements that seemed promising. The temptation to return to Boston and the vicinity of his family and friends was, for a little while, very strong; but on mature consideration, and with advice of competent persons, he concluded to abandon the idea, and determined to remain in Washington and pursue the practice of law. His father, with whom he corresponded on all matters of moment, concurred in his determination, though it would have been an inexpressible pleasure and comfort to have his son, to whom he was so tenderly attached, near him again in his declining years. . . .

  Notwithstanding many temporary discouragements he steadily applied himself to his business, and soon had the satisfaction of gaining two cases in Annapolis. The same year he was appointed, by President Adams, one of the commissioners of public buildings, upon the recommendation of the largest part of the proprietors of the city, with a salary of sixteen hundred dollars. “But how long the office will continue,” he writes, “is uncertain.” He adds:

  “The only subject of regret which the circumstance suggests is, that it will call forth the calumnies of malevolence upon the President. But it will be remembered that President Washington appointed Mrs. Washington’s son-in-law, Dr. Stuart, to the same office,—so that a precedent is not wanting.”

  In 1801 Mr. William Cranch was appointed by the President, John Adams, Assistant Judge of the newly constituted Circuit Court of the District of Columbia; William Kilty being Chief Judge, and James Marshall {brother of the celebrated Chief Justice Marshall of the Supreme Court) the other Assistant Judge. In 1805, very much to his surprise,—for he was a warm Federalist in his politics,—Judge Cranch was appointed by Mr. Jefferson to the office of Chief Judge of the Circuit Court, at a salary of twenty-five hundred dollars. His labors in the office were, through the whole of his long judicial life, exceedingly arduous. On August 15, 1806, he apologizes for not having written to his father, by stating that he had just finished a session of five weeks at Alexandria, and that since the fourth Monday of November last he had been twenty-nine weeks in court.

  In 1829 the degree of L.L.D. was conferred upon him by Harvard College,—a long-deserved and too-long-deferred honor. He was admitted an honorary member of the New England Historic-Genealogical Society, March 15, 1847. In 1852 he published in six volumes his “Reports, Civil and Criminal, in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia,” covering forty years-from 1801 to 1841. His son says:—

  Nature seems to have intended William Cranch for a judge. . . . His patience and perseverance were only matched by his love of clearness and order. He would take pleasure in unraveling a snarl of string and untying hard knots. He had a mechanical turn, and liked to take his old family clock to pieces, to be oiled and cleaned, and put together again. While in college he devoted a good deal of time to mathematical problems, and even went so far as to calculate an eclipse. These qualities, combined with his sensitive musical ear, would sometimes lead him to spend, on a day of leisure, a morning in tuning his piano or parlor organ, in a very thorough and methodical way.

  These characteristic traits, in union with the higher ones of thoroughness and exactness of knowledge, of conscientious and discriminating judgment in difficult cases, of singular ability to see the main facts and authority, and to detect always the principle and spirit of the law, made him, by nature and by long training, a judge whose decisions have always held a deserved reputation for soundness. The best proof of this is, that during more than fifty years of service on the bench, it is well known that not one of his decisions was reversed by the Supreme Court.

  He was a hard and steady worker. He rose early, often being up before sunrise in the winter; and when not on the bench, he was usually engaged at work in his office, frequently until near midnight. . . . He liked to read the best English classics. Shakespeare and Milton were especial favorites with him. He seldom read a novel. But he had a keen relish for poetry, old and new. His enthusiastic love of the beautiful in nature and in art, was a marked trait. He delighted in pictures, in sculpture, in flowers, and fine sunsets. But his chief recreation was music. He played on the organ and the flute. The latter instrument he abandoned in his old age, and devoted himself to his parlor organ, on which he played chiefly sacred music, and in which he took the deepest delight.

  His temperament was tranquil, grave, and serious. He would often smile, but seldom laughed aloud. He seldom joked, but he relished a good joke from others. His demeanor was courteous and dignified. He was a gentleman of the old school. Be never hesitated to carry home his own loaded basket from the market; and sometimes he would assist some poor old woman on the road in carrying hers. Be liked to split his own wood and make his own fire; and in sight of all his neighbors would mend his own pump, or his gate, or his garden fence. His heart was as tender as a woman’s. His domestic affections were deep. Nothing could exceed his love as an affectionate husband and father. The natural kindness of his disposition extended itself to his friends, neighbors, relatives, and even strangers, and would often take the form of an utterly unprecedented hospitality, even when his domestic circumstances obliged the greatest domestic economy. . . . This almost feminine sympathy never interfered with the just decisions to which his duties so often called him. His sense of justice was strong, and though tempered by clemency, never wavered from its upright attitude.

  His character was genuinely and deeply religious. He inherited this trait from his ancestors, and it was cultivated and strengthened through his life. He seldom taught by precept, but always by example, that:—

“Our days should be
Bound each to each by natural piety.”

  My brother Edward writes: “I knew more than any other of the children, of father’s official life and labors, because I studied law for three years in his chambers at the City Hall at Washington. . . . I don’t believe he ever spent an idle hour in his life. His life was uniform. He never dropped out of line to go in search of events. His great idea was duty. His recreations were music, chess, study, contemplation. He prayed much when alone. He repeated old poems to himself in his walks. But for ten hours every day for sixty years he was in public and working for the public. He was working for the right, and antagonizing the wrong; and he kept the waters pure about him.”

  His conscientious conception of the legitimate functions of a judge led him to reject all offers of fees for any extraneous or supererogatory work, where he would have been justified in accepting them. The consequence was that he was besieged at all hours, even out of his office, by people of all sorts who came to have deeds or other law documents acknowledged gratis by him, rather than by a lawyer, who would charge them a fee. And I believe he never, at any hour of the day, refused a single one of these people.

  Judge Cranch, though not an abolitionist, was no apologist for slavery. It was an institution abhorrent to his nature. But so long as it was sanctioned by constitution and law, he was bound not to interfere with the existing order of things. Whenever he could befriend a slave without violating the laws, he was ever ready to do so. He saw that a storm was approaching, but fortunately for his peace of mind, he was not fated to see how, a few years later, it burst upon the country in the horrors of civil war.

In the old Congressional graveyard in Washington are buried Judge Cranch and his wife. These are the inscriptions on the plain stones:—

Chief Judge of District of Columbia.
Born July 17, 1769, died Sept. 1, 1855.

An able, learned, diligent and upright magistrate: Mild,
dignified and firm. A tender husband and Father. A faithful
friend. A benefactor of the poor, and a sincere Christian.

“Blessed are the pure in heart
For they shall see God.”

daughter of William Greenleaf, Esq., late of Boston
and wife of William Cranch, Chf. J., D. C.
Born June 5, 1772, died full of the hope of glory,
Sept. 16, 1849.
“Valde Deflenda.”

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