John Worth Edmonds’ Eminent Career

face of a prisoner

John Worth Edmonds, who led the founding of the Prison Association of New York, moved among the elite in early nineteenth-century New York. Edmonds attended private schools and prepared for college at the Hudson Academy in Columbia County, New York. After graduating from New York’s Union College in 1816, Edmonds studied law with George Monell, Joseph D. Monell, and Abraham A. Van Buren. George Monell, who resided in Cooperstown, became Chief Justice of Michigan. Joseph Monell, who lived in Hudson (the county seat of Columbia County), was prominent in legal and political affairs. At least the latter, and probably also the former, were sons of Dr. George Monell, a prominent physician who lived in Hudson. George Monell was one of the organizers of the Union Pacific Railroad.^ Abraham Van Buren was Martin Van Buren’s brother. Martin Van Buren grew up in Kinderhook in Columbia County. Martin Van Buren became President of the United States in 1837.

From the fall of 1819 to May, 1820, Edmonds worked as a law clerk for Martin Van Buren in Albany. He lived with Van Buren’s family and became Van Buren’s life-long friend. Edmonds was admitted to the Columbia County Bar in 1820. He then began practicing law in Hudson.

Edmonds participated in a variety of activities over many years in his native place. In 1818, Edmonds became a lieutenant in the 47’th infantry regiment for Columbia County. Edmonds rose to captain by 1821.^ He retired from service in the infantry regiment at the rank of colonial about 1828.^ Edmonds practiced law in Hudson from 1820 through at least 1824. Edmonds was also active in the Democratic Party. In 1824, leading Democratic Party members chose him to be editor of the Hudson Gazette.^ Edmonds served as a vestryman for the Christ Church Parish in Hudson from 1821 to 1824^, commissioner for the construction of a courthouse in Hudson in 1835^, and as the first Chief Engineer for the volunteer Hudson Fire Department until 1837.

Edmonds held important political offices. In 1827, New York Governor De Witt Clinton appointed Edmonds to the office of Recorder of the city of Hudson.^ In 1830, Edmonds was elected as a Democrat to the New York State Assembly. In 1831, he was elected by a large margin to the New York State Senate. He achieved prominence in the Senate. In the Senate, he served on the joint committee on South Carolina’s claim to tariff nullification, as chairman of the Committee on Canals, as chairman of the Bank Committee, on the Court for the Corrections of Errors, and as Senate President. Edmonds was also a leading member of the Albany Regency, an influential political network that Martin Van Buren developed. Edmonds resigned from the New York Senate in 1836 reportedly for health reasons.

Immediately after resigning from the Senate, Edmonds accepted U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s appointment to serve as a United States Commissioner for a peace treaty between the U.S. and the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. The summer of 1836 Edmonds spent camping among native Americans. He learned several of their languages. As a United States Commissioner, Edmonds also investigated a disturbance involving the Potawatamie people in Indiana. He took testimony concerning the claims of their creditors and issued a resolution of these claims.

After working in the West on Indian affairs, Edmonds became a successful New York corporate lawyer. In the autumn of 1837, Edmonds moved to New York City and established a law practice there. A biography of Edmonds written in 1851 observed, “He almost immediately found himself in an extensive and profitable business, among the merchant princes of the commercial emporium.”^ In 1838 and 1839, Samuel J. Tilden, another native of Columbia County, served as a law clerk to John Edmonds in New York City. Tilden became a highly successful corporate lawyer, Governor of New York State in 1874, and was nearly elected U.S. President in 1876. Edmonds helped to tutor Tilden in law and spent much time discussing politics with him. Edmonds and Tilden subsequently helped each other develop their careers.^

Edmonds was both industrious and passionate. In his first session as a New York legislator in 1830, Edmonds wrote reports that impressed observers calculated could fill “a printed volume of 600 octavo pages.” Like many bureaucrats, Edmonds was also intensely passionate. In 1831, one of Edmonds political opponents described Edmonds as being in his youth a “violent and determined politician.” Edmonds’ political opponent then tendentiously observed:

But from his present course, it would be supposed that he has tempered his strong feelings, and as the hey-dey of his youth passes away, his judgment will, no doubt, prevail entirely over his feelings. If this should be the case, and he does not lose his praiseworthy industry, he must hereafter stand high among our distinguished men.^

Edmonds remained both industrious and willing to engage in fierce arguments. About the beginning of 1833, Edmonds supported a report denouncing the doctrines of nullification and succession. An observer noted:

This report, when it came up for consideration, was very vehemently assailed by five or six of the strongest men in the senate, and was defended by Mr. E. {Edmonds} alone. The contest lasted nearly a week, resulted in the triumphant adoption of the report, and placed New-York on the high ground, on the side of the Union and its integrity.^

Edmonds, with Samuel Tilden, Martin Van Buren and others, formed about 1842 a staunchly anti-slavery faction that split the Democratic Party. They were called “barnburners” in reference to a farmer who would burn down his barn to get rid of rats inside. As a politician and a lawyer, Edmonds demonstrated that he had the ability and desire to study a subject, develop an informed position, and win support for it.

Edmonds also achieved prominence as a judge. On February 18, 1845, Edmonds was appointed circuit judge for the First Circuit of New York. In June 1847, he was elected to Justice of the New York Supreme Court. The judicial reforms that the Constitutional Convention of 1846 enacted increased the workload of Supreme Court Justices.^ Edmonds’ distinguished himself in this difficult job:

it is remarked by all, that he transacts a greater amount of business, in a given time, than any jurist who has ever been upon the bench in the city of New-York.^

Edmonds was elevated to the Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest court, in 1852. Throughout his judicial career, Edmonds continued to serve in addition as an officer of the Prison Association of New York. By 1853, Edmonds’ private character and judicial repudiation were beyond impeachment, and his “ability, integrity, and judgment were beyond dispute.”^

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