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About Emory Washburn
Emory Washburn (February 14, 1800 – March 18, 1877) was a United States lawyer, politician, and historian. He was Governor of Massachusetts for one term (from 1854 to 1855), and served for many years on the faculty of Harvard Law School. He wrote a number of history books that are still considered reliable today.
Emory Washburn was born on February 14, 1800 in Leicester, Massachusetts to Joseph and Ruth (Davis) Washburn, both of whom came from families with deep roots in New England. He was the sixth of seven children. His father died when he was seven years old, and the local pastor, Zephaniah Swift Moore, became a major influence in his early years. He first attended Leicester Academy, and then entered Dartmouth College, where Moore taught languages, at the age of thirteen. He accompanied Moore when the latter moved to Williams College in 1815, graduating two years later in a class of seven; he was influential in establishing an alumni association at Williams, serving as its first president.
Our judgements [are] like our watches: none go just alike but each believes his own.
— Washburn notation made while a law student
Washburn then embarked on the study of law, first with Charles Dewey, a Williamstown judge and lawyer, and then at Harvard Law School under Asahel Stearns. Although he did not graduate from Harvard, he was admitted to the bar and opened a practice in Charlemont, Massachusetts. After six months there he returned to his hometown of Leicester, where he practiced until 1828. In that year he moved to Worcester, where he would live and practice for the next thirty years. In 1830 he married Marianne Cornelia Giles, with whom he had three sons and one daughter.
Washburn was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1826, serving two terms; his only notable activity was in committee work preparing a feasibility study for a railroad from Boston to the Connecticut River. He would serve in that body again in 1838 and in 1877. From 1830 to 1834 he served on the staff of Governor Levi Lincoln, Jr., in 1841 he was elected to the State Senate, where he served two years. In the second of those years he was chairman of the judiciary committee. In 1844 he was appointed a justice of the court of common pleas, a post he held until 1847. During these years he also established and maintained what was described by one of his peers, George Frisbie Hoar, as one of the largest and most successful law practices in Worcester County, partnering with John Davis among others.
In 1853 Washburn traveled to England to research English constitutional law. While he was away, the Whig Party nominated him as its gubernatorial candidate. In the election he defeated Henry W. Bishop (Democrat) and Henry Wilson (Free Soil) with 46% of the vote. Since a majority of votes was at the time required to win, he became the last governor elected by the state senate in this fashion; he would also be the last Whig governor. During his one year in office, he successfully promoted and enacted significant pieces of legislation on a broad social welfare agenda.
In the 1854 election he fell victim to the Know Nothing wave in Massachusetts and was soundly trounced by the Know Nothing candidate, former Websterite Whig Henry J. Gardner, receiving only 21% of the vote.
The following year he was offered a position as a lecturer at Harvard Law School, which became a full professorship in 1856. There he remained until 1876, serving as one of three dominant figures (along with Theophilus Parsons and Joel Parker) during that time. Charles Warren wrote of the three, "Parker was the great lawyer; Parsons the great teacher; and Washburn, the great man." The three men established a collegial and open learning environment at the law school. Washburn produced a significant number of legal treatises and books during his Harvard tenure; a work on property law formed the basis for Harvard's courses on later texts for the next century. His interests in history and the law were comingled in these years, with a number of his treatises covering aspects of both subjects.
Washburn resigned from Harvard in 1876, and opened a law practice in Cambridge. He was encouraged to run for United States Congress, but refused. He was instead convinced to stand once again for the Massachusetts House, to which he was elected. He died in office on March 18, 1877 in Cambridge, and was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Washburn had a long and abiding interest in local and state history. In 1826 he published a short history of Leicester in a Worcester magazine. This work formed the basis for his Historical Sketches of the Town of Leicester, Massachusetts, published in 1860. He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1827, beginning a lifelong association with that organization. He later became a contributing member to the New England Historical and Genealogical Society and was a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1840 he published Sketches of the Judicial History of Massachusetts, which provides a basic history of the colonial Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature and its justices, and is still considered a reliable source today. Washburn considered himself to be more of an antiquarian than a historian: he believed it important to conserve artifacts and historical information, leaving the interpretation of those to others. He wrote of the importance, for example, of the need for the state to preserve its own historical documents (something not given much attention in its early years).