Gov James Sullivan, Sr.

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Gov James Sullivan, Sr.

Birthdate: (64)
Birthplace: Berwick, York, Maine, United States
Death: December 10, 1808 (64)
Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
Place of Burial: Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of John Owen Sullivan and Margery Browne
Husband of Martha Sullivan; Mehitable "Hetty" Sullivan (Odiorne) and Martha Sullivan
Father of James Sullivan, Jr.; Mehitable Cutler / Amory; The Hon. William Bont Sullivan; John Langdon Sullivan; Richard Sullivan and 3 others
Brother of Benjamin Sullivan; Daniel Sullivan; Mary Hardy; Maj. General John Sullivan (Continental Army) and Moses Ebenezr "Eben" Sullivan

Occupation: an eminent lawyer and member of the Continental Congress and gov. of Mass
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Gov James Sullivan, Sr.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

James Sullivan (April 22, 1744 – December 10, 1808) was a lawyer and politician in Massachusetts. He was an early associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, served as the state's attorney general for many years, and as governor of the state from 1807 until his death.

Life James Sullivan was born on April 22, 1744, the fourth son of John Sullivan and Margery Brown Sullivan, in Berwick, in a part of the Province of Massachusetts Bay that is now the state of Maine.[1] Sullivan's father was from County Limerick, and his mother was a child on board the ship he came over on whom he later wooed and wed.[2] The elder Sullivan was a schoolteacher and farmer in Berwick.[3] Sullivan was educated at home, and any prospects for military service were dashed when his foot was crushed in a childhood accident.[4] He was also afflicted with epilepsy while relatively young, and suffered generally mild seizures (but sometimes lasting several hours) for the rest of his life.[5] While convalescing from his foot injury he read a great deal, learning Latin and the classics. His elder brother John, who was studying law, was instructed to supply his brother with law books and training.[5] Sullivan studied law in his brother's law practice in Durham, New Hampshire, and was eventually admitted to the bar in Massachusetts. He established a practice first in Georgetown, then shortly afterward in Biddeford, where he was the town's first resident lawyer.[6] In 1768 he married Hetty Odiorne, the daughter of a successful Portsmouth, New Hampshire merchant.[7]

Sullivan's law practice flourished, and by the time he was 30, he was one of York County's leading citizens.[8] He supplemented his legal work by acting as an agent for Boston-based merchant interests, including John Hancock, one of Boston's wealthiest men.[9] For his services as a lawyer defending land claims, in 1773 Sullivan was offered a portion within the tract. He accepted, and the property was organized as Limerick Plantation, named after the birthplace of his father. In 1775 he helped settle the town (personally assisting in the clearing of land), which on March 6, 1787 would be incorporated as the town of Limerick.[10] According to John Adams, Sullivan used his financial rewards to invest in local real estate, including farmlands and mills.[11]

Revolution Sullivan was an early and outspoken opponent of British colonial policies leading to the revolution. He was elected to the provincial assembly in 1774.[12] When it first met in June Sullivan was a leading proponent in calling for a Continental Congress.[13] When Governor Thomas Gage indefinitely delayed the next meeting of the assembly the following October, its members promptly met anyway, establishing the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.[14] This body exercised de facto control over Massachusetts during the early years of the American Revolutionary War.[15] In addition to sitting in the provincial congress, Sullivan was a leading organizer of colonial defenses in York County, sitting on its committee of correspondence and other bodies.[16] He was sent in 1775 as part of a commission to inspect the troops and facilities at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York, which was nominally under the control of Benedict Arnold, who had been issued a Massachusetts colonel's commission and succeeded in capturing it with the assistance of Ethan Allen.[17] The arduous journey made Sullivan ill for several months afterward.[18]

John Hancock In late 1775 Sullivan was a member of the committee that drafted legislation establishing the Massachusetts State Navy. Under its terms, three positions were established for admiralty judges; Sullivan was appointed to be the admiralty judge for the eastern district (i.e. Maine).[19] He resigned this post when in March 1776 he was offered a seat on the Superior Court of Judicature (as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was then known).[20]

Judicial service and postwar activities Sullivan served on the court until 1782, when he resigned because his salary was insufficient to meet his expenses, and he could no longer afford to cover the difference. He opened a law office in Boston, and moved into a house in Menotomy (now Arlington, then still part of Cambridge). Although he was elected to represent Massachusetts at the Congress of the Confederation from 1782 to 1783 he did not attend. He was also politically active, supporting John Hancock and then Samuel Adams for governor. He was a prolific writer, contributing frequently to the political discourse that took place in Massachusetts' many newspapers under a variety of pseudonyms.

When Shays' Rebellion engulfed Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787, Sullivan took part in the militia actions that helped quash the uprising, joining the posse that arrested Job Shattuck in Groton.[21] His legal activity that followed, however, was in the defense of the rebels, earning him criticism from stalwart pro-government members of the Massachusetts Bar.[22]

When Massachusetts debated ratification of the United States Constitution in 1788, Sullivan was one of a number of Massachusetts politicians who expressed reservations about the document, but generally supported ratification.[23] In the debate he proposed that the convention conditionally adopt the Constitution, subject to the Congress considering and acting on a suite of amendments. The seven amendments Sullivan proposed were primarily designed to increase state powers at the expense of Congress and the federal courts (for example, one would have allowed state supreme courts to issues writs of habeus corpus for persons charged with federal crimes).[24]

Attorney General John Hancock rewarded Sullivan for his support in 1790 with an appointment as the state's attorney general, a post he held until 1807. Although he was initially Federalist in his politics, his discontent with the elitist tendencies of Massachusetts Federalists led him to associate more with the Democratic-Republicans in the 1790s. However, his views were relatively moderate, so he retained the post of state attorney general despite the dominance of the Federalists in the state.[23]

Much of Sullivan's legal work after independence was framed by Republican ideals. His Republicanism was expressed in wide-ranging support for individual rights, including those of women, children, and minorities, and manifested in letters to contemporaries including John Adams, cases he argued as a lawyer, and decisions he made as a judge. Among the cases he heard as a judge were early rounds of the Quock Walker cases, which confirmed slavery was incompatible with the state constitution.[25] As attorney general he defended the state in a Loyalist recovery action involving the rights of married women (who at the time had few rights under the common law doctrine of coverture), arguing that Loyalist William Martin's wife had in her own right abandoned the property in question.[26]

Sullivan supported harsh laws confiscating the property of Loyalists who fled the country or fought with the British, although he later took on as clients personal friends who were Loyalists seeking to recover their property. In his native Maine he had a mixed record, representing the state against large-scale land proprietors, but also taking work from the latter (who included some of the most powerful politicians in the state).[27][28] His interest in the tangled difficulties surrounding land titles in Maine prompted him to write a seminal work on the subject in 1801, The History of Land Titles in Massachusetts.[29]

The two cases with the highest profile that Sullivan prosecuted while attorney general were both criminal cases. In 1801 he prosecuted the Dedham murderer Jason Fairbanks, who had Federalist Harrison Gray Otis as his defense council. Fairbanks was convicted of murdering a local woman, escaped after his conviction, but was captured near the Canadian border and eventually hanged. Sullivan and Otis faced off again in 1807 in the sensational trial of Thomas Selfridge, accused of murdering Charles Austin. Selfridge, an older Federalist attorney, had been retained to assist in the collection of a debt from Austin's Republican father. In the politically charged atmosphere, Selfridge, fearing for his own safety, had armed himself with a dueling pistol. The younger Austin had, apparently on his own initiative, sought to beat the older man with a cane, and Selfridge fatally shot him in the encounter. Selfridge was defended by a cadre of Federalist lawyers including Otis and Christopher Gore, and was acquitted of murder by a jury whose foreman was Patriot and known Federalist Paul Revere.[30]

Sullivan continued to take private legal work even while he served as attorney general. In a career spanning more than forty years, his law practice was among the largest and most successful in the state.[31] He was an acknowledged expert on admiralty law,[32] and is described by legal historian Charles Warren as one of the most important legal figures of the time in Massachusetts.[33]

Governor Republicanism eventually began gaining ground in Massachusetts, and Sullivan was nominated in 1805 and 1806 as the Republican nominee for governor,[23] losing both times to the popular incumbent Governor Caleb Strong. In 1806 the Republicans gained control of the Massachusetts legislature, which managed to very nearly deny Strong a narrow victory. In that year's gubernatorial race Strong only barely received a majority of the votes, which was then required for victory (rather than modern practice, where only a plurality is required when there are multiple candidates). The legislature scrutinized the election results in a partisan manner, seeking to deny Strong an outright victory, leaving the choice of governor to the legislature. The partisan nature of the legislature's efforts was exposed by Federalist supporters, causing a public outcry. Strong was eventually proclaimed the winner.[34] In 1807 Sullivan again faced Strong, but was this time decisively victorious, carrying the eastern counties (present-day Maine) by a wide margin amid a series of Republican victories throughout New England.

Caleb Strong Although Sullivan sought in some ways to be a moderate voice in the highly partisan disagreements between Federalists and Republicans, he supported the policy of President Thomas Jefferson in embargoing trade with Great Britain and France, who were then embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars. The Embargo Act of 1807 had a significant negative impact on shipping interests based in Massachusetts ports, and Federalists sought to use this, and the threats of war emanating from the Jefferson administration, to unseat Sullivan in 1808. Federalist Senator Timothy Pickering wrote an open letter raising the specter of war and charging Jefferson with failing to publish critical documents in ongoing negotiations. He then asked Sullivan to formally send it to the state legislature, with the view that this would imply Sullivan's agreement with its content. Sullivan refused, after which Federalists used that fact to charge that Republicans generally were withholding damaging information. Sullivan's defense included letters by Senator John Quincy Adams countering the Federalist charges. While this was sufficient to ensure Sullivan's reelection in 1808, control of the legislature was returned to the Federalists.[35] Republicans were unhappy with Sullivan's handling of the political attacks, and for his refusal to remove Federalists from patronage positions in the government.[36]

The Federalist legislature immediately launched attacks on Sullivan and the Republicans, which Sullivan was not immediately able to respond to. In the spring of 1808, before the May opening of the legislature, Sullivan's health began to decline (epilepsy and an "organic disease of the heart"), so he was unable to seize the initiative. When he finally made his speech to the assembly, he failed to respond to the political aspects of the dispute, and called for national unity in dealing with outside interests. His warnings to Jefferson on the nature of the contentious disputes going on in the state were attributed by Jefferson to his declining mental state.[37] Cognizant of Sullivan's precarious health, the Federalists sought a delay in electing a slate of electors for the Electoral College in the 1808 presidential election. Sullivan, who would have vetoed a slate of Federalist electors (as they were then chosen by the legislature and not by popular vote, the Federalist legislative majority would have assured this), he acquiesced in the hopes that elective actions in other states would moot the decision made in Massachusetts.[38] Sullivan also came under criticism by political partisans on both sides for issuing large numbers of exemptions to the embargo, ostensibly to avoid civil strife in the event of a grain shortage.[39]

When the legislature met in November, it rejected Sullivan's proposal that popular elections determine the state's electoral slate, and instead chose a Federalist slate supporting Charles Cotesworth Pinckney for president in a vote boycotted by many Republicans. Based on widespread opinion that the Federalists were likely to lose the presidential election, Sullivan, his health failing, forwarded the electoral votes on to Congress.[40] He died in office on December 10, 1808, aged 64,[41] and was interred in Boston's Granary Burying Ground in a tomb shared by colonial governor Richard Bellingham.[42]

Legacy Sullivan was a founding member and the first president of the Massachusetts Historical Society.[43] He was also a major moving force and leading director of the company that oversaw the Middlesex Canal (construction of which began in 1793). The canal connected the Merrimack River at present-day Lowell (then still East Chelmsford) to the port of Boston, ending roughly at Sullivan Square, which is named in his honor.[44]

Sullivan's enduring interest in Maine led him to write The History of the District of Maine (published in 1795), the first work to document that history.[45] Maine historian Charles Clark writes that Sullivan's History, while neither thoroughly researched nor particularly well written, is an "un-self-conscious expression of romantic nationalism" that is "picturesque, romantic, [and] inspired".[9] Sullivan also predicted that Maine would eventually separate from Massachusetts, because "it is so large and populous, and its situation so peculiar, that it cannot remain long" a part of the other state.[46]

Works Sullivan, James (1795). The History of the District of Maine. Boston: I. Thomas and E. T. Andrews. OCLC 15730995. Sullivan, James (1801). The History of Land Titles in Massachusetts. Boston: I. Thomas and E. T. Andrews. OCLC 60728198. [edit] Notes^ Amory, p. 17 ^ Amory, pp. 8–11 ^ Amory, p. 12 ^ Amory, pp. 20–21 ^ a b Amory, p. 22 ^ Willis, p. 95 ^ Amory, pp. 28, 30 ^ Amory, p. 32 ^ a b Clark, p. 54 ^ Amory, p. 31 ^ Amory, pp. 33–34 ^ Amory, p. 38 ^ Amory, p. 39 ^ Amory, p. 40 ^ See Cushing, pp. 112ff, for the history of this period ^ Amory, p. 43 ^ Amory, pp. 50–51 ^ Amory, p. 55 ^ Amory, pp. 62–63 ^ Amory, p. 73 ^ Amory, p. 201 ^ Warren, p. 188 ^ a b c Buel, p. 39 ^ Maier, p. 193 ^ Kerber, pp. 22–23 ^ Kerber, pp. 25–28 ^ Kerber, p. 22 ^ Taylor, pp. 216–217 ^ Warren, p. 210 ^ Winsor, p. 592 ^ Warren, p. 254 ^ Warren, p. 256 ^ Warren, p. 261 ("Of all Massachusetts lawyers of the early 19th century, with the exception of James Sullivan, Dexter alone could be rated as the compeer of the Chief Justice [Theophilus Parsons]") ^ Hart, pp. 3:456–457 ^ Buel, pp. 39–44 ^ Buel, p. 44 ^ Buel, p. 46 ^ Buel, p. 48 ^ Buel, p. 53 ^ Buel, p. 57 ^ Buel, p. 58 ^ Historical Sketch and Matters Appertaining to the Granary Burial-Ground, p. 23 ^ Willis, p. 96 ^ Sammarco, p. 100 ^ Taylor, p. 286 ^ Clark, p. 73 [edit] ReferencesAmory, Thomas. Life of James Sullivan. Amory was Sullivan's grandson. Buel, Richard (2005). America on the Brink. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403962386. OCLC 55510543. Clark, Charles (1990) [1977]. Maine: A History. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. ISBN 9780874515206. OCLC 21336521. Cushing, Henry Alonzo (1896). History of the Transition From Provincial to Commonwealth Government in Massachusetts. New York: Columbia University Press. OCLC 12568979. Hart, Albert Bushnell (ed) (1927). Commonwealth History of Massachusetts. New York: The States History Company. OCLC 1543273. (five volume history of Massachusetts until the early 20th century) Kerber, Linda (1999) [1998]. No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 9780809073849. OCLC 42448626. Maier, Pauline (2011). Ratification: The People Debate The Constitution, 1787–1788. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9780684868554. OCLC 730998688. Sammarco, Anthony (1999). Medford. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 9780738538549. OCLC 62728934. Taylor, Alan (1990). Liberty Men and Great Proprietors. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-4282-9. OCLC 233271601. Warren, Charles (1999) [1908]. History of the Harvard Law School and of Early Legal Conditions in America, Volume 1. Union, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange Ltd. OCLC 313504372. Willis, William (2006) [1863]. A History of the Law, the Courts, and the Lawyers of Maine. Clark, NJ: Lawbook Exchange. ISBN 9781584776284. OCLC 61864508. Winsor, Justin (1880). The Memorial History of Boston. Boston: J.R. Osgood. OCLC 978152. Historical Sketch and Matters Appertaining to the Granary Burial-Ground. Boston: City of Boston. 1902. OCLC 43481214. [edit] External linksSULLIVAN, James at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress Official Massachusetts biography of Sullivan

James Sullivan (April 22, 1744, Berwick, Maine – December 10, 1808) was a U.S. political figure.

For his services as a lawyer defending land claims in York County, Maine, in 1773 Sullivan was offered a portion within the tract. He accepted, and the property was organized as Limerick Plantation, named after County Limerick, Ireland, the birthplace of his father. In 1775, he helped settle the town, which on March 6, 1787 would be incorporated as Limerick, Maine.

In 1776, Sullivan was a judge in Massachusetts. Although he was elected to represent Massachusetts at the Continental Congress from 1782 to 1783 he did not attend. From 1790 to 1807, he was the Republican attorney general of Massachusetts and in 1801 prosecuted the Dedham murderer Jason Fairbanks. He also served as the governor of Massachusetts between 1807 and 1808. He was the brother of John Sullivan.

He died in office on December 10, 1808, aged 64, and was interred in the Boston Common Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.


"James Sullivan was born in Berwick, Maine in 1744 and came to Biddeford in 1769. Around 1770, he built a two-room house at the corner of Main and Hill Streets and in 1774, his enlarged house became one of the best in the village. He was the first residential lawyer in the Saco River community and lived here until 1778. He was a representative to The First Provincial Congress and was appointed as King's Counsel for York county. He moved to Massachusetts where he served on the Massachusetts Supreme Court. He authored the first history of Maine, The History of the District of Maine in 1795. He was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1807 and re-elected in 1808." Historical Marker in Biddeford, ME.


Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts 1807-1808

James Sullivan was born in Berwick, Maine, which was then still part of Massachusetts. He trained and worked in his brother's law firm, gaining remarkable experience with the law as the King's Council for York County, Member of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts (1774-1775), member of the General Court (legislature) 1775-1776, and Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court 1776-1782. Sullivan was admitted to the bar in 1782, after already serving six years in the state's Supreme Court.

While serving as Attorney General of Massachusetts (1790-1807), he wrote a series of instructive books about finance, history, and legal issues. He also made five unsuccessful gubernatorial runs between 1787 and 1806. He was a founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society and one of the first members admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1793, Sullivan also organized a company to build the Middlesex Canal. It was for him that Sullivan Square, which was the canal's Charlestown terminus, was named.

Sullivan defeated incumbent Governor Caleb Strong and was reelected the next year after running against future Governor Christopher Gore. Sullivan's administration was marked by a disagreement with the legislature, which disregarded his advice that Federal electors should be popularly elected and they were, instead, selected by legislative vote. Governor Sullivan died in office in December, 1808 and was succeeded by his Lieutenant Governor, Levi Lincoln.

  • First Continental Congress
  • Superior Court Judge
  • Attorney General of Massachusetts
  • Governor of Massachusetts
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Gov James Sullivan, Sr.'s Timeline

April 22, 1744
Berwick, York, Maine, United States
January 6, 1769
Age 24
Biddeford, York, ME, United States
October 8, 1770
Age 26
Biddeford, York, ME, United States
July 29, 1772
Age 28
York, Saco,Maine
November 30, 1774
Age 30
Saco, York, ME, United States
April 9, 1777
Age 32
Saco, York, Maine, United States
June 17, 1779
Age 35
Groton, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States
February 22, 1783
Age 38
Boston, Suffolk, MA, United States
April 24, 1784
Age 40
Boston, Suffolk, MA, United States