There is always something good about being a first. For Freeborn Garrettson Jewett, in a long list of great lifetime accomplishments, possibly the most notable is that he was the first Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. And while this attribute is both correct and fitting, of interest is the simple fact that the appointment was the result more of chance than skill.
When the Court of Appeals was created at New York State’s Constitutional Convention of 1846, it was composed of eight judges, four elected at large: Greene C. Bronson, Charles H. Ruggles, Addison Gardiner, and Freeborn G. Jewett. The Court needed a Chief and thus resorted to a tried and true method-they drew lots.1 The judge with the shortest term would become Chief.
Freeborn Garrettson Jewett drew the shortest term of two years, and in so doing would forever be known as the first Chief of this new court. For the Court of Appeals, and for the State of New York, it was an important stroke of luck, because their first Chief established the standards of leadership and left a lasting imprint on an institution that has become one of the foremost common law tribunals in the nation and in the world.
While Freeborn Garrettson Jewett achieved notice in all aspects and at all ages of his productive life, there was one aspect over which he personally had no control—his given name. “Freeborn Garrettson” drew attention in its day, and continues to draw attention to this day. But, while the name Freeborn Garrettson may seem unusual in today’s New York, it was a familiar name to the people of the Hudson Valley and western Connecticut when Freeborn Garrettson Jewett was born in 1791 in Sharon, Connecticut. Although no record exists, it seems likely that he was so named to honor one of the earliest and most widely known Methodist preachers in America. From 1775-1784, Freeborn Garrettson, a man of eloquence and distinction, preached in his home state of Maryland and throughout Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. On one of his trips to Virginia and Carolina, he recorded that he traveled 120 miles in about six weeks, preaching constantly. In December 1784, he was chosen to carry the Methodist gospel to the Hudson River Valley, west to Utica, and thence to Canada and Nova Scotia. At an early stop in Rhinebeck on the Hudson, he met Catherine Livingston, daughter of the politically prominent and wealthy Robert Livingston. They eventually married and made their home near Rhinebeck.
Freeborn Garrettson was in many ways a man ahead of his time in opposing slavery, and he impulsively freed his slaves one day at morning devotions. His life as a Methodist preacher covered the first half-century of Methodism in America, from about 1775 until 1827, when he was buried at the rear wall of the church he loved at Rhinebeck.
Interestingly, Judge Freeborn Garrettson Jewett would use his platform as a lawyer and jurist, and like his namesake, would spread his influence throughout the Hudson and Mohawk River Valleys, becoming a similar inspiration to many. As a credit to this name, it has been handed down from father to son for five successive generations to this very day.
Freeborn Garrettson Jewett was born on August 4, 1791, in Sharon, Connecticut. He was the fifth of 10 children born to Abigail Sears Jewett (1762-1849). Freeborn’s father, Alpheus Jewett, born January 15, 1756, in Sharon, Connecticut, was a Revolutionary War veteran. He married Abigail Sears on February 15, 1781. Alpheus was the son of Captain Caleb Jewett, who was born in Norwich, Connecticut, on June 25, 1710.
Captain Caleb Jewett and his second wife, Mrs. Faith Brewster, were among the first settlers of Sharon, Connecticut, where he was Selectman for 12 years and a member of the Colonial Legislature for 11 sessions. Caleb’s other son, also named Caleb Jewett, was Captain of the Minutemen of Sharon and, after enlisting on April 1, 1782, was captured at the Battle of the Cedars. Captain Caleb Jewett Sr. died in Sharon on January 18, 1778. The epitaph on his grave stone reads: “Let not the dead forgotten lie, Lest we forget that we must die.”
Captain Caleb Jewett was the son of Eleazer Jewett, who was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and was baptized on November 23, 1673. Eleazer married into the Griswold family of Norwich, Connecticut, and died there 1748. Eleazer’s father was Jeremiah Jewett, who was born in Bradford, England, about 1637, and was brought to this country by his father, Joseph Jewett, in 1638. Jeremiah married Sarah Dickinson.
Joseph was born in Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, England, in 1609, and he and his first wife moved to the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1638. He came to America with his older brother, Maximilian, aboard the English ship John in the fall of 1638 and settled in Rowley, Massachusetts, in 1639. Made a freeman on May 22, 1639, Joseph Jewett became a large landowner and one of the leading men of the town, serving as a Representative to the General Court in 1651-1654 and as one of the two stewards for each of these sessions. Portions of his landholdings, some 3000 acres, were purchased by the town fathers to create the village of Boxford, Massachusetts. Joseph’s father was Edward Jewett also born in Bradford, England, about 1580. 2
Freeborn Garrettson Jewett received a “common school” education in his hometown of Sharon, Connecticut. Around 1810, at almost 20 years of age, Jewett began the long and arduous process of “reading law,” the first phase in the early days of the apprentice program. His first mentor was a Dutchess County attorney named Henry Swift, who apparently recognized the special talent of his young student and arranged that he continue his legal studies under a prominent counselor of Ballston, New York, named Colonel Samuel Young.
Freeborn Garrettson Jewett was admitted as an attorney in 1814. He married Fannie Warner, whom he had met during his legal training in Dutchess County. They moved to Skaneateles, New York, where James Porter, a prominent citizen of the thriving community, had offered him a partnership. Freeborn, now 24 years old, could not have found a better law partner. James Porter knew all the right people in town. In addition to being an attorney, he owned the first inn in the village and was the brother of the community’s respected medical doctor, Samuel Porter.
In 1816, Freeborn’s wife, Fannie, presented him with his first and only child, a son, whom they named William. This was to be the only generation to this very day in which the name “Freeborn” would not be used for a male child among Freeborn Garrettson Jewett’s descendants.
It was not long before young Freeborn Jewett began his spectacular rise on the social, political, legal, and financial ladder of success. In 1817, Jewett began his political career when he was elected Justice of the Peace of the Town of Marcellus, which then included Skaneateles. In 1822, Governor DeWitt Clinton appointed him an Examiner in Chancery, to which he was reappointed by Governors Joseph C. Yates and Enos T. Throop. Success in that office resulted in his being appointed Surrogate of Onondaga County in February of 1824 by Governor DeWitt Clinton. In 1825, he was elected to the New York State Assembly, leading his ticket in the county.
In the Federal election of 1828, with Andrew Jackson pitted against John Quincy Adams, Jewett was chosen as one of the electors. He cast his vote for the Democrat, the “hero of New Orleans” and the man Skaneateles historian Norman Leslie characterized as “the ever memorable and honorable Andrew Jackson.”3
Two years later, it was Jewett’s turn to go to Washington. He was elected to serve in the United States Congress. After two years in the capital, however, he declined renomination in 1832 and returned to Skaneateles to pursue his first love, the practice of law.4
The year 1833 was a memorable one in the village. On April 19, the State of New York recognized Skaneateles as an incorporated village. A month later, the first village election was held and Jewett became the first president (a title which later changed to Mayor) of the new political entity. In addition, he was appointed inspector of Auburn Prison in 1838 and 1839, and finally he became District Attorney for Onondaga County in 1839.5 But he was not to be allowed the luxury of leading a distinguished life in his adopted hometown of Skaneateles. Instead he was appointed a Justice of the New York Supreme Court in 1845, and shortly thereafter he reached the apex of his legal career.
In 1845, New York Herald Tribune editor, Horace Greeley, led a statewide crusade for court reform. The courts, he editorialized, were choked “with litigation which lingers from year to year and ruins clients by its enormous expensiveness without bringing their suits to a conclusion.”6 As a result of Greeley’s efforts and a widespread clamoring for change, the New York State Court of Appeals was born in 1846 at the State Constitution Convention. That year, the Court of Appeals was established as New York’s court of final appeal, the Court of Chancery was abolished, and the old Supreme Court became a court of general jurisdiction in law and equity. On September 7, 1847, and for almost four decades thereafter, the Court of Appeals held its sessions in the old Capitol, in the second floor courtroom once occupied by the Supreme Court.
Elected to the fledgling Court at the age of 56, Chief Judge Jewett brought with him considerable knowledge of the framing and enactment of legislation, as well as insight into the world of practical politics, and long judicial experience. While acting as Chief, Judge Jewett wrote opinions illustrating his talents as a well-grounded lawyer, a patient investigator, and a clear and discriminating writer. His decisions were often cited in other states. Excellent examples of his writing can be seen in French v. Carhart (1 NY 96 ), concerning a reservation in a deed, and Van Lueven v. Lyke (1 NY 515 ), holding that where a domestic animal is in the enclosed area of another animal and commits mischief there, the owner is liable.
Judge Jewett stepped down as Chief in 1849. He was reelected to the Court of Appeals in 1850 and served as an Associate Judge until 1853, when ill health caused his resignation from the bench.7
Following his retirement from the Court of Appeals, Jewett returned to Skaneateles to spend the rest of his days in semi-retirement. After a short rest, his health improved somewhat, and he turned to fulfilling another dream: He sought to construct an impressive mansion for himself and his wife. It was to be on a large lot right in the heart of downtown Skaneateles. The three-story brick residence on Genesee Street was finally completed in 1857. His occupancy, though, was very brief, as his health failed again later that year. He died on January 27, 1858, at the age of 68. The home, now a Masonic temple, is still a landmark and is one of the “beautiful buildings of Skaneateles.”8 The Judge was interned in Skaneateles in Lakeview Cemetery, where the Freeborn Jewett Memorial marks the graves of Freeborn, his wife Fannie, and their son William.
In a memorial, the Judges of the Court stated:
They are sensible of the great value of his judicial services to the People of this State. Deeply regretting his death, they remember the clearness of his intellect; the justness of his judgment; the purity and benevolence of his heart. They desire to preserve some public memorial of this event, which they deplore; and therefore order this entry to be made on the Records of the Court.9
There are number of significant memorials of Freeborn Garrettson Jewett left in upstate New York. In addition to the Jewett Mansion in Skaneateles and a Jewett Road, there is the Town of Jewett (Greene County), which was named after him. According to Elwood Hitchcock in A brief history of Windham-Ashland-Jewett-and Prattsville: “Jewett, although settled in the late 18th Century, was not made a town until 1849, when it was created out of the towns of Lexington and Hunter.”10
Freeborn Garrettson Jewett’s son, William Jewett, attended Yale and, like his father, became an attorney. He died at the age of 43. Of interest, William did not receive anything from his father Freeborn’s estate. Apparently, Judge Jewett thought it best to deny his son the easy life, and required him, as he did, to work his way up.
William had one son, who was, of course, named Freeborn Garrettson. Grandson Freeborn Garrettson moved to Albany, where he had obtained a good position as confidential secretary to the Secretary of State. He inherited a portrait of his grandfather, painted by Skaneateles artist John D. Barrow (1824-1906), which he presented to the Court in 1885. Today, this portrait hangs in the Richardson Courtroom at Court of Appeals Hall. His two children were named Freeborn and Edward. This Freeborn became a minister, and also had two children, Freeborn and Katherine. Reverend Freeborn died at the early age of 41, in 1910.
Freeborn Garrettson, the great-great grandson, was a resident of Lyme, Connecticut. He married Miss Beatrice Sniffen, a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Frank L. Sniffen of Brooklyn, New York. This Freeborn had three sons, one of whom is named Freeborn Garrettson, and he lives in McLean, Virginia. He is an attorney who, following a successful practice of law in the large-firm life of New York City, was appointed counsel at the Inter-American Bank in Washington, D.C. in 1960. Thus, the Jewett legal legacy continues to spread from the Hudson Valley throughout the Americas.
The latter part of this Freeborn’s career has been devoted to using his legal skills to promote environmental conservation and to save threatened wildlife throughout the world. His son, Freeborn, is a resident of New York City and is the father of two sons, one named Freeborn Garrettson who is currently a junior at Colorado University at Boulder, Colorado. This Freeborn known as “Little Garrett” (although he stands well over six feet) will have to add five “greats” when he proudly tells about a grandfather, the Judge Freeborn Garrettson Jewett, of whom, almost 175 years ago, it was written:
As a man, he was honorable; as a friend, reliable; as a counselor, judicious; and as a jurist, sound and discriminating. He obtained wisdom by research, and wealth by industry, and was thus an example to the young and worthy of their imitation.11
Finally, of note, this writer, the third son of Freeborn Garrettson of McLean, Virginia, like his father, became a lawyer. After completing his law training at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, named after one of the Court of Appeals most famous jurists, Edward Jewett was granted the opportunity to clerk for the Honorable Joseph W. Bellacosa. This brought a direct descendant of the first Chief Judge back into the New York State Court of Appeals family for the 1993-1994 term. Shortly thereafter, in 1996, Chief Judge Judith Kaye, upon the Court’s 150th Anniversary, saw fit to ask this writer to speak at the ceremonies, in which he stated:
The Court of Appeals operates as justice should, on the weight of reason. Each Judge, separated from political and financial interests, decides his or her vote on the persuasive weight of reason. This central idea of democracy, unfortunately lost in Washington and other parts of Albany, is alive and well on Eagle Street. My relative Freeborn G. Jewett played a role in forming this tradition in the beginning, Judge Cardozo, along with so many great minds, carried the tradition forward to the wonderful hands in which it is entrusted today. And I, for my part, walked the halls, studied the books, listened to arguments, and drafted language, some of which actually survived Judge Bellacosa’s edits. I was, for a moment, part of history, as I gave my energies in support of a most honorable Judge of the Court for the most distinguished common law tribunal in our country’s history.12
This biography appears in The Judges of the New York Court of Appeals: A Biographical History, ed. Hon. Albert M. Rosenblatt (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007). It has not been updated since publication.
Bergan, The New York Court of Appeals: 1847-1932.
History and Genealogy of the Jewetts of America, The Jewett Family of America, Inc. Rowley, Massachusetts, Volumes I-IV (1995).
http://archiver.rootsweb.com/GEN-NYS (general discussion of how Jewett, N.Y. got its name).
http://bioguide.congress.gov “EWETT, Freeborn Garrettson” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
Jewett, My Relative and I, “For Our Information: Newsletter of the Court of Appeals,” Vol, 2, No. 3, March 1997.
Lansen, Our Judicial Heritage: The First Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, “For Our Information: Newsletter of the Court of Appeals,” (November 1993).
Stinson, Historic Name Continues in Family Generations Later, Skaneateles Press-Observer, (March 19, 1986 at 5).
Published Writings Include:
Manual for Election of Officers and Voters in the State of New York. M. Bender 16th Edition (1908).
- Bergan, The New York Court of Appeals: 1847-1932.
- History and Genealogy of the Jewetts of America (A Record of Edward Jewett of Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, England, and of his two sons Deacon Maximilian and Joseph Jewett, settlers of Rowley, Mass in 1609) Volume I (Grafton Press, New York 1908).
- http://bioguide.congress.gov “JEWETT, Freeborn Garrettson” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress; see also, “Historic Name Continues in Family Generations Later” Press-Observer, March 19, 1986 (Skaneateles).
- See “Historic Name Continues in Family Generations Later,” Press-Observer, March 26 1986, at 5.
- http://bioguide.congress.gov “JEWETT, Freeborn Garrettson” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- Bergan, The New York Court of Appeals: 1847-1932.
- 4 N.Y. 1, at 2, (notation stating that Judge Jewett resigned in June 1853 from the Court of Appeals).
- See, “Historic Name Continues in Family Generations Later,” Press-Observer, March 26 1986, at 5.
- There Shall be a Court of Appeals, 150th Anniversary of the Court of Appeals of the State of New York, (1997), p. 38.
- http://archiver.rootsweb.com/GEN-NYS (general discussion of how Jewett, N.Y. got its name).
- Stinson, “Historic Name Continues in Family Generations Later,” Skaneateles Press-Observer, (March 19, 1986 at 5).
- Speech given at the Celebration of 150 Years of the Court of Appeals, written by Edward Lewis Jewett and reported in part in “For Our Information: Newsletter of the Court of Appeals,” Vol. 2, No. 3, March 1997.