The Judge’s name is sometimes spelled Foote, as in his Union College records, and other times Foot, as in 5 N.Y. (1851), where his decisions appear. Whatever the spelling, Judge Foot (which we shall call him, in light of his obvious preference) gives us a lasting legacy, both from his lineage and from his accomplishments.1 He was a sixth generation descendant of Nathaniel Foote (1592-1644), one of the first European settlers of Connecticut, whose genealogical record includes the following:
NATHANIEL FOOTE, one of the first settlers of Wethersfield, Connecticut, belongs, not to that class of men who fill a large place in the world’s history, because called by some great emergency into positions of power and influence,–but to that more meritorious class of pious and excellent persons, who, born to the great inheritance of labor, walk meekly along the paths of common life, perform every duty, public or private, love and help their fellow men, and act always as if in their Great Task Master’s eye. It is to such men that society owes at once, its peace, stability and progress,–and yet history takes no note of such, and hence ‘The world knows nothing of its greatest men.’
We are privileged to recognize him here, as the ancestor of Judge Samuel Alfred Foot-of whom the world knows a good deal, and will now know even more.
In his 88 years, Judge Foot graduated from college, became District Attorney before he was 30, practiced law with Chancellor James Kent‘s son, was awarded two honorary degrees, served as a Judge of the Court of Appeals, a State Assemblyman, a Presidential advisor, and throughout it all, fathered 15 children, three of whom died in military service. When he passed away in 1878, he was believed to be the oldest lawyer in the State.
Foot was born on December 17, 1790, in Watertown, Connecticut, the youngest child of John Foote and Mary (Peck) Foote. They were “earnest Whigs,” and his father responded to every call during the Revolutionary War as a member of the Connecticut militia. In 1805, when his father was ailing and his mother struggling to maintain the farm, he went to live with his brother, Ebenezer, who was a lawyer in Troy and one of the four Attorneys General of the State. In 1806, Ebenezer put him through grammar school, which was under the governance of Union College. By Foot’s own account, his first day there was inauspicious but instructive. He had formed an acquaintance with a classmate purportedly wise in the ways of the school, who assured him that the authorities would not mind if they left the premises to play “Keno” at a local tavern. Thus encouraged, he joined his new companion, only to be caught. The Judge-to-be (although at the time he surely would not have predicted his future calling) made a clean breast of it. Professor Thomas McAuley administered corporal punishment to Foot’s associate, cracking him on the hands with a “ferule,” a wooden rod. Bravely, our lad awaited his turn, holding out his hands expectantly, as if to say, “I am ready, sir; strike away.”
In his Autobiography, Foot continues:
Something in my matter and appearance arrested the attention of Professor McAuley. He looked intently at me for an instant, seemed to read me through, laid down his ferule, and said: ‘Foot, I don’t think you will violate the rules of college again; you may take your seat.’ The act and the word reached the depths of my heart, and gave the Professor a controlling influence over me, which he used to my great advantage. Had he punished me, my belief is that the punishment would have been a serious injury to me. . . .
Before going to Schenectady to school . . . I had no other ambition than to be conspicuous among my mates for daringness and disregard of consequences in mischievous designs. In a few weeks, however, Professor Thomas McAuley, by his judicious management, awakened in me a strong desire to excel in literary pursuits, and make a figure in the world at some future day.
How prophetic. Forty-five years later, in 1851, Governor Washington Hunt appointed Foot to the New York Court of Appeals.
Foot reports that after entering Union College in 1807, his brother, Ebenezer, was having difficulty paying the college bill for the last term of Foot’s junior year. In December 1810, the first term of senior year, Ebenezer arranged for him to leave the college2 and begin to study law, “having pursued classical studies four years, which was all the time that could be allowed for me for such studies of the seven years of clerkship, which the rules of the Supreme Court then required before a candidate for the bar could be admitted for an examination.” In 1811, Ebenezer placed young Samuel in the law office of James Thompson, a lawyer in Milton (Saratoga County), New York. Upon leaving Union College, its President Dr. Eliphalet Nott, sensing Foot’s plight, asked him if he needed some money and sent him off with ten dollars (which Foot repaid, with lots more).3
For nine months, he read law in Saratoga County, before clerking for his brother, and in 1813 was admitted to the bar and joined his brother as a partner, in Albany. Ebenezer Foot was afflicted with a penchant for gambling and Samuel endorsed Ebenezer’s promissory notes. When Ebenezer died in 1814, he left his widow and child destitute and Samuel Foot, at 24, was liable as a debtor, for which he served time in jail (1 id. at 28). Ever industrious, he was allowed to practice law while in jail — the authorities, judges, and lawyers knew the circumstances — and he had a constant stream of friends and clients, such that “I had commenced more suits and earned more money during the thirteen days I was in jail, that I have ever since, as an attorney, during the same length of time” (1 id. at 30). Considering his extraordinary later success, we will permit him a slight exaggeration. But he paid his creditors every cent. In 1818, he married his childhood sweetheart, Mariam Fowler of Albany, and the following year Governor DeWitt Clinton appointed him District Attorney of Albany County. The greatest event for Judge Foot, in 1821, was his giving up tobacco, abandoning forever the “vile weed” (1 id. at 52).
By 1825, he was prominent enough to have had a cordial visit with John Adams, and in 1828, with Chief Justice John Marshall during a visit to Washington, in which he also dined with President John Quincy Adams at the White House. Foot practiced law in Albany until 1828, and then set out for New York City. There, he joined in a law partnership with William (later Judge) Kent, the son of Chancellor James Kent. Foot reports that he, William Kent, and James Kent took a suite of rooms at Cedar Street. “William and I occupied two, and the Chancellor one.” Foot’s practice grew, and he gained considerable renown and prosperity, so much so that in 1837 Foot engaged Duncan Phyfe to craft “Grecian plain style” furniture for his law office. The furniture is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. As Foot began to accumulate considerable wealth, he wrote a will in 1825 in which, after providing for his wife, his sisters, and his niece, he left his estate to Union College.4
His partnership with William Kent ended amicably in 1829 and he then became partners with his nephew Henry E. Davies (1805-1881), who himself became a Judge of the New York Court of Appeals in 1860. The practice thrived, as the firm represented a number of large corporate clients, including the Erie Railroad Company.
Foot’s wife died in 1832. In his Autobiography, he gives us a touching account of his affection for her. Their only child died in 1820. In 1834, he married Jane Campbell (1809-1867), 18 years his junior, of New York City. She was to be the mother of his 14 children, the last of whom, Catherine, “a biologist of high repute,” was born in October 1852, the year after Foot joined the Court.5
Foot’s appointment to the Court of Appeals by Governor Washington Hunt was universally acclaimed. The appointment was made without solicitation, as the New York Herald of April 11, 1851 proclaimed him “admirably adapted for judicial service — diligent and methodical — patient and mild — constant and just. . . .”
Judge Foot’s appointment was to fill the vacancy created by Judge Greene Bronson (1789-1863) in April 1851. Nominated by the Whig party for election that November, Foot was defeated by Alexander S. Johnson. He took the news with equanimity, in a manner typical of dozens of entries in his diary: “It is the will of my Heavenly Father and I pray for a submissive and obedient spirit that I may receive this disappointment with composure, and profit by it” (1 id. at 284). During his tenure on the Court, Judge Foot wrote 33 opinions, covering a range of legal topics including sales, contracts, mortgages, suretyship, real estate, municipal law, trusts, inheritance, torts, condemnation, and negotiable instruments.
In 1855, the Republicans of Ontario County, “during his absence and without his knowledge,” nominated Foot as their candidate for the State Assembly. He was elected and again won at the polls the following year. As a member of the Assembly, he earned the title “Watch Dog of the Treasury” and introduced resolutions strongly condemning the Dred Scott decision. On April 7, 1857, a joint committee of the Senate and the Assembly, led by Judge Foot, reported the following resolution, which carried:
Resolved, That this State will not allow Slavery within her borders, in any form, or under any pretence, or for any time.
Resolved, That the Supreme Court of the United States, by reason of a majority of the Judges thereof, having identified it with a sectional and aggressive party, has impaired the confidence and respect of the people of this State.
Resolved, That the Governor of this State be, and he hereby is, respectfully requested to transmit a copy of this report, the law above mentioned, and these resolutions, to the respective Governors of the States of this Union.
He considered his writing against the Dred Scott opinion “the most important paper I ever wrote.”
In his judicial career, in addition to his judicial opinions in 5 N.Y., Foot appears in the law reports first in the Supreme Court of Judicature in 1839 (opposing appellate counsel was Ward Hunt [1810-1886], who joined the Court in 1866). After leaving the Court of Appeals, Foot made several more appearances in the Court as counsel, including once in 1859, opposing John K. Porter (1819-1892), who was appointed to the Court in 1865. Foot argued his last case before the Court in 1875, when he was 85 years old. He had outlived his second wife, who died in 1866. In his Autobiography, he lists a few rules by which she lived, and managed their large household. There are not only moving and instructive, but reveal the deep admiration he had for her.
Foot was distinguished not only as a New York lawyer and Judge. In 1843, a strong effort was made to convince President Tyler to name Foot to fill the United States Supreme Court vacancy following the death of Justice Smith Thompson. Reportedly, however, Tyler wanted someone from a Southern state. Later in his life, as an active anti-slavery advocate, Foot was a close personal friend of President Lincoln, who consulted him on many important occasions.
Throughout his life and professional career, Foot was close to his city of Geneva, New York. There, at age 87, he made his last public appearance in an address at the agricultural fair. He died on the morning of May 11, 1878, in Geneva, at age 88. His death resulted from over exertion in controlling a pair of spirited horses. American journalist and politician Thurlow Weed said of him (The Life of Thurlow Weed [Harriet A. Weed ed., 1884]), “His whole life, public and private, was without reproach.” His extraordinary courage and character are summed up in a letter he wrote to President Abraham Lincoln on December 15, 1862:
DEAR SIR : My three eldest sons responded to your call last year for volunteers to suppress the insurrection. The lives of the two eldest have been yielded in the contest. They were dear and dutiful sons, as is also the third one, who is still in service. This priceless contribution which I have been called to make to sustain our institutions and the integrity of our country, entitle me, I respectfully submit, to say to the President of my choice, that it is perfectly clear to my mind that the rebellion cannot be effectually suppressed, and we become a united people, unless slavery is destroyed; and that I hope and trust that on New-Year’s day I shall be allowed to read your proclamation designating the states and parts of states in rebellion, that in them slavery may be abolished in accordance with your proclamation, of the 22d of September last. If I can read that proclamation, I shall feel that the lives of my dear sons have not been sacrificed in vain.
SAMUEL A. FOOT
Judge Foot’s daughter Euphemia married Thomas Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910), American landscape painter of the Hudson River School. He was also a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and posed for the figure of George Washington in “G.W. Crossing the Delaware” by Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze.
Euphemia and the artist had four daughters. The only one who had children, Mary (1879-1965), married Lewis (or Louis) Emery Katzenbach (1880-1924). Mary and Emery had three sons: William, Worthington Whittredge (Whit), and L. Emery. In 1924, William founded Katzenbach & Warren, a well-known wallpaper company; Whit later joined as a partner. The company did early design research for Colonial Williamsburg. L. Emery Katzenbach was chairman of White, Weld & Co., an investment banking firm headquartered in New York City.
William Katzenbach had two children: Kate (Mrs. Clifford Pratt) of New Hampshire and Geoffrey L. of Martha’s Vineyard and Florida.
Worthington Whittredge Katzenbach lived in New Canaan, Connecticut, and had two children: Peter Brayton Katzenbach of Westport, Massachusetts, and Lee Whittredge Katzenbach of Port Townsend, Washington.
L. Emery Katzenbach’s children are Varick (Mrs. Nicholas Niles, Jr.) of Westport, Massachusetts, and Naples, Florida; Susan Barker of Dublin, New Hampshire and Westport, Massachusetts; and Christian Dixon of Irasburg, Vermont.
In addition, there are several more descendants in the fifth and sixth generations.
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.
Appletons Encyclopedia, Samuel Alfred Foot [accessed May 13, 2005].
Census Index, Town of Seneca, New York, 1850.
Charles F. Milliken, 1 A History of Ontario County, New York, and Its People, at 115-116 (1911) (accessed April 11, 2005) (available on file with the author).
Collection of newspaper obituaries in the New York State Library.
Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York and the Hudson River Valley (1913) at *214 (accessed April 11, 2005) (available on file with the author).
History of the Bench and Bar of New York (David McAdam et al. eds., New York History Co. 1897).
In Memoriam, 71 NY 615, 615-619 (1878).
Union College records, including Washington County obituaries, vol. 3, and Obituary, New York Herald, May 12, 1878.
Published Writings Include
Autobiography: Collateral Reminiscences, Arguments in Important Causes, Speeches, Addresses, Lectures and Other Writings of Samuel A. Foot, LL.D., Counselor-at-Law, and Judge of the Court of Appeals (1873). Volume 1 is autobiographical; in Volume 2, Judge Foot treats us to an abundance of his writings and speeches.
Subject, Conversation as a Branch of Education, An Address delivered before the Euglossian and Alpha Phi Delta Societies of Geneva College (August 1, 1832), in The Societies, 1832, 23 pp.
As with other judges long departed, this may be only a partial list of his writings.
- In his autobiography, 1 Autobiography: Collateral Reminiscences, Arguments in Important Causes, Speeches, Addresses, Lectures and Other Legal Writings of Samuel A. Foot, LLD, Counselor-at-Law, and Judge of the Court of Appeals, at 7 (1873) (hereinafter “Autobiography”), Judge Foot notes that some of Nathaniel Foote’s descendants spell the name with a final “e,” others without it — “most of my branch without.”
- Union College counts him as having graduated with the class of 1811, a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
- President Nott was a legend at Union. Ninety-six of his students became college presidents. The Nott memorial building at Union is a National Historic Landmark.
- This, of course, was before he had fathered 14 children with his second wife, whom he married in 1834, after the death of his first wife in 1832.
- Of his 15 children, six survived him, three sons and three daughters.