Napoleon B. Bryant by Hon. J. M. Shirley

The subject of this sketch was born at East Andover, N. H., on February 25, 1825. His mother was of Revolutionary stock, and from one of the oldest families in town; and was one of those sunny-souled "Mothers in Israel," who, half a century ago, were alike the glory and honor of our New England homes. His father was a man of high character and fine natural endowments; but was in straitened circumstances. As there was no lawyer in that part of the town where he lived, nor within several miles, he acted as a magistrate, trial and otherwise, for many years; and his services were sought in making deeds, wills, and contracts, formulating notices and the like, organizing voluntary corporations, settling the estates of deceased persons, and in this class of business usually intrusted to lawyers. His son grew up in this atmosphere, the influence of which, with his father's strong desires, determined the choice of his profession.

The world lavishes its praise upon, and often loads with honors, the self-made man, for that implies a successful one. It too often forgets the rugged path which leads thereto, and the hard discipline—the heroic treatment that so often kills—which enables him to attain that position. As a rule, it crowns with honors the victors as they sweep the summit-heights, but furnishes no headstone for the dead that mark the ascent and block the pathway.

Young Bryant had the hard lot so common "among the hills;" but he had health, hope, courage, ambition, and the glow-fire of a fervid imagination, which enabled him to succeed when others

"By the wayside fell and perished,
Weary with the march of life."

Until ten years of age, he had the limited educational advantages afforded by the district school, gaining one term at a private school when about seven, by walking two miles and a half each way, daily, to attend it. At ten he entered the high school at Franklin, taught by Master Tyler of Andover, an author of some note and a teacher of high repute in those days, and remained for half a term,—all that the limited means of the family would permit. A similar privilege was accorded at eleven and again at twelve. At the age of fourteen he borrowed money enough of a relative to defray the expense of an entire term at Boscawen Academy, then under the charge of Mr. Ballard, of Concord, a graduate of Dartmouth, giving his note therefor, which he repaid with interest at the end of three years. Here he studied trigonometry and surveying, and for several years afterwards earned considerable sums to aid him in prosecuting his studies by surveying in his own and adjoining towns. When fourteen he "cast off the lines" and assumed the entire burden of his support and education. To aid in this work he commenced teaching when fifteen, and taught every winter until he left college. Thus lacking means, he drifted about, a term at a time, among the various academies in the state, at Concord, Claremont, Gilmanton, and New London, until he entered New Hampton, joining a class which was to fit for college in one year from that time. Here, through the kindness of the faculty, he took the studies of the freshman year, entered the sophomore class at Waterville at the same time his fellow-classmates entered as freshmen. At the academies and in college he developed an intense passion for debate, and took a leading part in all the lyceums at home and the societies connected with the various institutions of learning he attended, to which he undoubtedly owes much of the freedom and ease that have since characterized his efforts on the hustings and at the bar.

When he was about twelve, his father gathered at his house the debris of what had been an excellent town library. The son reveled in this feast of good things, reading everything from Goldsmith's "Animated Nature," to Paley's Philosophy. With boyish enthusiasm he devoured the pages of Rollin, without the slightest idea, that, except when the old Jansenist relied upon others, he was reading romance instead of history. This gave a new impetus to his desire for what was then termed a "liberal education." At twenty-two he entered the office of an eminent law firm—-Nesmith & Pike—at Franklin, and after something less than two years' hard study went to Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1848; was admitted to the bar of Grafton county at the November term of the same year, and, having opened an office at Bristol in that county in November, 1848, upon his admission, entered upon the active practice of his profession.

At twenty-five he was elected one of the commissioners of the county of Grafton and held the office for three years, being chairman of the board two years. At twenty-nine he was appointed prosecuting attorney (solicitor) for that county, and discharged its duties with marked efficiency. In 1853 he removed from Bristol to Plymouth; and from that time was engaged on one side or the other of nearly every important cause there tried by the jury.

The county of Grafton was created in 1771. It was a large county and had for its shire towns Haverhill on the Connecticut and Plymouth on the Pemigewasset. It had at the outset, as it now has, a bar of exceptional character and ability. Some of the greatest forensic and legal battles of the century—like the celebrated Dartmouth College case of national reputation—were lost and won here. Over the highest court, Smith, Richardson, and Parker, a triad of illustrious chief-justices presided, followed by Gilchrist, Woods, and Perley, but little less distinguished. Here, in the olden time, Jeremiah Mason, the foremost jurist of his day, Daniel and Ezekiel Webster, the Sullivans, and their compeers, "rode the circuit" after the custom in the mother country. These great advocates, after exhaustive preparation; spoke to crowded court-rooms, the people flocking to these entertainments like men to a feast. Then oratory was in demand at the bar; but now, in its place, is required a dry summary, as terse and pointed as an auditor's statement of accounts.

When Mr. Bryant became actively engaged in jury trials, the bar was not what it once was, for Livermore, Olcott,—the father-in-law of Choate,—Woodward, and others were in their graves; Woods and Wilcox were on the bench; Ira Perley had removed to Concord; and Joe Bell had left the state. But there were Goodall, with his varied experience and eventful life; Felton, active, precise and mathematical; Duncan, whose earlier efforts were regarded by competent critics as at least equal to those of his famous brother-in-law, Choate; Harry Hibbard, scholar, lawyer and statesman; that dark haired "giant of the mountains," Bingham; Bellows and Sargent, since chief-justices,—headed by their acknowledged leader, Josiah Quincy, one of the most practical, sagacious, and clear-headed men in the state. Here, too, occasionally came Perley, with combative blood, incisive speech, and immense law learning, to enter the lists with that child of genius and prince of cross-examiners and advocates, Franklin Pierce. It was no child's play for a young man to withstand the "cut and thrust" of such, and contest for supremacy with them before twelve men.

Lawyers know that those who are almost invincible before a referee, auditor, chancellor, or the full bench, are often failures before a jury. Nothing tests or taxes a lawyer's nerve, knowledge of men, tact, readiness, fertility in resource, and the power of reconstruction or combination, like a jury trial, and he only who has been through it—unless it be the woman who is so unfortunate as to be his wife—can fully appreciate the strain of the minute and laborious preparation which precedes, the anxious days without food and nights without sleep which attend the progress of the trial, and the collapse after the verdict, especially if it be an adverse one, when a young practitioner is pitted against one of the leaders. It is a hard experience; but it schools him in his work, and enures him to the hardships of campaigning. Mr. Bryant tried his first cause before a jury, against Mr. Quincy, and won. The veteran congratulated his youthful opponent and predicted his success at the bar. At the next term he was pitted against his old instructor, Mr. Pike, and one of the judges wrote his father a note highly complimenting the efforts of the son in that important and exciting trial.

In 1855, Mr. Bryant removed to Concord and entered into partnership with Lyman T. Flint, Esq., who had assisted him at New Hampton in fitting for the sophomore year. His practice soon extended to Belknap and Hillsborough, while he retained his hold in Merrimack and upon his old clients in Grafton, where he attended the courts as before.

Mr. Bryant had hitherto acted with the Democratic party, in whose faith he had been reared, but in 1856, in common with thousands more, in the whirlwind which swept the North after the passage of the Nebraska bill, and the troubles which had arisen in Kansas, he supported by voice and vote the nomination of John C. Fremont, speaking in all the large towns and in nearly every county in the state. From that time until he left the state in 1860, he probably made more stump-speeches than any other man in it. In 1857 he was elected representative from ward six in Concord, was re-elected in 1858 and 1859, and was speaker the last two years. He originated and carried through, against a violent opposition, the act making parties witnesses. At this day the act seems eminently proper; but then it was regarded by many as portentous of evil, subversive of social order, and revolutionary in the extreme. Its constitutionality as applied to pending suits was affirmed in Rich vs. Flanders (39 N. H., 304), against the dissent of two of the six judges, Chief-Justice Bell and Judge Bellows, who, as a member, had strenuously opposed its passage.

When the Know-Nothing party, so called, carried the state in 1855, one of their first acts was to overthrow the entire judicial system of the state, by repealing the acts creating it, and to erect a Siamese-double-headed-partisan one upon its ruins. The system proved expensive and became odious, not only to the entire Democratic party, but to the bar and influential class, irrespective of party relations, and to potential forces in the then Republican party.

In 1859, Mr. Bryant devised the system, which, with a brief exception, has been in force to the present time. It was carried after an intensely bitter contest. He made up the committee on the judiciary, to whom the bill was referred. It consisted of ten members, four of whom were Democrats headed by the veteran Quincy, five radicals, and one conservative Republican. Two of the six were for the bill and one was on the fence. The moss-backs, politicians, and lobbyists swarmed, and great efforts were made to defeat it. The four Democrats on the committee at first voted for their own bill, and then notified the friends of the new one that on the test vote they should give them a solid support, which would enable them to bring an affirmative report into the house. Caucuses were held almost every night of actual session to hold the timid ones in line, and prevent their yielding to the great pressure to which they were subjected.

An incident occurred during his speakership in 1859, which illustrates Mr. Bryant's readiness, courage, and political forecast. The theory that it was the right of every state and everybody in it to nullify the laws of congress whose constitutionality had been affirmed by the federal supreme court was much more popular in the North then than it became after the election of Mr. Lincoln. Lengthy petitions headed by A. T. Foss, A. Folsom, and Stephen Thayer, "praying for the enactment of a law that no person held as a slave shall be delivered up within this state," were presented. They were referred, as a matter of course, to the committee on the judiciary. Parker Pillsbury, Elder Foss, Dr. Hawks, and others appeared for the petitioners at the hearing, and made eloquent speeches in support of their petition. They had the candor, courage, and directness which characterized the old-time Abolitionists. They did not attempt to deceive the committee or any one else, but avowed that their purpose was by the bill proposed to array the state against the general government. The hearing closed. The four Democrats voted against the bill, and the chairman with flushed face demurred at such legislation; but five out of the six Republicans voted for the bill, and without a word of warning it was reported to the house by a party vote. It was read the first time without objection, and upon a division was ordered to a second reading by a vote of one hundred and thirty-four to one hundred and one. Mr. Bryant called Mr. Parker of Lempster—since a member of congress—to the chair, took the floor, and in an eloquent speech denounced the bill as nullification pure and simple, and moved its indefinite postponement. A sharp debate followed. Three lawyers who had voted for the bill in the committee defended the principle of it mainly upon the ground that everybody had the right to judge of the constitutionality of the bill at which the proposed law was aimed, and that the opinion of the supreme court was of no more account or binding force than the opinion of a like number of other persons. Mr. Bryant replied, and the result was that two members of the majority of the committee voted to sustain their nullification report, four, including the one who reported the bill to the house, voted against their own report, and the bill was defeated by a vote of two hundred and seventy-nine to nineteen. He had a natural gift for the position, and left the speaker's chair with the respect of all for his ability, his fairness, and his unvarying courtesy as a presiding officer.

In 1860, Mr. Bryant was at the Chicago convention as a substitute delegate, working strenuously and effectively for the nomination of Mr. Lincoln. He stumped the state for him, and after his election removed to Boston.

Since he has resided in Massachusetts, he has refused to hold any political office whatever, and has only interested himself in politics in speeches during the state and national campaigns. Since his residence there he has devoted his time almost entirely to an active, extensive, and constantly increasing general practice in several counties in eastern Massachusetts, in both the state and federal courts, and not infrequently has been called to his old circuit in New Hampshire, when he could spare the time. The importance of the cases in which he has been engaged, and the character of those opposed to him, are sufficient evidence, if any were needed, that he is a trained lawyer, a skillful, eloquent, and able advocate.

He delivered the centennial oration in his native town in 1879, and, for some reason unknown to the writer, rendered the same service for the town of Brandon, Vt. He has also occasionally delivered lectures before lyceums and the like.

When twenty-four, he married Miss Susan M. Brown, of Northfield, N. H., a woman of high personal character and accomplishments, and who proved all that any man could wish as a wife and mother. Three children still survive.

In private as in professional life, Mr. Bryant is noted as a genial and courteous gentleman.