Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

The Green Bag
VOL. IX, No. 5   
                               November, 1903

Logan E. Bleckley, Former Chief Justice of the
Supreme Court of Georgia

L. B. Ellis

If a man conversant with the history both of jurisprudence and of statesmanship in the South should be asked suddenly to name the salient quality which has heretofore distinguished the masters of these two high crafts in the State of Georgia, for example, he would probably answer, unhesitatingly, eloquence. But give him time to reflect upon the eminent achievement, the public services and enduring worth of such men as Berrien, Stephens, Hill, the Cobbs, the Lumpkins and this gray-haired youngest brother of the group, Logan E. Bleckley, would he not rather change his answer to Wisdom? Nor would he mean wisdom in any restricted sense; rather that quality essential to greatness of life, wisdom, which can spring only from integrity of intellect and heart wedded to the widest, sanest knowledge.

Judge Bleckley has himself said, in one of those thoughtful essays deserving to live among the choice letters of today, that "to be wise, we must discern truth and love duty. To know is not enough; to feel is not enough; we must both know aright and feel aright, and from this right knowledge and right feeling, we must send forth a life stream of right conduct." Fairly has the life of the great jurist exemplified his own simple but majestic conception of wisdom.

The main facts in his career may be summed up briefly: He was born on July 3, 1827: so, while his intellectual powers are still undimmed and his physical vigor remarkable, he is already more than half a dozen years past the three-score-and-ten terminal. This enduring vigor of body and mind will doubtless be attributed by many to his being mountain-born. For a mountaineer of mountaineers is our great judge. Born on the hill-tops, as his sires before him, he has always found his dearest happiness there. His unfailing delight has been, whenever the holiday times came, the breathing-spaces in his busy career, to slip away from crowded thoroughfares and back to the mountain calms, the shades and streams and high, pure air that had made his boyhood's joy, and still stood for strength and peace in his life. His lonely little lodge on Screamer Mountain, an isolated peak of the Blue Ridge, has been, in his busiest years, a veritable paradise to him: while next has ranked in his affections the pleasant cottage in Clarksville, a hill-top village in North Georgia. In telling all this I have told, probably, the secret of Judge Bleckley's long-enduring vitalism both of physique and intellect.

It was early in the mountain boy's life that he chose law as his mistress; and in the first flush of youth he was admitted to the bar. But practice came slowly; for he had opened his office in a little country town in the section of North Georgia where he was born. The location was obscure, shut in by mountains, and wholly unfavorable to professional success. Yet he had not at that time the money requisite for purchasing a library and removing to a more advantageous point. Consequently, the day was not long in arriving when the young barrister must find, temporarily, a more lucrative occupation.

A clerkship in a transportation office was opportunely offered to him, a position which he accepted and held for three years, only giving it up when Governor Towns appointed him one of the secretaries of the executive department. The latter place he filled but wooing him back to her with a call which he could never disregard. Therefore, in 1852, being then twenty-five years of age, he opened a law office in Atlanta, where, from the first, his success was no matter of doubt.
In 1853, we find the mountain youth aspiring to a position of such importance that, in the early days of his candidacy, his aspirations were regarded by the State at large as audacious in the extreme. His own naive words relating to the matter, when he was recently asked by the Bar Association of Georgia to tell something of those early days, will give you the measure of the situation better than mine could do.

"The office to which I aspired," said he, "was that of Solicitor-General of the Coweta circuit, which, as then constituted, embraced eight counties, and included the city of Atlanta. The office was believed and reputed to be the best-paying office in the State, and so was an object of desire by nine other gentlemen as well as myself. Three of these were so badly beaten in the race that I have forgotten their names."

This election was by the Legislature on joint ballot of the two houses, and it suffices to say that, after several ballots, young Bleckley was chosen for the position, and that he served out his four years' term as Solicitor-General with such distinction that forever thereafter office and high dignity have sought him. In 1864, he received the appointment of Reporter to the Supreme Court. This he accepted, but resigned three years later to resume his regular practice.
It was in July 1875, when Mr. Bleckley was forty-eight years of age, that he became, by executive appointment, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia. This honorable seat was not only unsought by the busy and devoted lawyer, but, when first tendered, was declined. Later, However, it was accepted and filled for five difficult, overworked years, after which he felt that he had won the privilege of resigning and giving himself to himself.

But Judge Bleckley's great wisdom, as well as his ability to serve, were too much needed in the constitution of the State's judiciary for him to be permitted long to walk his peaceful private ways. Earnestly and urgently he was summoned back to service in 1887, when rounding his sixtieth year. This time the Governor had appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Bench of Georgia was at this time probably the most over-crowded court in the United States, the hardest worked and worst paid. The situation has been greatly amended since, by the addition of two new justices to the hard-driven three, and also by a better equating of toil and remuneration. But in the twelve years during which Judge Bleckley labored so faithfully upon this Bench, first as an Associate Justice, and later as Chief of the three, the work was such as would have worn to exhaustion the brain, body and nerve force to an ordinary man. Yet no ordinary was this long-limbed, stout-sinewed, large-brained son of the mountains; therefore, he endured the strain heroically, until he was close upon his seventieth year, when he again resigned his seat, this time finally, as he had indeed earned the right to do. This ultimate resignation came in 1894, and closed a term of public service remarkable in length and worth.
In the following year, 1895, Judge Bleckley retreated to his mountain home, and announced his permanent retirement from the profession: and this not for the purpose of spending his remaining days in slothful ease or vacuity, but in order to pursue uninterruptedly certain lines of study and intellectual occupation that had long attracted him. Again the words in which he himself has recited the aims and aspirations filling him when retired from his life's chosen profession, will come in far more aptly than any of my own. Ingenuous as a boy he always is, in such confessions, more than half humorous, yet wholly sincere.

"My retirement to private life," he says, "was voluntary, and I supposed and intended it to be perpetual. Then the public duties of mere citizenship began seriously to engage my attention. The noble ambition to know how to vote took possession of me. I sincerely desired to qualify myself for the exercise of the elective franchise. The money question was then, as it still is, before the country, and I longed to understand it and see for myself how it ought to be decided. My ignorance of it was utter and profound. In the summer of 1895, laying aside all other business, I devoted myself to the study of this one subject. At first, the sole end I had in view was to qualify myself as a voter; but I soon found out, from an examination of the standard works and other writings, that nobody really understood the subject at bottom, and that I was hardly less ignorant concerning it than the rest of mankind. This fired me with zeal not only to master it, but to become its expounder to the world. Accordingly, I began writing down in notebooks brief notes of my reflections, meditations, and acquisitions touching value and its measurement, and touching money and divers related topics. This practice I have continued for five years, and am still engaged in it. The note-books have multiplied to more than twenty, and their contents to more than two thousand pages, and I frankly say I have not yet qualified myself to vote intelligently on the money question, though I believe I am almost qualified!"
It should be added here that there was universal regret throughout Georgia, as well as other section, when the destruction by fire of all these notes and manuscripts was announced through the public press little more than a year ago. This serious loss befell when the Judge's cottage at Clarksville was burned. It had been the hope of the thousands who not only admire but trust this man of wide study and thought, that from these voluminous notes would evolve, in the course of time, a well-digested, carefully molded, condensed, but comprehensive work upon the momentous question of sound finance. Nor is this hope wholly lost; for the philosophical author, with a mere sigh or two over the ashes, se himself to the task of reproducing his notes and manuscripts, and the work is now moving on with good promise for future fulfillment.

Yet what need to dwell upon the unfinished work of this venerable man? Whether it shall be completed by his own hands, or left to others, is with Him who orders wisely. But here stands the eminent jurist's seventy-year record, fair, finished, full: and it is such as the most exacting among us might well be proud to leave behind.

To attempt, in a paper like this, to offer an adequate estimate of his achievements in judicature, or the value of his contributions to jurisprudence in the shape of notable decisions and weighty opinions from the Bench, would be utterly out of place, as well as supererogatory. The profession has already measured the worth of his work in that sphere, and has accorded to Judge Bleckley a place of distinction among the great living jurists.

Allusion has been made, on another page, to his contributions to literature in the shape of finished essays, these being often fine and thoughtful dissertations, or again scintillant with humor, or replete with delicate sentiment. The Readers of The Green Bag will recall with especial delight that "Letter to Posterity" in the issue of February, 1893.

But our paper would be indeed incomplete without reference to Judge Bleckley's poetry; for this many-gifted man is the author of some notable verse. Probably the most widely admired of his productions in verse is that fine poem of two stanzas which he read from the Bench, his last opinion during his first incumbency, and which will be found in 64 Georgia 452.

A unique proceeding, truly, as it is a unique poem. It was on the occasion of his resigning from the justiceship after five of the hardest-worked, most trying years a man could have, and is entitled, "In the Matter of Rest." We reproduce it in full, as it deserves.

"Rest for hand and brow and breast,
For fingers, heart and brain!
Rest and peace! A long release
From labor and from pain:
Pain of doubt, fatigue, despair,—-
Pain of darkness everywhere,
And seeking light in vain.

Peace and rest! Are they the best
For mortals here below?
Is soft repose from work and woes
A bliss for men to know?
Bliss of time is bliss of toil!
No bliss but this from sun and soil
Does God permit to grow.

A brother of the Bench, in a recent appreciation of Judge Bleckley, has most fittingly summed up the value of this poem: "The last stanza," he said, "should be burned into the heart of every young man. It is the essence of common sense, the conclusion of human experience, the final deduction of philosophy, and the ultimate dogma of religion."

The poet's "Farewell to the Law" has also been widely quoted and admired. It was written and published on the occasion of his permanent retirement, in 1895, from the "fierce forensic war" in which he had been so long a central figure. The note of intense personal feeling in these verses gives them their strongest interest as well as value. You will dwell longest upon the lines:

"For more than one full decade, with pale,
unsandaled feet,
In pure and spotless ermine, I mused on
Georgia's seat,
And righteous judgment rendered between
the Tares and Wheat.

My grand majestic master, vice-regent here
of God,
I quit thy special service, but stay beneath
they rod,
An old and humble servant, uncovered and

It would indeed be a pleasure to give here a number of extracts from Judge Bleckley's miscellaneous verse, not only that in grave and lofty strain, but also from the many specimens in which is exhibited his marked propensity to combine humor and sentiment. But the lack of space forbids. In the latter class of his verse, we can only cite "Law Love," "Broadway," and "Cucumbers"; and in the former, "Faith," "Two Cities," and that unsurpassed sonnet upon Alexander Stephens, beginning:

"Of yeoman blood, but yet of noble birth,"

and closing with the exalted tribute,

"His state and country were to him the same, And both he served with love, and faith, and fame."

One quotation must be allowed, as it gives a true insight into the character, the happy trust and love and treasure of hopefulness that are the inheritance of this gentle-hearted agnostic:

"In the depths of the night
Cometh faith without light,
Cometh faith without sight,
And I trust the great Sovereign unknown.
No finite or definite throne,
But the infinite, nameless, unthinkable One.

               * * * *

No definite hope may endure,
No favorite bliss be secure,
Not even existence be sure;
But the something that ought to befall
Will happen at last unto all."

It is not our privilege to speak now of the personal character, the private walk and virtues, of this man of years and honors, to extol, as the wish impels us, the simplicity and directness which constitute the majesty of his nature, the crystal-clear truth, unwithholding benevolence and sweetness, the devotion to family and friends, which have made his life a benison. Nor may we even dwell, as we would, upon his captivating combination, in thought and speech, of Celtic wit with Anglo-Saxon force and depth of sentiment. His biographers will tell, adequately, we trust, of all these qualities.

For him, the shadows are lengthening fast. But cheerful and undaunted he looks out upon them, finding still a daily happiness in his daily allotment. The respect and gratitude of the public he served, the admiration of the profession he ennobled by his brotherhood in it, the untarnished love and trust of all who were ever near to him,—all these followed him when he left active life, to return to his mountain calms; and they will follow him still when he passes to the great, golden calms of the Beyond.

L.B. Ellis, Logan E. Bleckley--Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia
15 The Green Bag 555 (1903)