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Hon. S. Newton Pettis    

Hon. S. Newton Pettis, Engraving from the Centennial edition of the Daily Tribune-Republican, 1888. Click to enlarge

HON. S. NEWTON PETTIS, Meadville, son of Solomon and Ruth (House) Pettis, was born in Lenox, Ashtabula Co., Ohio, October 10, 1827. He received a good education and taught school near his home from 1842 to 1845. He began his law studies with Hon. Joshua H. Giddings, at Jefferson, Ohio, in 1846, and in 1848 came to Meadville and pursued them with Hon. H. L. Richmond until his admission to the bar in 1849. He then commenced practice at Meadville, which he has continued ever since, except when interrupted by service on the bench and absence on a foreign mission. He soon formed a law partnership with Hon. James Thompson (since Chief Justice of Pennsylvania), which existed until his election to the Supreme bench in 1857. His practice was large and successful; his preparation of cases thorough. He made his client’s cause his own. Some of his cases involved large interests. While counsel for the Crawford County Commissioners, he brought to a successful termination the noted suit on the bonds of the Erie & Pittsburgh Railroad Company, thereby saving to the county a large sum. In 1870 he was appointed General Council for the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad Company. Though several times while in public service compelled to suspend professional practice, upon his return to the bar he has taken a new hold and keeps abreast of the decisions, maintaining his professional rank. A native of the Western Reserve, the pupil of Giddings, and attaining his majority the same year that the party was efficiently organized on the Buffalo platform, his instincts were sympathetic with Free Soil. Much was to be overcome in Crawford, where its Democracy, caressed at

Advertisement from Directory of Crawford County, Pa. for 1871-72

Washington and entrenched at Harrisburg under its skillful leader (a State official of wide political renown), had so long maintained an unbroken front. Starting as a campaign speaker in 1848, he has through nine Presidential and twelve Gubernatorial campaigns been conspicuous in his own and frequently in neighboring counties and in Ohio. In 1876 he filled daily appointments of the Ohio State Republican Committee from September 10, to October 12. No one was more efficient in transforming a Democratic majority of 700 in Crawford County into a Republican of 2,000. He has frequently represented Crawford in State conventions. In 1860 he was influential and untiring in nominating Curtin for Governor. His unremitting efforts in the nomination that year of Lincoln, in the Chicago Convention, and in giving him the vote of the Pennsylvania delegation, are well known. It involved patient labor, tact and skill, and was probably the best work of his life, for in none were results more clearly traceable to initiatory efforts. Few events in American history have been more far-reaching in their ultimate tendency than the nomination and election of Abraham Lincoln.

As Mr. Pettis entered active life, political parties were taking a new departure. The adjustment of the questions growing out of the acquisition of Mexican territory, followed by those of the restriction of slavery extension, the fugitive slave bill, the admission of California, and other “compromise measures” of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the admission of Kansas with secession, rebellion and war, with its results, the reconstruction measure; currency, impeachment and resumption were all questions which aside from tariff and other domestic matters, were being considered. In the discussion of these he came before the people absorbed in his subject; armed with facts and figures, with intense earnestness and forgetfulness of self, he carried conviction to his audiences. Appointed by President Lincoln in March, 1861, to the United States Supreme bench of Colorado, he aided in the organization of that Territory. At the call to arms, he was active in raising volunteers and filling quotas and furnishing supplies to the army. In this work it was his privilege to obtain from President Lincoln permission to initiate and perfect a plan, by which 1,800 Confederate prisoners at Rock Island were enlisted in the Union Army, and on payment to each of $100, credited to the quotas required from this congressional district, which sum was paid from a fund of about $200,000 placed by the people at the disposal of Judge Pettis. This put an end in this district to the brokerage in substitutes, under which glaring abuses had arisen. Being the intimate friend and participant in the nomination of both Lincoln and Curtin, he maintained his relations with each, even up to the week preceding the assassination, when he sought to impress upon the President the necessity of greater care for his personal safety. Knowing him so well, it was his part as a friend, at a meeting of the Crawford County bar, after the death of the President, to pay a tribute to his memory, which for its delineation of the martyr’s character, and appreciation of the Nation’s loss, will be long remembered. In 1868, after persistent requests, he became a candidate for Congress in the Twentieth District, and carried Crawford County without opposition. After seven weeks of balloting another was nominated. During the same year, Hon. D. A. Finney’s death caused a vacancy in the Fortieth Congress. To this Judge Pettis was elected. Having taken his seat, he was assigned to the Committee on Elections and made a report on the contested election of the then Mexican delegate, Col. Chavis, which involved much research and was ratified by the House, in awarding him the seat. This investigation and report secured for Judge Pettis the recognition its patient examination and clearness of analysis merited. In 1872 he declined a numerously signed call for Congressional candidacy. In 1874 he again received the county’s nomination for Congress, but after weeks of balloting, he advised the subsequent nomination of Mr. White, of Mercer. At the death of Judge Lowrie, in November, 1876, on the petition of many members of the bar and several thousand Crawford people, of the Senator and three or four Representatives, and fifty-nine or sixty mem­bers of the Republican County Committee, he was appointed President Judge of the Crawford Judicial District, remaining on the bench until January, 1878. When a re-appointment from the Governor was anticipated to be necessary, it was asked by every member of the Crawford bar. In 1877, at the written request of all the Republican Congressmen and United States Senators of Pennsylvania, and of many public men from other States, he was agreed upon by President Hayes and his cabinet for the Peruvian Mission, but subsequently appointed Minister to Bolivia. Arriving at the Bolivian capital, he found Peru, Bolivia and Chili involved in a wasting and bloody war, in which much destruction of life and property had been incurred, with devastation of country and paralysis of commerce. Peace seemed hopeless except as following the subjugation of a belligerent. Well versed in the details and merits of the controversy, after conference with the Peruvian Minister and Bolivian Secretary of State, he proceeded first to Lima, where his proposals of a mode of settlement were gladly received; then to Chili, where his plan of arbitration or of a compromise line of boundary was met with gratifying consideration. Believing that this well-intended proposition, so auspiciously begun, with the approval of the United States Government, would culminate in success, Judge Pettis’ hopes were crushed by the officious interference of an outsider, so that the initiatory steps under which the war would have been ended and bloodshed saved were rendered a nullity. As was well remarked by one of our prominent journals, “His effort had been nothing more than an unofficial suggestion to the belligerents of a basis of negotiation, upon which they could without humiliation, dishonor or loss, agree to meet for settlement of questions of dispute between them. It was so stated, and appeared perfectly understood by all parties who knew or had interest in what was proposed.

There was nothing to create a prejudice against the United States Government, nothing inconsistent with its attitude of neutrality. No harm was done by the attempt. Failure did not leave matters worse than before, but better. Done so unobtrusively and kindly, each of the belligerents regarded it as a friendly suggestion, not as an effort to interfere in their affairs. Had it succeeded it would be difficult to estimate the great results secured to our people and to the belligerents. Instead of the long, bloody, ruinous war which has since followed, it would have been a peaceful solution. To the United States it would have been almost equally fortunate. The good opinion and friendly feeling, which all three of the belligerents entertained toward us, would have been confirmed. Our diplomatic relations with them, instead of being unpleasant and annoying, would have been most agreeable. Our commerce with them, instead of being destroyed, would have been promoted and enlarged, and the United States would have secured the commanding influence which her population, position, colonization and firmness as a nation, ought to give her among the Republics of America. Returning from his mission he was nominated by President Hayes to a Western Judgeship, but rejected by a Democratic Senate. He resumed law practice, which he still continues. He was strongly urged for appointment as Governor of Dakota in January last, but never allowed any application to be made for it.

The domestic life of our subject has been exceptionally happy. He was married in September, 1852, to Miss Emma L. Wightman, and to this union have been born three children, two now living—Gertrude Wylie, married to Capt. John W. Pullman, A. Q. M., U. S. Army, and Herbert Ray. Their son, Rush, died March 14, 1882, at the age of fourteen, while attending school at the Chamberlin Institute, Randolph, N. Y. He was a lad of much promise, whose early death was deeply deplored; his disposition and character were especially eulogized by his teachers and schoolmates, to whom he had become greatly endeared. Judge Pettis still resides at Meadville, where, yet in his meridian, he can contemplate the worth, thus far, of a long, busy and pre-eminently useful life. In the changes he has witnessed in business, in politics and in the progress of the country, he can feel that he has been neither indifferent nor idle. If sometimes his hopes have been misplaced, his friends untrue or his labors futile, he can yet feel that the world is better from his work and that he has not lived in vain. The bench, the bar and the forum have alike been the field of his efforts. His services have been rendered in times of peace and of war, as well at home as abroad, and in the distant West. To have done his part well in each and at all times was his aim, and to have benefitted mankind his accomplished purpose. 

History of Crawford County, Pennsylvania: containing a history of the county, its townships, towns, villages, schools, churches, industries, etc., portraits of early settlers and prominent men, biographies, history of Pennsylvania, statistical and miscellaneous matter, Chicago: Warner, Beers & Co., 1885, page 756-759


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