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Hon. William D. Kelley


THE Republican party is the legitimate heir of the old Federal and Whig parties—the parties of Washington and Webster—which, in the ancient and mediaeval periods of the Republic, as they may be termed, illustrated the sentiment and the idea of nationality as opposed to the heresy of State sovereignty.

There is, nevertheless, flowing in the veins of this great Republican organization much of the best blood of the old Democratic party. The men who adopted the political teachings of Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the inspirer of the ordinance of 1789, who heartily believed the great American doctrines of the freedom and equality of all men, and the power and duty of the nation to protect the national domain from the pollution of human slavery, passed, by a natural transition, into the Republican ranks when the Democratic party abandoned the faith of its fathers, and became the embodiment of a "creed outworn."

Among the men of the Democratic party who earliest separated from "its decaying forms," and contributed to organize a new party, in the light of truth and reason, on the basis of inherent, inalienable right, was the subject of this sketch—WILLIAM DARRAH KELLEY.

He was born in the Northern Liberties of Philadelphia, on the 12th of April, 1814. His grandfather, Major John Kelley was a native of Salem county, New Jersey, and served through- out the Revolution as an officer of the Continental line. The son of this Revolutionary officer, and the father of the subject of this memoir—David Kelley—removed from New Jersey to Philadelphia, where he married a lady of Bucks county, Pennsylvania—Miss Hannah Darrah. The cloud of financial embarrassment, which, at the close of the war of 1812, darkened the horizon, cast its deep shadow over the fortunes of Mr. Kelley ; and by his death, in 1816, his widow was left, without an estate, to support and educate a dependent family of four children, the youngest of whom—William—was but two years of age. Mrs. Kelley struggled nobly and well to fulfil this great trust, and lived to witness the consummation of her most ambitious hopes in the prosperity and advancement of her distinguished son.

At eleven years of age, it became necessary that William should earn his own living. He accordingly left school, and became an errand boy in a book store, then a copy-reader in the office of the "Philadelphia Inquirer" newspaper, and finally an apprentice to Messrs. Rickards & Dubosq, manufacturing jewellers, of Philadelphia. He attained his freedom in the spring of 1834. This was the era of the removal of the deposits from the United States Bank; and Mr. Kelley's first experience in political leadership was gained in encouraging and organizing the resistance of the Democratic workingmen to the tyrannous demands of the Whig capitalists of Philadelphia. The stand lie took on this question rendered it difficult for him to obtain employment in his native city. He accordingly removed to Boston, and at once secured a situation in the establishment of Messrs. Clark and Curry. In Boston, the spirit of New England culture took deep hold upon his nature. While laboring with characteristic industry in the most difficult branch of his trade--the art of enamelling--and achieving a high reputation as a skilful and tasteful workman, he improved his scholarship by solitary study; and his contributions to the newspapers of the day, and written and extemporaneous lectures and addresses before public audiences, established his reputation as a writer and speaker of ability and power, in association even with such men as Bancroft, Brownson, Alexander H. Everett, Channing and Emerson.

In 1839, he returned to Philadelphia, and entered, as a student of law, the office of Colonel James Page, a local leader of the Democratic party, and the postmaster of Philadelphia. On April 17, 1841, he was admitted to the bar of the several courts of his native city. his advancement in the profession was immediate and rapid; while, in every political canvass, local and national, his stirring addresses attracted large audiences, and rendered him one of the most conspicuous figures in the Democratic party. In January, 1845, he was appointed by the attorney-general of the State--Hon. John K. Kane--to conduct, in connection with Francis Wharton, Esq., who has since become celebrated as a writer on criminal law, the pleas of the Commonwealth in the courts of Philadelphia. In March, 1846, Governor Shunk appointed Mr. Kelley a judge of the Court of Common Pleas, a tribunal whose jurisdiction was co-extensive with the common law, chancery and ecclesiastical courts of England. In 1851, he was elected to the same bench, under the new Constitution of the State, upon an independent ticket, in defiance of the attempted proscription of the Democratic party organization, which was embittered against him for his course in the contested election case of Reed and Kneass. This was a triumphant vindication by the people of the justice and integrity of his action in that cause.

But Judge Kelley did not confine himself to the topics of his profession or to the discussion of political questions. The protection of the weak and down-trodden, the reformation of the ignorant and vicious, and the promotion of education, have ever found in him an eloquent and powerful advocate. His remarkable powers of oratory, give additional effect to his chaste and polished style, and few public speakers have proved so effective. We offer the following passages from an address of his before the Unman society of Pennsylvania college, Gettysburg, on the "Characteristics of the Age," delivered over twenty years ago, as giving an idea of the felicity and beauty of his style, as a writer. The earnestness and the clear ringing tones of the orator are wanting to give it full effect.

"I would not disparage the value of the 'little learning' which enables a man to read and write his mother tongue with facility. When 'commerce is king,' the ability to do this is little less than essential to the physical well-being of the citizen. Under such government the receipt-book peaceably enough performs a large share of the functions of the embattled wall and armed retainers of the days when force was law. But to rise above the commercial value of these slender attainments, he who can read the language of Shakspeare and Milton, Johnson and Addison, Shelley and Wordsworth, has the key to the collected wisdom of his race. The farms around his workshop, the property of others, present to his view a landscape which is his, and to him belongs every airy nothing to which poet ever gave habitation or name. The sages of the most remote past obey his call as counsellors and friends; and in the company of prophet and apostle he may approach the presence of the Most High. The value of such a gift is inestimable. Wisdom and justice would make it the certain heritage of every child born in the commonwealth.

*      *      *      *

"The spirit of commerce is essentially selfish. Voyages are projected for profit. The merchant, whose liberal gifts surprise the world, chaffers in his bargains. Not for man as a family of brethren, therefore, are the blessing of this age. They are the gifts of a common Father, but they come not, like light and dew, insensibly to all. They mark the achievements of our race, and manifest the master-spirit of the age, but hitherto they have been felt but slightly by the masses of mankind. Wealth increases; but its aggregation into few hands takes place with ever-growing rapidity. The comforts of life abound; but when the markets of the world are glutted, hunger is in the home of the artisan. Over-production causes the legitimate effects of famine. The ingenuity of political economists is vainly taxed for the means of preventing the accumulation of surplus material and fabrics. And while warehouse and granary groan with repletion, heartless theory points to the laboring population reduced to want and pauperism, and with dogmatic emphasis, inquires if the increase of population cannot be legally restrained? The state of the market shows that there are more men than commerce requires, and a just system of economy would adapt the supply to the demand!

*      *      *      *

"Ancient philosophy did not recognize utility as an aim. It contemned, as mechanical and degrading, the discovery or invention that improved man's physical condition. Socrates invented no steam-engine or spinning-jenny. The soul was his constant study. Regardless of his own estate, he cared not for the material comfort of others. Indifferent to the world him-self, he sought to raise his disciples above it. A disputatious idler and a scoffer at utility, he fashioned Plato and swayed the world for centuries. Our philosophy comes from Bacon. It only deals with the wants of man and uses of nature. The body is the object of its solicitude. Earth is the field of its hopes. Time bounds its horizon. Fruit, material fruit—the multiplication of the means of temporal enjoyment—was the end Lord Bacon had in view, when, denouncing the schools, he gave his theories to the world. Time and experience have vindicated his methods. But have they not also shown, that a system which offers no sanction to virtue and no restraints to vice, whose only instruments are the senses, and whose only subject is material law, may impart to a world the vices which made the wisest also the meanest of mankind."

In August, 1856, Judge Kelley was nominated, while absent from home, as the Republican candidate for Congress from the fourth Congressional district of Pennsylvania. He was not elected ; for the Republican idea had made at that day but feeble impression in Philadelphia, and the party was without means or organization. During that canvass he made his first great Republican address on Slavery in the Territories, in Spring Garden Hall, Philadelphia. Motives of' delicacy prompted him to resign his judicial office immediately after the election, and he returned, after a term of nine years and nine months on the bench, to the private practice of his profession. In October 1860 he was elected on the Republican ticket to the seat in Congress to which he has been five times since returned by his constituents. On his return from the special session of Congress which convened on July 4th 1861, he participated as counsel for the Government, in the prosecution of the pirates of the rebel privateer, " Jeff Davis," and made a brilliant closing argument in that great State trial.

In Congress he has spoken at length upon every national topic ; and, in most instances, he has borne the standard of his party, and planted it far in advance, holding it with firm and steady hand, until his friends occupied the position.

As early as January 7th, 1862, he detected the fatal errors of the military policy of McClellan, and warned the country of the incompetency of that officer, in an impromptu reply to the speech of Vallandigham, on the Trent case. On the 16th of January, 1865, he vindicated, in an elaborate speech, the justice and necessity of impartial suffrage as a fundamental condition of the restoration of Republican Governments in the rebel States. On the 22d of June, 1865, in an address on " the Safeguards of Personal Liberty," at Concert Hall, Philadelphia, he criticised the policy of reconstruction foreshadowed by Presi dent Johnson in his North Carolina proclamation, and indicated a plan of action, in respect to the rebel States, which has been since substantially embodied in the reconstruction acts of Congress. In his speech on " Protection to American Labor," delivered in the House of Representatives, on the 31st of January, 1866, he indicated a financial policy, in reference to the payment of the public debt, which Congress has fully adopted in the repeal of the cotton tax, and the modification of the duties on manufactured products. In connection with these remarkable speeches, may be mentioned his speech of the 27th of February, 1866, on "the Constitutional Regulation of Suffrage." Two of Judge Kelley's speeches in Congress—that of January 16th, 1865, on Suffrage, and that of January 31st, 1866, on Labor—have had more extensive circulation than the speeches of any other American statesman. More than half a million copies of each have been printed and distributed.

At the first session of the XXXIXth Congress, Judge Kelley introduced the bill, which was afterwards passed with certain modifications, to secure the right of suffrage to the colored population of the District of Columbia.

On the evening of the 22d of February, 1868, he spoke in favor of the impeachment of the President, and more recently participated in the debate in the House of Representatives on the resolution of Mr. Broomall, of Pennsylvania, to prohibit hereditary exclusion from the right of suffrage, and defended the position taken by him in his more extended speech, two years before, on the Constitutional Regulation of Suffrage.  We have not space even to mention the numerous speeches and addresses of Judge Kelley in and out of Congress. He has addressed his fellow citizens from the lakes to the gulf.

In the spring of 1867, he visited the Southern States, and in a series of addresses at New Orleans, Montgomery, and other cities, spoke earnest and eloquent words of hope and encouragement to the people of the South. The noble wisdom and tender humanity which pervade these speeches, stamp them as the production of a statesman and philanthropist. They were words of friendly counsel, which the people of the South would do well to heed.

A comprehensive, national character, and a generous, in-tense, all-embracing humanity, have always characterized Judge Kelley's political opinions. He saw, in the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, conclusive evidence that the Democratic party had become sectional ; and he left it. He found that Democracy, which once had meant civil and religious liberty, equality, justice, advancement, the greatest good of the greatest number, had come to mean proscription of opinion, aristocracy, tyranny, disorder, slavery ; and he abandoned it.

He is therefore one of the fathers of the National Republican party. The sincerity and earnestness of his convictions would always gain for him the attention of the House of Representatives, if it were not commanded by the striking and engaging peculiarities of his eloquence. He appears with equal advantage in impromptu reply, and in elaborately prepared address. His vehement declamation, delivered in tones of voice marvellously rich and powerful, thrills, on occasions, the members upon the floor, and the listeners in the galleries; as when, on the memorable night of the 22d of February, he exclaimed: 

"Sir, the bloody and untilled fields of the ten unreconstructed States, the unsheeted ghosts of the two thousand murdered negroes in Texas, cry, if the dead ever invoke vengeance, for the punishment of Andrew Johnson."

Judge Kelley is certainly one of the ablest of the public men whom Philadelphia has sent to the national councils. She has too few of such men—men of progressive ideas, commanding talents, and national fame: and when one has served her, as Judge Kelley has, through twelve years of eventful history, it becomes her duty, as a just community, to cherish and honor him.

There are men who though generally just and fair in their intercourse with their fellows, yet under the pressure of partisan dictation, or to gain some paltry end, will be guilty of participation in acts of the grossest injustice, defending themselves by the Jesuit maxim: " The end justifies the means." With this class William D. Kelley has no affinities. In political action, as everywhere else, he is the soul of honor, and he would scorn to do an act of injustice to a political opponent as much as to his dearest personal friend. An instance of this occurred just before the close of the session of Congress in June, 1872. The leaders of Judge Kelley's own party were endeavoring to put through a bill received from the Senate, which was intensely offensive to the opposition, by the party whip and spur, and were even ready to risk the calling of an extra session of Congress in order to accomplish it. The opposition were resisting by every constitutional means, in the hope of obtaining a modification from a Committee of Conference which should render it less objection-able. Judge Kelley, seeing the unfairness of the course pursued by the party leaders, boldly threw himself into the breach, demanded and obtained an extension of time and a new reference, which led to the desired modification of the bill. Few men have the moral courage to do such a thing in defiance of party rule. Only a strong man could have done it successfully; but we believe there was no man of either party in the House of Representatives who did not in his heart of hearts honor Judge Kelley for his daring and manliness, while very few would have the moral courage to follow his example in such au emergency.

Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872   

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