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Henry Dutton 

Henry Dutton (1796-1869) – lawyer, judge, Yale law professor, politician, 38th Governor of Connecticut.

Henry Dutton was the sixth of Thomas and Thankful (Punderson) Dutton's ten children. He was born on February 12, 1796 in Plymouth, Connecticut where his father ran a small country store. Not long after they moved to the nearby town of Northfield where they lived for eight years and from there to the family farm in Watertown where his father had grown up and where Henry spent the remainder of his childhood and early adult years.

He attended the local school in Watertown, and proved to be an exceptional student. With the encouragement and guidance of his older brother Matthew and his uncle Aaron Dutton (both Yale graduates), he commenced a program of home study to qualify for admission to Yale College. Passing the entrance exam, he entered Yale in 1817 in the junior year, and graduated the following year with highest honors. 

After graduating from Yale, Henry studied law in Fairfield, Connecticut with Roger Minot Sherman, supporting himself by teaching at the Fairfield Academy. He returned to Yale as a tutor from 1821 to 1823.


On September 8, 1823 he married Eliza Eliot Joy at the First Congregational Church in Fairfield. Eliza was the daughter of sea captain Melzar Joy and granddaughter of Harvard intellectual and Congregational minister Andrew Eliot, who were both from Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents died before she was twenty: her mother when she was an infant and her father on board his ship in Havana, Cuba. She was living in Fairfield at the time she met Henry.


Shortly after their marriage the Duttons moved to Newtown, Connecticut where Henry commenced his law practice. Their three daughters were born there: Anna Eliza (1824), Mary Eliot (1826) and Harriet Joy (1834). In 1837 they moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut where their only son Henry Melzar was born (1838).


While in Bridgeport, Henry rose to become one of the leading attorneys in Fairfield County, and was for several years State attorney for the county. In 1847 they moved to New Haven where Henry took up the Kent Professorship of Law at Yale, a position he held until his death.


In addition to his duties at Yale College, he continued his legal practice, served on several committees to revise State laws (1849, 1866) and authored several legal digests. He was a judge on the New Haven County Court (1852) and on the Connecticut Supreme Court (1861-66).

Henry Dutton's lengthy legal career was interwoven with a life in politics. He was elected five times to the Connecticut House of Representatives, representing successively Newtown, Bridgeport and New Haven (1828, 1834, 1838, 1839 and 1850), once to the State Senate (1849), and served one term as Governor of Connecticut (1854-55). He was a Whig and after that Party’s demise in the mid 1850s a Republican. As a politician he was widely respected and held a number of important positions in the legislature.


In 1839 the Connecticut Courant described him as "one of the most able men in the House. As a speaker he [was] argumentative, distinct and impressive, [and] without affecting a high degree of ornament, he appeal[ed] rather to the understanding than the passions."  


In 1853 he was nominated the Whig candidate for governor, but lost to his Democratic opponent over the issue of prohibition. He ran again for governor the following year, winning a four-way race with less than one-third of the popular vote in an election campaign that was fought over a proposed bill that would open up the Kansas-Nebraska territory to slavery, which the Whigs opposed. Although he viewed slavery as an abomination, he was not an abolitionist, and upheld the South’s constitutional right to own slaves.


He ran for re-election as Governor in 1855 but lost to the Know-Nothing candidate. Soon after he joined the nascent Republican Party and actively supported the Republican candidate John C. Fremont in the presidential campaign of 1856.


When the Civil War broke out he was a strong supporter of President Lincoln, and in a letter to the Hartford Daily Courant in the late summer of 1862, written shortly after the death of his own son in that war, commended Lincoln on his determination to crush the rebellion.  

Henry’s later years were darkened by the deaths of two of his children:


His son Melzar, who graduated from Yale in 1857 and was practicing law in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1861, had enlisted in the 5th Connecticut Infantry at the age of 22 and was promoted to first lieutenant. He was killed at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862. In a condolence letter, Henry’s cousin Samuel W. S. Dutton, the minister of New Haven’s North Church, wrote: “Few, I am sure, gave in their childhood and boyhood so little occasion for anxiety or reproof or so much reason for satisfaction and pleasure.”


In February 1865 his daughter Mary died at the age of 38 after a long and painful illness (presumably cancer). She had married Henry B. Graves (Henry Dutton's private secretary when he was governor) and was said to have had a fine poetic temperament. After her death the Duttons had a small book published containing poems and verses written by both her and Melzar. In a heart-breaking poem entitled “To her Mother,” written ten days before she died, Mary said “pray not that I may live, for never – never more will health through all my pulses spring, as in the days of yore. Life is a poor – poor boon, when racked with pain we lie, with wasting form and failing health; ‘tis a relief to die.”  

In 1866 Henry retired from the bench, but continued with his duties at the Law school and carried on a small legal practice. He died on April 26, 1869 at his home on Crown Street after an illness of several months. His funeral was held at the North Church, which he and Eliza had attended for many years. His pallbearers included eminent lawyers and judges, as well as prominent members of the church. His congenial personality was summed up in his obituary in the New York Times: "Keen in intellect, he was free from guile. He was bright, amiable, boyish in feeling, unsuspecting, easy of faith in others."


Eliza lived for another 14 years, dying in New Haven in 1883 at age 87. She was living with her unmarried half sister Mary P. Joy at the time of her death. She had been an invalid for a number of years, but retained her mental faculties until the end. Eliza had suffered much in her life, her final loss being the death of her youngest daughter Hattie in 1873. She is buried in Grove Street Cemetery in the Dutton family plot alongside her husband and daughters Mary and Hattie. 

Notes on sources:

  1. National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Volume 10, 1900.

  2. Biographical Sketches of Eminent American Lawyers, Part 4, edited by John Livingston, June 1852.

  3. Inscription on Henry Dutton's gravestone in the Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut, which lists his many accomplishments.

  4. Henry Dutton’s letter about his brother appears in the biographical sketch of Matthew Rice Dutton in the Annals of the American Pulpit: Trinitarian Congregational, Volume 2, William B. Sprague, 1857.

  5. “One the most able”: Connecticut Courant, 11 May 1839, Hartford, Connecticut.

  6. “Few I am sure”: Samuel W. S. Dutton to Henry Dutton, August 22, 1862, Henry Dutton Family Papers, MS 2094, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut. 

  7. “To her Mother, pray not”: Mary E. Graves to Eliza E. Dutton, January 2, 1865, Henry Dutton Family Papers, MS 2094, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut. This poem is also included in Memoir: verses, etc. composed by Mary E. (Dutton) Graves and Henry Melzar Dutton, undated, 20 pp., Yale University Library.

  8. Henry Dutton's funeral: Norwich Aurora, 5 May 1869, Norwich, Connecticut. 

  9. “Keen in intellect”: New York Times, 28 April 1869, New York, New York.

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