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  Portrait Gallery of former Connecticut Chief Justices

Zephaniah Swift Zephaniah Swift  <<  |  >>
 Chief Judge, Supreme Court of Errors, 1815-1819

  • Born: February 27, 1759, Wareham, Massachusetts.

  • Education: Prepared for college at the famous school of Master Nathan Tisdale in Lebanon, which was distinguished among scholars; he entered Yale College at the age of 15 and graduated in 1778 along with soon-to-be esteemed alumni Noah Webster, the lexicographer, Oliver Wolcott, Secretary of the Treasury and President of the 1818 Connecticut Constitutional Convention and Joel Barlow, poet and political writer; immediately began study for the Bar and on admission to the Bar opened an office in Windham. Received honorary Doctor of Law (LL.D.) degrees from Yale College (1815) and Middlebury College (1821).

  • Occupations and Appointments: Member Connecticut State House of Representatives, 1820-22; member of Hartford Convention, 1814; Chief Judge of the Supreme Court of Errors 1815-19; Judge of the Superior Court 1801-19; accompanied United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth as Secretary of the French mission, 1800; elected to the Council or Upper House of the General Assembly, May, 1799 and served until 1801 when he was appointed Judge of the Superior Court; elected to Third Congress and re-elected as a Federalist to the Fourth Congress, March 4, 1793-March 3, 1797; member of the Connecticut State House of Representatives, 1787-93, serving as Speaker in 1792; was Clerk of the House for four sessions; practiced law in Windham.

  • Family ties: Descendant of William Swyft of Sandwich, who came from England in the great “Boston Immigration” of 1630-31. Son of Rowland (1720-95) and Mary Dexter Swift of Wareham, Massachusetts who relocated to Lebanon, Connecticut to raise their children.

  • Died: Died on September 27, 1823 while visiting a son and his family in Warren, Ohio. Buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Warren.

  • Items of Note

Items of Note:
  • Considered by many to be the author of the first legal treatise in America—A System of the Law of the State of Connecticut (published in 1795)—Swift went on to write, at the urging of the Connecticut General Assembly, A Digest of the Laws of the State of Connecticut, a revision of the statute law of the state. The second volume of his Digest was at the publisher when Judge Swift died. Of his efforts Chief Justice Simeon Baldwin later wrote: Connecticut owes to him more than to any other man her simple and orderly system of private law.

And, on another occasion, Chief Justice Baldwin also observed of Chief Justice Swift’s work: Whoever is familiar with it is, as to English common law and procedure, a well read lawyer. It became a saying that a country law office in Connecticut was well furnished if it had a three legged stool and Swift’s Digest.

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  • Swift's DigestWhile a member of the House—under order of Congress (4 Annals 1229)—Swift prepared, indexed and supervised the publication of the first compilation of United States Statutes. The compilation was published in three volumes and included the Acts of Congress to March 1797, the treaties made by the United States, and an index which was so extensive that it constituted a complete digest of the existing laws of the United States.
  • Chief Justice Swift was referred to as Connecticut’s Blackstone, for his devotion to his profession and his definitive volumes on law. In his official portrait* by Lyme artist James Weiland, a bust of the British jurist and patron saint of lawyers, William Blackstone, sits above a desk cluttered with law journals and papers.
  • A free thinker in social and religious matters Swift wrote pamphlets and spoke frequently on behalf of ecclesiastical reforms and against slavery. An active member of the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom and for the Relief of Persons Unlawfully Holden in Bondage he delivered a speech at the North Meeting House in Hartford on May 12, 1791 that read, in part, …so many volumes have been written on this subject, that nothing new can be expanded; yet the subject ought never to be deemed exhausted, while an individual of the human race is groaning in shackles of servitude…These victims are sold with less ceremony than the beasts of the field…Can there be a human heart that does not soften with compassion at the cries of anguish and exclamations of sorrow when the ships depart from the coast—when the slaves take a last view of their native climes, to which they have no hopes ever to return—when they bid an eternal adieu to all that is dear to them.
  • In his zeal as an enemy of those in the Church establishment he wielded his pen venomously. The Church leaders of the state were horrified when Swift was elected to the legislature. It was reported that in one of his tilting matches with ecclesiastics he was called, ...destitute of delicacy, decency, good manners, sound judgment, honesty, manhood and humanity; a poltroon, a cat's paw, the infamous tool of the party, a partisan, a political weathercock, and a ragamuffin.

The portrait by James Weiland was commissioned in 1938 by Chief Justice William M. Maltbie. No known image of Swift existed up until that time when State Librarian James Brewster, with the help of a local librarian, tracked down Swift’s great-granddaughter, Olive Harmon, in Warren, Ohio. Harmon sent a copy of a picture of Chief Justice Swift which Weiland used to create the portrait.

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