Portrait of Samuel Blatchford.
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After preparatory education, Samuel Blatchford entered Columbia College at the age of 13 and graduated at the top of his class in 1837. Thereafter he studied law for a year in his father’s office and then accepted a position as private secretary of New York governor William H. Seward, a close friend of Mr. Blatchford's father. Following two years of work for William Seward, Samuel Blatchford was admitted to the bar in 1842 and began practice with his father.
The 1940s witnessed Mr. Blatchford’s precocious rise among the ranks of New York lawyers. For a time, he was a law partner with William Seward in Auburn, New York, during one of the latter’s temporary sabbaticals from public life. By 1854 Mr. Blatchford had returned to New York City, where he established the law firm of Blatchford, Seward, and Griswold - the Seward in this partnership being the nephew and adopted son of former governor William Seward. So prosperous was Mr. Blatchford’s steadily expanding practice, focused especially on admiralty and international matters, that he turned down a seat on the New York Supreme Court when it was offered to him in 1855.
The 1850s also saw Samuel Blatchford begin the work of reporting decisions in federal cases, a work that would occupy him for many years to come and would greatly assist the legal profession. He initially reported the federal circuit court opinions decided in the second circuit by Associate Justice Samuel Nelson. Mr. Blatchford eventually published 24 volumes of second circuit opinions, continuing his reporting work even after he became a judge, and also added to these volumes a 1855 collection of admiralty decisions, Samuel Blatchford’s and Howland’s Reports, and a collection of decisions in prize cases published as Mr. Blatchford’s Prize Cases.
Mr. Blatchford’s own career as a jurist began with his appointment as a federal judge for the southern district of New York in the spring of 1867. After five years his ability and impressive work habits - as well as his political connections - were acknowledged by his appointment to the Second Circuit in 1872. Here, in 10 years of judicial service, he developed substantial expertise in admiralty and patent issues and demonstrated indefatigable energy in his handling of the court’s business. When fellow New Yorker Ward Hunt resigned from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1882, Mr. Blatchford seemed to be in an excellent position to be appointed in Ward Hunt’s place. He was, after all, a New Yorker, and Mr. Hunt was the latest holder of what was commonly referred to as the Court’s "New York seat." Mr. Blatchford was, moreover, an experienced federal judge of proven ability and moderate politics. But President Chester A. Arthur turned first to New York politician Roscoe Conkling for the appointment. After being confirmed by the Senate, though, Mr. Conkling - who had higher political aspirations - declined the appointment. Next, President Arthur nominated George F. Edmunds of Vermont, but he declined as well. Finally, the president nominated Mr. Blatchford, and the Senate promptly confirmed this appointment on March 27, 1882. Associate Justice Samuel Blatchford took his seat on the Court in the first week of April 1882.
The work of the Supreme Court intrudes on the consciousness of the public most often in cases involving significant constitutional controversies. But in the closing decades of the 19th century, the great majority of cases before the Court did not present these sorts of issues but rather, more commonly, issues relating to commerce or admiralty or patents. News reporters took little interest in these cases, and they passed through the corridors of the Supreme Court without causing so much as ripple in the public consciousness. But such cases required a substantial amount of the Court’s collective energy, and Justice Blatchford immediately proved himself invaluable in their resolution. He brought to the Court both an impressive measure of expertise in the areas of admiralty and patent law and a willingness to cast himself fully into the labor of resolving these and other cases. He wrote 435 of the 3,237 signed opinions delivered by the Court during his years as an associate justice, well more than his proportionate share. Nor was Mr. Blatchford’s industry the mere short-lived enthusiasm of a novice on the Court. Chief Justice Melville Fuller, who joined the Court in 1888, eight years after Samuel Blatchford, would later observe of his New York colleague that "the discharge of duty was an impulse, and toil a habit."
Samuel Blatchford was a supporter of the Republican Party of the United States.
In 1882 Mr. Blatchford gained a reputation as one of the most hardworking and capable lawyers and justices.
In 1844 Samuel Blatchford married Caroline Appleton.