Born in Wallingford, Connecticut. His father was the clergyman James Dana (1735-1812), who was a nephew of Richard Dana (1699-1772), a lawyer, who was in turn a descendant through Caleb, second son of Daniel, who was the youngest son of Richard Dana, who came from England, settled in Cambridge in 1640, and died there about 1695. According to the family tradition, this last Richard was the son of a French Huguenot that settled in England in 1629.Dana pursued academic studies and graduated from Yale College in 1775. He studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1778, and practiced in Middletown, Connecticut. He was a member of the Connecticut General Assembly from 1789 to 1796. Afterward he was elected to the United States House of Representatives to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Uriah Tracy, and served from January 3, 1797 to May 10, 1810. There he was chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Elections, and was one of the managers appointed by the House of Representatives in 1798 to conduct the impeachment proceedings against William Blount, a Senator from Tennessee.