BY CHARLES SEDGWICK RACKEMANN
Francis Veegnies Balch, the subject of this memoir, was descended directly and in the eighth generation from John Balch, who came from Somersetshire, England, and, after having been for four years in Dorchester, settled in 1630 in the “Bass River District” of what is now Beverly, was then Salem, and was originally Naumkeag. He was one of the first settlers of Beverly. With him had come also Roger Conant, John Woodberry, and Peter Palfrey, and these four men were known as “the Old Planters.”
His father was Joseph Balch, who became one of the pioneers in the establishment of fire insurance companies in Massachusetts, and lived for many years at Jamaica Plain, which in those days was a section of the town of West Roxbury, though long since (in 1874) made a part of the present City of Boston.
Mr. Balch’s mother was Anne Lothrop Noyes, of Newburyport, and she was descended directly, and in the eighth generation, from Nicholas Noyes, who settled in Newbury in 1635.
Thus for more than two hundred years his ancestors had lived in the Colony, Province, and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and had become “bone of its bone, and flesh of its flesh.”
Mr. Balch was born in Boston on February 3, 1839, in a house on LaGrange Place. Most of his childhood was passed at Jamaica Plain, and there he attended for a time the school kept by Miss Jane Lane, who was a sister of our late honored associate, Professor George Martin Lane. Afterwards he went to the boarding-school of his own brother-in-law, Stephen Minot Weld, and thence entered
the freshman class of Harvard College while yet in his seventeenth year. As a child he was rather feeble, and his friends did not look with much confidence upon the comparatively small prospect of his being able to finish his course at college. Not only did he do that, but he did it with the utmost credit to his scholarship and with comfort and happiness for himself. He soon afterwards wrote:
I never expect to spend four years again so happily as I have done these four, but I have the consolation of knowing that I knew what I was enjoying all the time, and made the most of it. That my life here has been so pleasant is entirely owing to the friendships which I have made, and to the kindness of my classmates.
While in college he had distinguished himself by his high rank and by winning sundry honors, both from his classmates and from the authorities. He was president of the class; he obtained a second prize for an English essay; and he was both class-day orator and valedictorian. It is related of him that at this time he deliberately tried to lower his own rank in scholarship,—so little was he desirous of accumulating honors for himself, and so generously disposed to share them with others.
One of our associates and his classmate, the Rev. Dr. William R. Huntington, has remarked:
It is seldom that the authorities of a college and the undergraduates are of one mind with respect to the merits of a particular student, but in Balch’s case there was no difference of opinion. The faculty declared him the first scholar of his year and his classmates chose him for their orator.
Another classmate, James Schouler, speaking of the same period, says:
Respect for his attainments and modest worth caused him to be chosen almost spontaneously the class orator, at a time when college politics were somewhat bitter, and though not a man of brilliant parts he acquitted himself well and earnestly, as he did on every other occasion of life.
He graduated in 1859 in a class that contained a large number of men who became especially prominent in life, and of which the late Professor Child wrote: “The class of 1859; a very distinguished class, full of interesting men, and fortunate in entering upon life at a time favorable to making and displaying character.”
The pursuits that kept his interest and absorbed his time were always those of an intellectual order, but he did not at college neglect his health. He played cricket and rowed. He devoted a good deal of time to the study of German and almost as much to mathematics. He said that he did not have a sick day during the four years.
He became fascinated by the study of botany, and learned the wild flowers of Massachusetts with great thoroughness. He had a very keen, quick eye for his favorites and used to astonish his friends in later life by seeing the tiniest of flowers, while walking through the woods, fields, or meadows. Truly he was infected with the wonderful enthusiasm of Professor Asa Gray.
All that was beautiful in literature appealed to him, and made him its worshipper. He was among the favored few who studied Italian with Professor Lowell, at the latter’s house; and his love of poetry lasted him through life, and was a never-ending source of enjoyment to himself and others.
On leaving college he at once took up the study of the law. In those days not very much was required in the way of legal studies to qualify one for admission to the bar, and having attended three terms, so called, at the Harvard Law School, he was admitted in the winter of 1860–1861, in Suffolk County.
Early in the year 1861 he became associated with George S. Hillard and Francis W. Palfrey, who had offices at 33 School Street. In July, 1862, after he had been in practice about eighteen months, he enlisted as a private in the Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, of which Palfrey was already Lieutenant-Colonel. He was mustered in August 4, 1862, but was discharged for disability from lung-fever, contracted in the Peninsular Campaign, before the end of that year. It is probable that he never fully recovered from the ill-effects of that disease.
Yet another classmate, the Rev. George L. Chaney, speaking of the early days, said:
Of the two it must be said that the mind in him was stronger than the body, and the spirit was ever master of the form. Only once in his whole career did his body fail to do the spirit’s bidding. He broke down on the march, when in the Civil War he undertook to join the 20th Massachusetts Regiment, without preliminary drill or training. This was in 1862. Thereafter he was a conscript of peace, his disabilities forbidding re-enlistment.
Of his military service he seldom spoke and if driven to it, he always made it of no account; whereas I personally knew men who were fired by Balch’s example to join the army, and who did brave service to the end of the war.
At the meeting in Jamaica Plain called for the purpose of securing volunteers, there was a pause of uncertainty and apparent reluctance to enlist. Balch enlisted then and there, and the Company was secured.
He made way for liberty although he was not allowed to make a long fight for it.
He had been in the South the year before, going to New York by rail, with his half-brother, Joseph W. Balch, and his friends Eben Bacon and Caleb Curtis. From New York they proceeded on board a government transport steamer commanded by Captain Oliver Eldridge, and Mr. Balch kept a journal for some considerable time. That journey was begun November 25, 1861. They lay off Beaufort, South Carolina, for a long time, and went ashore frequently. The journal gives full details of many of the little trips that were made, and shows on the part of its writer great closeness of observation and a clear and ready style of narrative.
So severe were the ill effects of his short experience in the army that although discharged in the early part of the winter of 1862–1863 it was not until May, 1863, that he was able to resume the practice of his profession, which he then took up again with General Palfrey. Notwithstanding that Mr. Balch returned to civil life with his health impaired (perhaps permanently) by his military service, his patriotism forbade his acceptance of a pension from the government. At this time he must have begun that systematic reading of the modern English Reports of decisions, both at law and in equity, and of the Massachusetts Reports, which he kept up to the end of his life.
In 1864 Mr. Balch went to Washington and took the position of Clerk to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and became also private secretary to Charles Sumner, Senator from Massachusetts. His relations with Mr. Sumner were most agreeable, and satisfactory to both, and so greatly did he inspire Mr. Sumner with confidence and respect that the latter made him one of his literary executors and his sole general executor. This well-deserved honor brought Mr. Balch into prominence in a way that could hardly have been contemplated either by the testator in making his will, or by the executor when he qualified. On the other hand Balch had the greatest admiration and respect for the character of the Senator.
It is now about twenty-eight years since the first efficient Civil Service Reform Association was organized in this country, and at the annual conference of the National Civil Service Reform League held in New Haven, Connecticut, November 19 and 20, 1906, due recognition of the age of the Society was made. In connection with that fact it is worth while to record here that it was Mr. Balch who, while associated with Mr. Sumner in Washington, made the “first effective suggestion of civil service reform in this country,” and prepared the bill for that purpose which the Senator introduced on April 30, 1864.
His life in Washington at that time must have greatly stimulated and cemented his interest in public affairs, which lasted always thereafter. He did not desert the law even while living there, for at that time he published several short works,698 and one of quite serious importance—a new edition of Blackwell on Tax Titles—adding a good deal of new matter to this already well-known and authoritative treatise.
After being in Washington about two years he returned to Boston, and was again associated with Palfrey, this time as partner; but after a short time he withdrew and went into the office of William Minot, Senior, who was then known as Judge Minot, where were also William Minot, Junior (the second of the name), and James Benjamin. That office was carrying on the trust-business and law-work connected with real estate which had been founded by the Hon. George Richards Minot in the eighteenth century and on the same site in Court Street (Number 39) where his professional life was passed. No other office could have been found where the business and the personnel would have been more to Mr. Balch’s liking. The Minots were relations of the Welds, to whom he was related also, and they all lived in the West Roxbury neighborhood.
It was indeed a most happy and fortunate alliance. Through it Mr. Balch was still further brought into contact with the other learned and accomplished members of the bar who were administering the princely fortunes which Bostonians have for so long a time chosen to have kept in trust, and with the principal savings institutions, and the landed proprietors.
If up to this time there had been any doubt about his future career as a lawyer it was quickly dispelled; and it became certain that he would thereafter devote his time, energy, and interest to those parts of the practice of the law which are bound up in trusts and conveyancing, in equity and probate matters.
In 1873, when the eldest William Minot died, and William Minot, third, had come into the office, Mr. Balch branched out for himself to the extent of having his own office, in a room adjoining those of the Messrs. Minot. Here he labored, with never more than one clerk, for sixteen years. The amount of conveyancing work that he did was enormous, and his business as executor and trustee was constantly increasing. He had become in the meanwhile sole executor of Dr. Samuel G. Howe’s estate, and had trusteeships and agencies of considerable importance. He did all his work himself, made all examinations of title, both in the registries and probate offices, and wrote all abstracts, opinions, and letters with his own hand.
The detailed mention of books filled with notes, or of volumes of letters written, makes dry reading, but when one considers that for thirty years or more Mr. Balch was searching titles and making abstracts of them, and that these abstracts consist of a complete narrative of the title, in most cases covering a period of sixty years, but often more, some adequate idea of the sum of his labors in this department may readily be formed. Every deed, mortgage, and release, every will, and every case of intestacy must be read and understood, and its sense if not its form recorded in the abstract; and until the recent improvements in the indexes, thousands of papers must be read in order to determine whether or not they affected the land in question.
Down to 1876 he kept all his own accounts, and was frequently in his office as late as nine o’clock in the evening. Typewriters were unknown in those days, and stenographers were never seen in private offices.
In the beginning of 1876 he turned over all his account-books to his clerk, a young man699 who was taken into his office to learn the business, and in 1879 Mr. Balch first employed a professional bookkeeper, having taken larger quarters in the same building. By this time he had some seventy trust and agency accounts upon his books, and his reputation as an able conveyancer and safe and learned counsel was fully established. Employed equally to examine titles for purchasers and for mortgagees, he became very widely known, not only in Boston but in all the adjoining counties; and when investors and lenders found that he not only was well skilled in detecting flaws or questions in titles but having discovered them was possessed of a zealous love of curing them, and a legal mind of uncommon learning and fertility of resource, they confided their interests to his care without measure.
One of his most fortunate and most highly valued connections (aside from that with the Messrs. Minot) was with the late Colonel Henry Lee, who became a staunch friend and admirer, and a regular client. Mr. Balch through him became counsel to the Union Safe Deposit Vaults, under which name Colonel Lee established and developed the now usual business of renting small spaces or boxes in specially constructed and carefully guarded quarters for the safekeeping of valuable securities and property. The Union Building, at the corner of State and Exchange Streets, was owned by the Lee family, and was, about the time the vaults were established, put into the hands of trustees, who issued certificates of beneficial ownership to those persons who had theretofore each had a fractional share of the entire ownership. This proceeding virtually made the Union Building Trust one of the earliest, if not the very first “real estate trust” in Boston. Such trusts have become very popular, and there are now many more than one hundred of them of prominence in this city. They have been subjected to many criticisms and questionings on the part of the lawyers, and the particular point has been made that they must be carefully limited in duration so as to comply with the rules of law. In the Union Building Trust no limit was set, and the trust might go on forever for anything that appears; but it was well-conceived, and we can easily imagine the satisfaction that Balch would have felt had he lived long enough to hear that a trust so expressed was upheld by the Supreme Judicial Court, after being attacked on that very point.700
During the worst of the great fire in Boston, on a Sunday afternoon, he became greatly troubled lest pressure might be brought upon Colonel Lee or his assistants to open the Union Vaults, and allow renters to remove their valuables to some places of safety more remote from the burning area, and he fully realized the possible embarrassment and even disaster that might ensue upon anything being done which might indicate or recognize a feeling or state of panic about the safety of the securities which were deposited there. At the moment all the horses in Boston were sick with the epizootic, and so Mr. Balch walked in to Boston from Jamaica Plain, warned the gentlemen who were on guard701 on no account to open the vaults, no matter who requested it, and quietly turning away, walked home again.
Meanwhile, in 1863, he married his cousin, Ellen Maria, daughter of Dr. Francis Vergnies Noyes and his wife, Elizabeth Porter, and continued to live at Jamaica Plain, except for a few weeks in summer. When his children were growing up he built a house at Cohasset and passed the summer there. He grew very fond of this place, which was right upon the sea. He had always enjoyed rowing and walking, and at Cohasset he could still keep up these favorite pastimes and also have the benefit and pleasure of sea-bathing. He was the most hospitable householder that ever was seen, and was never happier than when giving up his own room to some guest, or walking in order that some guest might have his seat in the carriage; and at this Cohasset home there seemed to be room for all his friends and all his children’s friends besides.
After he set up his own office he had a partnership with Arthur G. Sedgwick,702 but Mr. Sedgwick soon removed to New York City, and their professional connection ceased. But Mr. Sedgwick always called on Mr. Balch when he came to Boston, and after the death of the latter expressed his feelings of admiration and respect in the following words:
Mr. Balch had, to me, a character most remarkable for its complete unselfishness. He had a great many other fine qualities, but in this respect he was in my experience without a rival. I have read of such characters, but never met one except in his case. He seemed to differ from every one else, in not perceiving that his character was remarkable, or that there was anything exceptional or noteworthy in his being what he was.
It was not until some years later that the partnership was formed which lasted until the death of Mr. Balch.703 In a memoir like this many details of life and character must necessarily be omitted, but even with that rule in mind it is difficult to reject many interesting things concerning Mr. Balch. He touched life at many different points, yet always with a light hand, not lacking in firmness, and a gentle heart. When he died his relatives and friends thronged the church at Jamaica Plain, where he had worshipped for many years, to pay the last tributes of devotion and respect. A few weeks later the meeting of the Suffolk Bar, and the Bar of the First Circuit of the United States, called out a most notable assemblage. The remarks upon that occasion were unusually full of personal feeling. Professor John C. Gray, a classmate, presented the resolutions which had been prepared by a Special Committee, and said:
We have known many an able and noble man, but the youngest of us will never live to see another figure’so unique as that of Mr. Balch.
Mr. Balch was a classmate of mine in college. What he has been since, he was then. No man ever remained more constant to his beginnings than he. So frail in appearance that it seemed as if a year’s life would be too much to hope for him, he had a mighty spirit within. College life began then with the football match between the Freshman and Sophomore classes, and it was in those simple days a very rough-and-tumble fight. The first knowledge of Balch by his classmates was to see a feeble figure wielding a pair of ineffectual fists, but in the very van of the action. He was from the beginning the first scholar in the class, facile princeps. His supremacy was never questioned; it seemed a law of nature that he should be at the head. He had that extraordinary power of rapid and accurate work which lasted him through his whole life. I have never known, I think, any one quite his equal in this respect. To work hard was his nature. I do not think he would have been happy without hard work.
In accepting the resolutions and ordering them to be spread upon the records of the Supreme Judicial Court, Mr. Justice Barker delivered an eloquent appreciation of the character and attainments of Mr. Balch, saying in part:
Your deep respect for the strong and fine character, the great learning, and the faithful, assiduous service of the man who is commemorated by these resolutions would, without more, make it a pleasure for the Court to place them upon its records. To your respect and appreciation are to be added the same feelings on the part of the Court, deeply sensible of the fine qualities and the high attainments of Mr. Balch. No man understood better than he the subtle and intricate law of land, of trusts, of wills, of the settlement of estates. No man could better advise how the funds of widows and orphans, or of great charities, could be safely invested and preserved. No man had a finer sense of right and justice. No man was more ready to give freely and cheerfully of his time and learning to his associates at the Bar. No man showed better than he that the pecuniary reward of professional excellence is not its highest recompense.
The spontaneity and warmth with which his friends expressed themselves after his death was very striking, and no more fitting and beautiful eulogies could be desired than are found in their written or spoken words. Mr. Minot spoke of his personal traits with keen appreciation of their quality:
He was tenderly affectionate, and when he conceived himself to be under a debt for any kindness or service repaid it over and over again, with interest compounded upon all the previous payments, until the recipient was overwhelmed, and even ashamed.
He was one of those rare persons who are absolutely unselfish, and one might say that he was wholly unconscious of himself were it not for the deference he showed to his inferiors, setting himself below them.
Self-sacrifice in great things and small was a delight to him. He was of the poor in spirit; he was of those who mourn, for he was indeed a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief. He was of the meek, of those that hunger and thirst after righteousness, of the merciful, of the pure in heart, and we know that the reward promised to these is his.
In his home and in his friendships he was the incarnation of thoughtfulness and unselfishness. His ample memory and well-stored mind, his discriminating appreciation and enjoyment of beautiful things, together with his kindly and genial humor, rendered him one of the most delightful companions. At the same time he was familiar with the most profound problems of life and death. Like the best practical men of affairs, he was essentially an idealist and a believer in principles. One felt that he would have gone unflinchingly to the stake, if truth, or duty, or love, had commanded.
It was in this spirit of simple chivalry that he threw aside the pursuits of the scholar and enlisted as a private in the ranks in the great Civil War. But it was no less in the same spirit of consecration to the public welfare that he contributed his services and his money, as long as he lived, to every good cause, whether for education of the poor blacks at the South, or for needed reforms in his own city. His cheerful willingness seemed to know no bounds. His religion was the direct outcome, as well as the inspiration of his life. It was pre-eminently the religion of the Beatitudes and of the golden rule, quiet, earnest, and efficacious.