Men I Have Painted/Judge William W. Porter

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Men I Have Painted by John McLure Hamilton
William W. Porter

Hamilton Men I Have Painted 208f William W Porter.jpg

JUDGE WILLIAM W. PORTER


AFTER leaving the Matilija Canyon, where I had a delightful fortnight, fishing the rainbow trout in company with Birge Harrison, Mrs. Harrison, my wife and son, and a philanthropic social reformer, Anna Farnsworth, I wandered slowly up the State of California to Monterey, San Francisco, the Shasta Springs. I had a fully matured intention of continuing northwards to Vancouver, and perhaps to Alaska, and had only arrived in Portland, Oregon, when a letter containing an urgent appeal to return at once to Philadelphia reached me from William W. Porter, an attorney-at-law. I was informed of certain transactions that had taken place, and I was asked, in the public interest, to commence a contest in the courts to right a wrong. The wrong was both apparent and real; yet after a long and detailed conversation with Mr. Porter, to whom I hurried, I told him that he might enter me as a plaintiff, but that the case was lost already, because we had not a foot to stand upon. Mr. Porter differed from me; but the sequel proved that I was right. The case was tried before three courts, and each time it went against us—the last time on Washington's birthday, when the court, as a great favour to us, consented to forgo the holiday and hear counsel's pleadings. Mr. Porter on that occasion displayed all his eloquence, his power of acute and logical reasoning, his innuendo, and after the end of his argument left the court quivering with emotion—and fatigue! I knew by the expressions on the faces of the judges, the presiding one of the three being the judge who had decided against us in the first instance, that the brilliant display of sound reasoning had been of no avail, and that the verdict would be a confirmation of that of the court below. The court sat, if I am not in error, in the old historic State House; and on leaving it we walked silently across Independence Square. Counsel for the defendants had been, to my mind, too leniently dealt with. Court etiquette had been punctiliously observed and the bona fides of the opposing attorney tacitly accepted, whereas his evidence, had it been sufficiently sifted, might have caused a change of view on the part of two of the judges. Thoughtlessly, with my mind centred upon the point, I impulsively broke the silence by saying, "I wish I could have conducted the case myself." Porter was profoundly hurt, never more so perhaps in his legal career: but I have always felt that he knew the words I had uttered implied nothing more than a censure on exaggerated professional etiquette which, among doctors and lawyers, must be obeyed, though a man bleed to death, or be hung innocently in consequence. The friendship that had sprung up between us as a result of our long consultations upon the various points of the case was proof against a blow even so severe as that which I had inadvertently given and of which he felt only the glancing force. I aimed at a bad custom. Porter's conduct of the case had been perfect, every argument for and against had been sifted and examined with the minutest circumspection: but custom drew a veil over the only vulnerable point in the defendant's armour.

And then I painted his portrait, which hurt him and vexed him far more than my random remark! It was painted after he became Judge of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

He sat in his private room in the Public Buildings overlooking Broad Street, as it extended southwards to the Delaware River. The light was not good, and the sun often bothered me. The result was so unsatisfactory that on the evening of the reception at the Academy, as I was talking with Dr. John Taylor and my wife, the Doctor turned and, seeing the portrait across the large gallery, said, "Oh, look! who painted that awful thing of Judge Porter?"

His work on the bench soon became too sedentary for a man of Judge Porter's tastes. Life in the open air suited his robust constitution and active mind. He soon realized that writing opinions on uninteresting points of law in opposition to those of his colleagues was somewhat tame and monotonous in comparison to the forensic displays between opposing counsel on the floor of the court: and he yearned for his former life in the fields among his horses and cattle. He loved above all other things to be a country gentleman. Among the hills of northern Jersey the contemplation of the growing corn and wheat upon his broad acres gave him more pleasure than following the complexities of the law, and trying to make them accord with equity and justice. Here the weather and the weevil often caused him apprehension: but when the sun shone he could turn to his beloved horses, admire their well-groomed coats, watch their paces, and speculate upon the prospects of the geldings and mares.

His chief joy was to mount the box-seat of his coach and, glancing admiringly at four powerful bays, while taking the ribbons and whip in his hand, tool them at a spanking trot through the hedge-grown lanes and over the turnpike roads which, in those days, were free from the motor that has made the elegant and exhilarating pastime of driving high-strung and restive horses almost obsolete.

Judge Porter's traditional love of horses has been inherited by his daughter, who, like Margot, can ride straight to hounds.

There are two subjects on which Judge Porter dissents from me, Art and Finance, and no amount of threshing out by both of us will ever separate the wheat from the chaff. He will admit that wheat is for use and flowers for beauty, but not that the latter is as important in the economy of things as the former; from my point of view more important, because they stand for æsthetics and ethics, the same sentiments being innate in both; whereas wheat, a mere accident in life, or the result of a misfortune in Eden, is the remnant of a rudimentary state of man, and does not go to the root of civilization as flowers do.

At our first, or one of our first, interviews he was led by some remark of mine to say, "Oh! Art is only an accident in life." It was said with a judicial manner, as he was poring over a brief, and with a tone of finality.

With ars longa vita brevis in mind, I said, "I should like to argue that point with you. To me Art seems the only normal thing, whereas law and medicine are merely the results of the accidents of life." The Judge was taken aback at this attack upon the professions, and, plunging deeper into his papers, muttered, "Impossible; but I am too busy to argue it now." That subject has been a closed book between us ever since. A man of his acumen could not fail to see that I was right, for a broken heart, a broken leg, or a lost cause brought law or surgery into being, while Art and flowers flourished on earth long before Cain killed Abel, or Moses received the Tables of the law; they are coeval with the blue and starry heavens.

But on the score of finance we are irreconcilable. A true disciple of Adam Smith, the Judge will persist in contemplating wealth in terms of bricks and mortar, while my contention is that wealth today is merely a written promise to pay, based on earning capacity. He and his school say that shells burst in warfare are not only wealth wasted, but wealth destroyers. While admitting that they destroy life and property, they serve the same purpose as wealth producers as flowers do that are sold by the florist at ten dollars a dozen, and in a day or two are blown away and consigned to the dustbin. But the florist has booked them, just as Dupont books his powder and shot; and if we trace back to its source the labour expended upon raw materials in the production of flowers and shells, we shall be astonished at the similarity of the steps and processes involved. Before 1914 the Chancellor of the Exchequer found it difficult to raise for his Budget the sum of two hundred millions of pounds. To-day the surplus is more than that, and the revenue required is one billion of pounds—think of it! five billions of dollars! Where did it come from? From making shells and guns, boots and shoes, and food—all of which have been consumed by soldiers, and of which some broken remnants are dumped about, marring the landscape. That money could have built a hundred marble cities roofed in gold. It still is there on books as debts—for some men thought, and other men worked for it. Most wealth is earned by men who think and men who serve, not merely by men who labour with their hands to produce bricks, mortar, and houses. And the men who serve, be they waiters in a café, or priests, or doctors, or lawyers, are the most numerous. Karl Marx put his tongue in his cheek when he wrote Das Kapital—and he did worse, for he threw a lighted bituminous torch into an inflammable mass that, once set on fire, can never be extinguished. But I am forgetting that when Judge Porter, a master of repartee, whose parries are skilful—though his riposte is still better—and I last fenced with these foils, the seconds never cried touché once.