PHINEHAS BACON WILCOX, was the only son of Seth Wilcox and his wife, Molly Bacon, and was born September 26, 1798, at Westfield, Connecticut, about ten miles west of the town of Middletown, on the Connecticut river, where his father, a substantial farmer, resided on his farm at "Forty Rod Hill."
His ancestors were of Saxon origin, located at Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk county, England, one of whom emigrated to America and settled in Boston, Massachusetts, two of whose sons settled in the north part of Middletown--quaintly styled "Middletown Upper Housen"--in 1675, from one of whom his father, Seth, was descended.
He assisted his father in the usual duties of a New England farmer's son, until about the age of sixteen, when he attended Cheshire academy, Connecticut, and middlebury academy, Vermont, to be fitted for Yale college.
He entered Yale, and was graduated in the class of 1821, at the age of twenty-three, and soon after married Sarah D. Andrews, of Wallingford, Connecticut, who was a sister of the late Samuel C. Andrews of Columbus, and also a relative of John W. Andrews, and of the wife of Judge J. E. Swan of that city. The new couple started, for their bridal trip, to the then unknown and far distant wilderness of the "Ohio country," not fully determined where they would settle, but making for the new town of Columbus, on the "waters of the Scioto," where his father owned lands, and where they arrived, after a long and somewhat perilous journey, in the fall of 1821.
Pleased with the prospects of Columbus, he concluded to make it his home, and commenced the study of the law with Judge Orris Parish, whose office was a small frame building on the southwest corner of High and State streets, where the National Exchange bank now stands.
He was a close and diligent student, entering very little into the convivialities so prevalent in the new settlement, and so destructive of many of the bright intellects of his day.
He was admitted to the bar in 1824, and commenced practice in the old court house in Franklinton, where he entered the lists against the "old lawyers," David Scott, Joshua Folsom, Gustavus Swan, and Orris and John Parish, and very soon, by close study, diligent attention to business, and unswerving integrity, he took rank with them and secured a large practice in Franklin, Madison, and Delaware counties, through which the bench and bar of that day rode circuit on horseback, with saddle-bags and leggings.
He soon became eminent as a "land lawyer," having mastered all the intricacies of the Virginia military land titles, that perpetual source of litigation for so many years. He was also distinguished as a chancery lawyer, which practice he preferred. Nothing afforded him higher gratification, or more aroused his powers, than to track out some high-toned scoundrel who was attempting to oppress the widow and the fatherless, or defraud confiding creditors, and "sift his conscience" by means of a good old bill in chancery, with its charges and searching interrogatives. He was a master of common law pleading, being familiar with all the learning and subtleties of the old English special pleas, and a constant student of English common law.
In 1833, he published his work--"Ohio Forms and Practice," and an enlarged edition of it in 1848. This book was the standard on law and equity practice and pleading, both in the State and the United States courts, until the the adoption of the code of civil procedure in 1853, and was in universal use by judges, lawyers and clerks, in this and other States under the old practice.
In 1849, when the matter of a new constitution and code was in agitation, he published a pamphlet, entitled "Tracts on Law Reform," with a view of moulding public opinion as to the proposed changes in our law system. The following motto, which he adopted for the tract, from an ancient author, indicates the conservative character of the work--"We know already the worst of what is--we know not the worst of what may be."
Like many lawyers of the old school, he could not abide the new code; but upon its adoption, accepted the situation, and, in 1862, published his "Practical Forms Under the Code of Civil Procedure," intending, eventually, to enlarge it into a work similar to his "Ohio forms and Practise," under the old system.
He was prosecuting attorney for Franklin county from 1834 to 1836, and wrote out numerous forms for indictments etc., which were long in use by his successors, as it required considerable skill to draft such instruments under the technicalities of the criminal law at that time. He was reporter of the supreme court of Ohio in 1842, reporting the tenth volume of Ohio reports, where his knowledge of law, and remarkable accuracy and terseness of statement, are conspicuous. It not unfrequently happened that the court, after deciding some difficult questions, would remark to the reporter: "We have decided so-and-so in this case, and depend upon you to give the reason."
His note upon assurances of title, in the case of Foote vs. Bennet, page 317, of the tenth volume, has been considered one of the ablest and most perspicuous expositions of that abstruse subject, at that time not well understood by even good lawyers, and received a high enconium from Chancellor Kent.
He was United States commissioner for the district of Ohio for many years, which office he resigned, about the year 1858, rather than be made the instrument of remanding a fugitive slave to bondage.
His law library was very large and varied, for the times, especially in English reports, which were his delight and pastime. For many years it was the only library of any consequence in the West, and was constantly resorted to by judges and lawyers, whom he was always ready to assist in looking up difficult points--especially the younger lawyers, to whom he was, at all times, a kind and sympathizing friend and a willing adviser. Rare discussions, intermitted with rare wit and hilarity, were often had in that old library, at his residence on Vine street, when Ewing, Stanbery, Hunter, Goddard, Lane, Swayne, and others of his "brothers" met there.
Although he was a fine classical scholar, especially in Greek, which he kept up through life, and was a student of the civil law and history, yet he was pre-eminently a lawyer, a common-law lawyer, devoting his life to the study of law as a science, which he loved for itself, and considering the practice of the law as the highest and most ennobling of callings, above all petty tricks and mercenary purposes--a grand and noble profession, to be pursued, not for personal ends, bur for the good of his fellow-men. It was once said of him, by a friend, that he lived upon Coke and the Bible.
With politics he had nothing to do. He was a staunch whig, perhaps a little leavened with old Federal doctrines, and afterward a decided Republican.
Upon the breaking out of the rebellion, in 1861, he was much disturbed as to the ultimate result upon our institutions. Never doubting that the North would conquer, he believed that the greatest perils would then arise, having little faith in the loyalty of the South to our general government thereafter. After a long investigation on the subject, from Magna Charta down, suo more, he settled upon certain principles, which he had embodied in a brief, and sent to his friend Stanton, secretary of war, in 1862. Although quite radical as a remedy, and somewhat arbitrary, recent events, to the minds of some, seem to justify them; and, at least, they server to show what doubts troubled good and thinking men, outside of politics, in that trying time. They are as follows:
1. Let the president, at the proper time, by a single blow of the war power, abraze, and forever annihilate, all organizations, political and civil, together with the metes and bounds of all the rebel States--reducing that province to a mere out-lying military province.
2. After the war, let that province be re-surveyed, somewhat after the manner of the Doomsday book, in England.
3. Offer, now, to any soldier, a bounty of ----- acres of good land to be selected by him or his heirs, anywhere, east or west in that entire country.
4. Let real union men, now owning lands there, have an equivalent out of the re-surveyed lands.
5. Let the residue of the lands be exposed to public sale, and apply the proceeds towards paying the expenses of the war; and so re-people the whole country.
6.Do with the negroes as the British do--set all at work where they now are, except those who may choose to leave the country, giving them protection, compelling them to work, and securing to them the payment of reasonable wages.
7. In all cases, let patents for lands emanate, de novo, from the government, thus avoiding all danger from strict construction of tax laws, and acts of confiscation, in any of our courts.
8. Unless something of the sort be done, shall we not, of necessity, drift into a military despotism?
9. Has our worthy president ever seen Swift's "Discourse of the contests and dissensions between the nobles and commons in Athens and Rome?" It will bear study.
Just before this time, he called Stanton's attention to the gunpowder plot of Guy Fawkes, to blow up the house of parliament, and suggested precaution against a like danger to our national capitol.
He was a man of deep and sincere religious convictions, maintaining through life the principles instilled into his mind by a most excellent and sensible mother, who trained him in the strict views of the Puritans of New England; so that he was in reality, as an old covenanter would put it, a man "fearing God, hating iniquity, and despising covetousness."
A few years after admission to the bar, he made a public profession of religion, and united with Trinity Episcopal church, of Columbus, under the Rev. William Preston, where he was active for many years as vestryman, superintendent of the Sunday-school, as well as of a mission-school in the north part of the city, then a destitute locality called "Jonesburgh," and was a frequent attendant upon the ministrations of Dr. Hoge, of the First presbyterian Church, and of Dr. Smith, of Westminster, both of whom he highly respected and admired.
A distinguished legal friend in Cincinnati, hearing of his profession of religion, wrote him as follows: "So you, too, have become a Christian. I had thought that a business man could find something better to do. Let me have your reasons."
To this he replied by writing a little tract, afterwards published by the American Tract Society, styled, "A Few Thoughts," wherein he set forth, in very simple but earnest an forcible language, the cardinal truths of the Gospel and the reasons for the faith that was in him.
He carried his religious principles into all his affairs. He would never engage in any cause he did not deem just, and usually advised his clients to settle their differences and avoid litigation. He practiced unusual benevolence, giving systematically to all worth objects, and never turning any poor man from his door. His character, in this respect, was once well summed up by one who knew him, as follows: "He was a man of high character and personal integrity, of great benevolence and charity, a fine type of a conscientious, christian lawyer, attending, with great diligence and fidelity, to the cases of his clients, when, in his opinion, they had a just cause, but discouraging litigation, fro the mere sake of litigation or procrastination, and utterly refusing to lend himself or his great legal attainments to any unjust cause, however large the fee, or tempting the glory."
He died on March 25, 1863, at his residence on Third street, in the city of Columbus, in his sixty-fifth year, leaving his widow, who survived until January 2, 1873, and two only children--General James A. Wilcox, hereafter mentioned, and Anna Maria, wife of Robert Ellis of New York.