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1833: Theodore Howard McCaleb to Otis Baker

Judge McCaleb (1850)

Judge McCaleb (1850)

This letter was written by Theodore Howard McCaleb (1810-1864)  to his former chum and classmate, Otis Baker (1804-18xx). They graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1825 — Theodore at the age of 15; Otis at the age of 21. Both went on to Yale College where Otis graduated in 1832; Theodore did not complete his degree.

McCaleb served as a federal trial judge for almost 20 years, including a term in the unified District of Louisiana and separate terms in both the Eastern and Western Districts of Louisiana. He was born into privilege on Cold Springs Plantation in Claiborne County, Mississippi. He was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Yale University, and read law in Massachusetts from 1830 to1831. He assumed his brother’s law practice in 1832 in New Orleans, where he married Agnes Frances Bullitt (1814-1874) in December 1833 and had five daughters and a son.

An active member of the Whig Party, McCaleb was nominated to the federal bench in Louisiana by President John Tyler on September 1, 1841, and received his commission two days later. As a judge in New Orleans, he presided over several important cases, including issuing a significant decision concerning the breadth of federal admiralty and maritime jurisdiction that was ultimately affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. From 1850 to 1851, Judge McCaleb presided over the sensational criminal trials of General Narciso Lopez, who had been indicted for violation of the United States Neutrality Law of 1818 as a “filibusterist” for his leadership of an unsuccessful military expedition from the United States to liberate Cuba from Spain and make it an American territory or state. General Lopez was tried before a jury three times, with each trial ending in a hung jury and eventually the quashing of the indictment. Judge McCaleb was also a member of the original faculty of the Tulane Law School, then known as the University of Louisiana, where his title was Professor of Admiralty & International Law.

Judge McCaleb was an intimate friend of some of the most distinguished people of his times, including Alexis deToqueville, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Henry Clay, whose memorial service upon his death included Judge McCaleb as its featured speaker. McCaleb resigned his federal judgeship on January 28, 1861, upon Louisiana’s secession from the Union. According to Nathaniel C. Hughes in Yale’s Confederates: A Biographical Dictionary, Judge McCaleb had “decided to throw in his lot with the Confederacy.” He died at the Hermitage Plantation in Claiborne County, Mississippi, on April 29, 1864, where he is interred in the family cemetery.

1832 Letter

1832 Letter

Addressed to Otis Baker, Esquire, Snow Hill, Maryland

New Orleans [Louisiana]
February 11, [1833]

Dear Sir,

I received sometime since your letter introducing to my acquaintance your friend Mr. Newell. I am happy that some cause has eventually broke the silence long unaccountably observed between us. The fault must be attributable as much to one as the other & I trust that hereafter we shall mutually make amends for past neglect. I was pleased to hear from Mr. Newell that you had duly graduated — that you were the same honest, warm-hearted fellow you formerly were. Surely, my dear friend, a meeting between us would cause a thrill of happiness seldom experienced amid the turmoils of a busy world. The past is fresh in my recollection & that felicity to which you contributed so largely — though I enjoy it no longer — is yet delightful to dwell upon.

I hear little of our old associates in academic pursuits. God knows how a few years may alter our condition. It is truly a stolen thought that a few days ago we were a jovial, independent band living upon those pleasurable anticipations which naturally fill the minds of youthful aspirants, without comparatively a care to interrupt the “even tenor of our way.” What has become of your brother? I have learned that he graduated but cannot ascertain where he now resides.

So soon as you receive this, give me a long history of your life since we separated in Exeter. Tell me too what you know of our friends generally. Who of them are married or dead? I fear the majority of us have not proved so successful in the matrimonial line as the girls in Exeter. I see all or nearly all who were marriageable when we last saw them have taken to themselves swains of their own choosing & have long ‘ere this heard and replied to the tender appellation of mother. All this is very well & will be much better when we have followed their example.

Say, how do you like your residence at Snow Hill? What are the Marylanders in comparison with the Yankees. Give them a fair trial before you decided upon the difference, & in order to do this it may be necessary to banish many prejudices in favor of the habits of your own New England. But I recollect you were not so strongly prejudiced as many others of my Yankee friends — Soule for instance. Soul was tenacity itself. He verily believed that whatever touched the soil of New England was ipso facto considered to everything good & holy. All this I like much. There is nothing so noble as attachment to our natal soil.

Well, I have said enough for the present. With the hope of hearing from you soon, I remain with permanent regard, yours sincerely, — Theodore H. McCaleb

Mr. Newell is now in Baton Rouge engaged as a teacher in the Academy established there. There is a prospect of his doing well. — M.


3 comments on “1833: Theodore Howard McCaleb to Otis Baker

  1. Margaret
    December 8, 2014

    Nicely done! Thanks for sharing. TH was my 3x great-grandfather. I figured out reading this that I had his marriage year incorrectly listed as 1832. He doesn’t sound like he was married yet when writing “I fear the majority of us have not proved so successful in the matrimonial line as the girls in Exeter.”
    I have no other portraits of him other than the one you have shown. I’ve tried to search down a portrait of him that is somewhere at Tulane, it may even be this one, but haven’t seen it yet. I have some news clippings, found on LOC Chronicling America historical newspapers website. One from NY Times in 1841 discusses a hoax about his death to get President Tyler to appoint another judge in his place.

    • Griff
      December 8, 2014

      Glad you were able to get better acquainted with your ancestor. — Griff

  2. Margaret
    December 8, 2014

    Oops I forgot to mention, there is a 1838 letter at Tulane Special Collections from J. Q. Adams to McCaleb that you might be interested in reading. It regards the “territorial condition” of West Florida, because McCaleb was representing claimants.
    I wonder if there is a collection of J. Q. Adams letters somewhere that includes the original McCaleb letter to JQA? I might have to research that!

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This entry was posted on October 22, 2014 by .

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My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries.

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