Withey court celebration recalls turbulent period in U.S. history



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Abraham Lincoln was a distinguished guest at the Solomon Withey 150th celebration, and brought his wife Mary with him.

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Rev. Mark Gurley, a descendant of Lincoln’s trusted pastor Phineas Gurley, gave the invocation standing beside Solomon Withey’s official portrait.

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Presidential scholar Richard Norton Smith gave a beautifully worded account of what President Lincoln faced during that period of history.

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One of the reenactors in a jewel blue period gown stands by the 5th Regimental Band as it plays patriotic music.

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

In February 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law a bill dividing Michigan into two judicial districts, thereby creating the U.S. Court for the Western District of Michigan.
On March 12, the president appointed Grand Rapidian Solomon Withey judge of that court.

Of course, in 1863, President Lincoln had a lot on his mind.

As David Gass, President of the Historical Society for the Western District, puts it, “History, for the United States, was at a crossroads. The country was in the middle of the Civil War, and at that time it was not a foregone conclusion that the Union would win.

“When Solomon Withey was appointed, it was six months before the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day of the war; three months before the union defeat at Fredericksburg, and nine days before the military draft was signed into law. It was also ten weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation, and eight months later Lincoln would in ten sentences give the greatest speech in U.S. history,” Gass said.

On Tuesday,  the Historical Society held a joyous commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Withey’s appointment. The venue was the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, which is on the exact site of “Ball’s Block,” the building that housed the new federal courtroom into which Withey moved at the court’s second session (in July 1863).

Nearly 400 people joined the society in celebrating and remembering.

Gass, a civil litigator who has been with Miller Johnson for over thirty years, wrote a detailed article in 2007 for the Historical Society’s Stereoscope, which publishes scholarly contributions relating to the history of the court, about Solomon Withey, his appointment and the “unique time” during which he was appointed.

“It took me about two years to write,” Gass said, “and at the end, I was very familiar with Solomon Withey.”

Withey moved to Grand Rapids in 1838, and became the tenth lawyer in a village with an 1843 population of 1500. He remained the Western District Judge until his death in 1886. At the outset, he president over cases which for the most part had to do with the Civil War, which dominated the culture of Grand Rapids as the city grew.

When Gass realized that the 150th anniversary of the court and of Withey’s appointment was coming, he was president of the Historical Society and proposed a significant event to recognize it. The board supported his proposal, and planning began.

Even before Michigan was admitted to the Union in 1837, President Andrew Jackson had set up a federal court in Detroit (1836), but the idea of dividing into Eastern and Western Districts was first introduced in Congress in 1845, and another in 1858, but both failed. Gass’s article indicates that he could unearth no reason for the earlier failures, nor for the proposal’s success in 1863, but anecdotal evidence would lead one to believe that it was a great pleasure for Lincoln to sign the bill into law.

It was President Lincoln who uttered the words, “Thank God for Michigan!” when, after the civil war necessitated the raising of armies by all Union states, the 1st Regiment of Michigan was the first from a Western state to reach Washington in 1861.

The gala honored that story when a “living historian” channeling Lincoln addressed the crowd. He said that he, Lincoln, had often thanked God for Michigan.

There were several living historians from the History Remembered organization present, along with the Third Michigan Volunteer Infantry in costume. The 5th Michigan Regimental Band provided authentic Civil War-era music.

Thank God for Michigan was also the name of a mini-documentary the Historical Society commissioned, which FilmFarm’s Girbe Eefsting produced and Grand Rapids Historian Gordon Olson, who has just recently gone off the Historical Society board, narrated. U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan Chief Judge Paul Maloney introduced the twelve-minute film.

After “President Lincoln” spoke, Rev. Mark L. Gurley gave an invocation preceded by a brief presentation. Gurley is the great-great-grandson of Rev. Phineas D. Gurley, who was the pastor and trusted advisor to President Lincoln.

Former Historical Society president attorney James Mitchell had made the connection when he first met the younger Rev. Gurley, who showed slides of his visit to New York Avenue Church, where his ancestor and President Lincoln prayed together.

During dinner, historical photographs and newspaper articles about what Grand Rapids was like during and just after the Civil War were shown.  Accompanying dessert were more Civil War tunes, played by Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra violinist Diane McElifish Helle and pianist emeritus Nancy Mitchell Poltrock.

It was nearly 9:00 when Hauenstein Center for President Studies Director Gleaves Whitney, also a member of the Historical Society, introduced the well-known Richard Norton Smith.
Whitney observed, “As a director of more presidential museums and libraries  than anyone else I can think of, Richard Norton Smith has left his creative stamp on the Hoover, Ford, Reagan, and many other archives.”

Smith’s eloquent remarks focused on Abraham Lincoln, a complex man he said has too often been idealized to the point of unrecognizability. “In the 1930s,” he said, “critic Edmund Wilson declared that [biographer] Carl Sandburg was the worst thing to happen to Lincoln since John Wilkes Booth.”

Smith made it clear that he felt the genuine Lincoln, with all his ambition and political maneuvering, was truly a great man.

At the end of the evening, James Mitchell led happy guests in a rousing rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.