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Daniel Sheffey

[Note: This article is from the Southern Literary Messenger Vol. 4, #16, June 1838.]

DANIEL SHEFFEY was born in Frederick, Maryland, in 1770. His education was inconsiderable. At an early age, his father taught him the trade of a shoemaker. He continued to work with him until he attained manhood. The house yet stands, where he spent, in this occupation, many long and wearisome years of his life. While engaged on his bench, he was frequently observed, during leisure moments, to be intensely occupied in the perusal of some author for his instruction or amusement. By moonlight he was to be found in his father’s garden, making observations of the heavenly bodies, with telescopes, which he had borrowed: and then again he was buried in profound meditation, while detecting the errors of mathematical or philosophical works, which occasionally met his eye. The arcana of nature, and the mysteries of astronomy, constantly exercised his strong and fertile genius. His more discerning friends saw that he would one day be ranked among the distinguished men of his country; yet none were so generous and disinterested as to assist his efforts with their pecuniary resources, or to polish the unsightly diamond with the fostering hand of education. His time was chiefly spent at his trade. Arrived at manhood, he left his father’s house, with no other property than his tools, and travelled on foot to Winchester, Virginia, where he worked as a journeyman for some months, in the shop of a respectable mechanic. Having thus raised funds sufficient to supply his present wants, he sat out again in pursuit of employment, halting at the different villages through which he pass ed, on his route along the valley, in order to raise his expenses by his labor, until he arrived at Abbeville, Wythe county, as poor as ever. He knew no one: bore no letters of introduction; was friendless and destitute: a stranger in a strange land. Here he commenced at his trade once more. The novelty and originality of his character, and the flashes of genius which enlivened his conversation, often compelled his newly acquired friends to look on the eccentric youth with wonder and amazement. He became popular, and was finally received as a student into the office of Alexander Smyth, Esq. an eminent lawyer in that part of the state, and afterwards commander of our northern army in the war of 1812.

Sheffey was now in his long desired situation. Disposing of his tools, he toiled incessantly in his new vocation, and improved rapidly. Here, with his own hand did he lay the basis of his future fame, and resolved to avoid the application to himself of the verse of Gray:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed eaves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Who supplied his wants during his residence with Mr. Smyth, I have not been able to learn. Soon after his admission to the bar of Wythe county, he was called on to enter the lists with his old friend and patron, whom he handled with so much dexterity and adroitness, that it was generally said among the mass of the community, the apprentice will soon surpass the master. So it happened. Mr. Sheffey was employed in all the important causes of that court, and soon extended his practice to several adjoining counties. His professional brethren, however eminent, admired his powers, and treated him on all occasions with respected kindness. In the county and superior courts of law and chancery, he was uniformly heard with unaffected pleasure, both by court and jury. His humble origin, meager education, and the singular incidents of his life, awakened the feelings and curiosity of his audience, while they were at once delighted and enlightened by the efforts of his powerful and original intellect. After some years, he settled in Staunton, where he soon commanded an extensive and lucrative practice. He often represented the county of Augusta in the House of Delegates, and in 1811 we find him in Congress, busily engaged in the important events of that trying crisis. His speech in favor of a renewal of the charter of the first bank of the United States, was a masterly combination of sound argument and conclusive facts: for three hours profound silence prevailed; and the most experienced statesmen were astonished at this exhibition of his talents. He was opposed to the declaration of war in 1812. Ever on the side of his country, he felt indignant at the injuries which our commerce had sustained on the high seas: the impressment of our seamen, and the murder of our citizens within our own waters: yet he thought that these difficulties might be adjusted by negotiation, and that the last resort of nations might be avoided. He painted in glowing colors the horrors of war and the blessings of peace, and spoke of the treasure which must be wasted, and the blood which would be shed; the danger to our civil institutions amidst the clangor of arms and the shout of victory, and implored his fellow citizens to pause ere the country was plunged into the dangers which he foreboded. It was in vain. Mr. Sheffey, however, always rejoiced in the success of our arms. Sometimes in the ardor of debate, he was attacked rather uncourteously by some of his political opponents, but they never escaped the severity of his retort, and were often entirely overwhelmed. The celebrated and eccentric John Randolph of Roanoke, was for many years the Ajax Telamon of the House of Representatives, whose bitterness of satire no man could withstand. He once took occasion, in commenting on a speech of Mr. Sheffey, to say that “the shoemaker ought not to go beyond his last.” Quick as the lightning’s flash, he replied, “if that gentleman had ever been on the bench, he would never have left it.” The Virginia orator never renewed the attack.

Having served for several years in the councils of his country, he withdrew to the practice of his professional Staunton. A numerous family now reminded him, that intense diligence would be requisite, not only to supply their wants, but to sustain his fame. For a longtime he toiled incessantly in the courts of Virginia, and occasionally was engaged in the supreme court of the United States. In December, 1830, he had been attending court, in Nelson county, and started for home in perfect health. He travelled about twelve miles, and stopped at a tavern for the night. Hardly had he taken his seat, when an apoplectic fit numbered him with the dead. Thus died an extraordinary man, who by the native vigor of his intellect, and the force of industry, occupied a conspicuous station among the patriotic and distinguished men of America.

There was nothing dignified in the person of Mr. Sheffey: he was low of stature; his manners by no means polished; all was plain, energetic, original. His pronunciation was not agreeable: his German accent sounded heavy on the ear; yet the most refined audience always paid to him the most profound attention. In the argument of his causes, he seized on the strong points of the law and evidence, and maintained his positions with a courage and zeal which no difficulties could subdue. Like Patrick Henry, he was the artificer of his own fortunes, and like him, in after life, lamented that in his early days the lamp of science had shed but a feeble ray over the path along which it was his destiny to travel.