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Richard Henry Dana Jr. (August
1, 1815 – January 6, 1882) was an American lawyer and
politician from Massachusetts,
a descendant of an eminent colonial family who gained renown as the author of
the American classic, the
Years Before the Mast. Both as a writer and as a lawyer, he was a
champion of the downtrodden, from seamen to fugitive slaves.
Dana was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on
August 1, 1815 into
a family that had settled in colonial America in 1640, counting Anne
Bradstreet among its ancestors. His
father was the poet and critic Richard
Henry Dana, Sr. As a boy, Dana
Cambridgeport under a strict
schoolmaster named Samuel Barrett, alongside fellow Cambridge native and
future writer James
Russell Lowell. Barrett
was infamous as a disciplinarian who punished his students for any infraction
by flogging. He also often pulled students by their ears and, on one such
occasion, nearly pulled Dana's ear off, causing the boy's father to protest
enough that the practice was abolished.
In 1825, Dana enrolled in a private school overseen by Ralph
Waldo Emerson, whom Dana later mildly praised as "a very pleasant
instructor", though he lacked a "system or discipline enough to insure regular
and vigorous study." In
July 1831, Dana enrolled at
Harvard College, where in his freshman year his support of a student
protest cost him a six month suspension. In
his junior year, he contracted measles,
which in his case led to ophthalmia.
Fatefully, the worsening vision inspired him to take a sea voyage. But rather
than going on a fashionable Grand
Tour of Europe, he decided to
enlist as a merchant
seaman, despite his high-class birth. On August 14, 1834 he departed
Boston aboard the brig Pilgrimbound
at that time still a part of Mexico. This
voyage would bring Dana to a number of settlements in California (including Monterey, San
Juan Capistrano, San
Clara, and San
Francisco). After witnessing a flogging on board the ship, he vowed that
he would try to help improve the lot of the common seaman. The Pilgrim collected
hides for shipment to Boston, and Dana spent much of his time in California
tanning hides and loading them onto the ship. To return home sooner, he caught
a different ship, the Alert,
and on September 22, 1836, Dana arrived back in Massachusetts.
He thereupon enrolled at Harvard
Law School. He graduated from there in 1837 and was admitted to the bar in
1840. He went on to specialize in maritime
law, writing The Seaman's
Friend in 1841 —
which became a standard reference on the legal rights and responsibilities of
sailors — and defending many common seamen in court.
He had kept a diary during
his voyages, and in 1840 (coinciding with his admission to the bar) he
published a memoir, Two
Years Before the Mast. The term, "before the mast" refers to sailors'
quarters, which were located in the forecastle (the
officers' quarters being near the stern. His writing evidences his later
social feeling for the oppressed. With the California
Gold Rush later in the decade, Two
Years Before the Mastwould become highly sought after as one of the few
sources of information on California.
He became a prominent abolitionist,
helping to found the anti-slavery Free
Soil Party in 1848 and
representing the fugitive slave Anthony
Burns in Boston in 1854.
In 1853 he represented William
T.G. Morton in Morton's attempt
to establish that he discovered the "Anaesthetic Properties of Ether".
In 1859, while the U.S.
Senate was considering whether
the United States should try to annex the Spanish possession of Cuba,
Dana traveled there and visited Havana,
a sugar plantation, a bullfight, and various churches, hospitals, schools, and
prisons, a trip documented in his book To
Cuba and Back.
During the American
Civil War, Dana served as a United
States Attorney, and successfully argued before the Supreme
Court that the United States
Government could rightfully blockade Confederate ports.
During 1867–1868 Dana was a member of the Massachusetts legislature and also
served as a U.S. counsel in the trial of Confederate President Jefferson
Davis. In 1876, his nomination as ambassador to Great
Britain was defeated in the
Senate by political enemies, partly because of a lawsuit for plagiarism
brought against him for a legal textbook he had edited.
Dana died of influenza in Rome and
is buried in that city's Protestant
His son, Richard Henry Dana III, married Edith Longfellow, daughter of Henry