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This biography is from Landmarks of Albany County, New York, edited by Amasa J. Parker of Albany, N. Y., Syracuse, N. Y.; D. Mason & Co. Publishers, 1897.

Pruyn, John V. L., LL. D.

Hon. John Van Schaick Lansing Pruyn1, known as John V. L. Pruyn, was born in Albany, June 22, 1811, of Holland-Dutch ancestry. The family has resided in Albany for over two centuries and has held positions in the city government. The subject of this sketch, after studying at private schools, entered the Albany academy in 1824 and completed a full course of study. The famous Theodoric Romeyn Beck, M.D., LL. D., was principal of the academy at this time. Immediately after leaving the academy, Mr. Pruyn entered, as student, the law office of the late James King, who was one of Albany's eminent lawyers and distinguished citizens. In this office Mr. Pruyn's habits of order, system and thoroughness were brought to a perfection which he retained through life. He became Mr. King's principal and confidential clerk, and remained as such for some months after his admission to the bar. He was admitted as an attorney in the Supreme Court of the State of New York and a solicitor in the Court of Chancery on January 13, 1832. The latter court made him a counselor May 21, 1833, and the Supreme Court January 17, 1835.

While he was in Mr. King's office, Mr. William James, the father-in-law of Mr. King, died, leaving a large fortune. The will was contested and the case was one of the famous litigations of the day, involving the whole subject of trusts and powers under the then new revised statutes of the State. Questions of the gravest importance were submitted to and called forth the highest abilities of the lawyers engaged, of whom Mr. Pruyn was one. Many of the most distinguished counselors in the State took part in this litigation; among them the three revisers, John C. Spencer, Benjamin F. Butler and John Duer; Samuel A. Talcott, Henry R. Storrs, Harmanus Bleecker (of whom hereafter), Daniel D. Barnard, Mr. Sibley and Mr. King himself.

About 1833 Mr. Pruyn formed a partnership for the practice of the law with Henry H. Martin, who had been a fellow student in the office of Mr. King. In 1833 Mr. Pruyn was appointed by Governor Marcy an examiner in chancery, and in 1836 a master in chancery; and upon receiving the latter appointment, Chancellor Walworth designated him as injunction master for the third circuit a position which placed him next in official position to the vice-chancellor of the circuit. For many years Mr. Pruyn's business was chiefly in the Court of Chancery, a court, which, however, went out of existence by the adoption of the new State constitution in 1846. He was occupied very laboriously, and it may be safely said that few persons enjoyed the confidence of Chancellor Walworth to the extent that Mr. Pruyn did. The chancellor sent to him many references, and it is believed never overruled any of his reports. In 1848 Mr. Pruyn was admitted to practice as attorney and counselor in the United States Supreme Court. In 1834 the Albany City Bank was incorporated, with Mr. Erastus Corning as president and Mr. Watts Sherman as cashier. Messrs. Pruyn and Martin were the counsel to the bank, but in 1851 Mr. Martin became its cashier.

Mr. Pruyn became a director and was afterwards its vice-president. After Mr. Martin became connected with the bank, Mr. Pruyn formed a partnership with John H. Reynolds, one of the most brilliant lawyers of the day.

About this time occurred an act which gave evidence of the confidence reposed in Mr. Pruyn. Harmanus Bleecker (alluded to above), one of Albany's distinguished citizens, an eminent lawyer, member of Congress during the War of 1812, and during the presidency of Honorable Martin Van Buren United States minister to Holland, died in July, 1849.

It had been Mr. Bleecker's intention, as an unmarried man, to leave the whole of his estate about eighty thousand dollars, in those days a very considerable fortune to some public object for the benefit of the city of Albany. When in Holland, however, he married a Miss Menz, daughter of an official at The Hague. His wishes were not relinquished upon his marriage and were fully concurred in by his wife. Upon his death the property went to her with the verbal request that, he having no children, she would at her death dispose of it in some way for the benefit of the city. Mrs. Bleecker for a period resided in Albany, but before long she married Henrich Coster, a Dutch gentleman, and returned with him to Holland. Previous to their departure, Mr. and Mrs. Coster united in an absolute conveyance of the whole property to Mr. Pruyn, reserving only life estates to themselves, and trusting that at the expiration of those estates, he would carry out the wishes of Mr. Bleecker.

In April. 1851 ('Laws of New York,' 1852, cl.ap. 318), the Legislature, at Mr. Pruyn's request, enacted a law drawn up by him by which the Bleecker estate was absolutely protected from any contingency to which his private affairs might be exposed. This law also gave Mr. Pruyn power to transfer the estate in whatever manner he might see fit. Mr. Coster died some years ago, but Mrs. Coster survived Mr. Pruyn, and upon opening the latter's will in 1877, it was found that the property was left to Mr. Amasa J. Parker of Albany, "in the confident belief that he will carry out the views of Mr. Bleecker as fully and completely as I was requested to do." Mrs. Coster, who resided at Arnheim, Holland, died in 1886. The estate, during Mr. Pruyn's administration of over a quarter of a century, and of Judge Parker's administration of more than ten years, has largely increased in value.

The citizens of Albany having raised fifty thousand dollars, Judge Parker has transferred the Bleecker fund to the Young Men's Association for Mutual Improvement in the city of Albany. A large public hall, costing two hundred thousand dollars, is to be erected, and called the Harmanus Bleecker Hall. The buildings belonging to the Bleecker estate, and which were occupied by the association, have been conveyed to it. Thus Mr. Bleecker's name is perpetuated, and an existing in- stitution preserved and strengthened.

The partnership with Mr. Reynolds lasted until 1853, when Mr. Pruyn's relations to the railway system of his State interfered so greatly with his law practice that he was obliged to relinquish it.

In 1835 Mr. Pruyn was chosen a director of, and counsel to, the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad Company, which was organized by the Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Mr. George William Featherstonhaugh and others. This was the first railroad in the State, if not in the United States, its charter having been granted by the Legislature in April, 1826. In 1847 the name of this company was changed to the Albany & Schenectady Railroad Company.

He was also connected with the Utica & Schenectady Railroad Company, which was chartered in 1833, as counsel and treasurer. He also was president of the Mohawk Valley Railroad Company, which was organized in 1852.

These and other railroads formed a system extending from the Hudson River at Albany and Troy to Buffalo and Niagara Falls. By an act of the Legislature passed April 2, 1853, any two or more of these railroad companies were authorized to consolidate and form a new corporation to be called the New York Central Railroad Company. The railroads forming the new corporation were ten in number, and the consolidation agreement between them was drawn up by Mr. Pruyn. This involved probably as large, if not larger interests than had before been embraced in any one transaction not made by the government in this country. This instrument was for years most carefully scrutinized by various counsel, but never questioned. It was a remarkable instrument, and in the words of Mr. Martin, Mr. Pruyn's former partner, "this could not have been done by any ordinary man."

Mr. Pruyn was a director of the New York Central Railroad Company and its general counsel until 1866, when the road passed into the control of the Vanderbilts.

The Hudson River Bridge Company, at Albany, was chartered by the Legislature in 1856 for the purpose of bridging the Hudson at Albany. The right thus given was questioned and for many years the matter was in the courts, up and down, and became one of the causes celebres of the country. Mr. Pruym took part in it, and associated with him were many distinguished counsel, among whom was Mr. Bradley, now a justice of the United StatesSupreme Court. The case was finally argued, in the Supreme Court of the United States by Mr. Pruyn alone for the bridge company, and the decision in its favor virually ended the great controvensy of many years' standing in different parts of the country as to the right to bridge navigable streams.

It may not be out of place here to allude to the celebrated Sault Ste. Marie Canal, Michigan (St. Mary's Falls Ship Canal Company). This very important work, with its two enormous locks, was carried through a very trying period while Mr. Pruyn was its financial officer. Mr. Erastus Corning, the president of the company, stood by Mr. Pruyn, and to these men as much as to any others is due the success of the undertaking.

Mr. Pruyn was connected, directly or indirectly, with some of the leading financial and railroad enterprises of the country. He was a trustee of the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York from its foundation, and was for many years the only surviving member of the original board. He was also a director of the Union Trust Company of New York and had declined the offer of its presidency.

Mr. Pruyn, although always interested in political life, never held political office until after he was fifty years old. He was a Democrat of the old school, and when the Civil war broke out he at once took sides with the North as a conscientious Democrat and a loyal citizen.

In the autumn of 1861 he was elected State senator. He did not seek the nomination and accepted it only upon the condition that neither he nor any of his friends should be called upon to contribute, directly or indirectly, any money to control the vote of any elector. At the close of the session he gave his salary to the poor of Albany.

It was about this time that the law was passed, at the instance of Mr. James A Bell, Mr. Pruyn and others, for the building of the new Capitol. Mr. Pruyn was one of the original commissioners and remained a member of the commission until 1870. At this period the board was reorganized, and Mr. Pruyn not being in harmony with the very unfortunate political influences of the time was not included in the new commission. He and his friends, for reasons not necessary to enumerate, regarded his being dropped as a very high compliment to him.

Mr. Pruyn laid the first stone of the foundation of the new building on July 7, 1869, in the presence of Governor Hoffman (now deceased), the State officials and few friends. He made some appropriate remarks, which he closed as follows: "Here may wise laws be enacted; here may purity and integrity of purpose always mark the action of executive power; here may justice, the attribute of Deity, be inflexibly administered, and may Almighty God bless the State and prosper the undertaking." Mr. Pruyn was a representative in Congress from the Albany district twice; first in the Thirty-eighth Congress (1863-65), as successor to Erastus Corning, resigned, and in the Fortieth Congress (1867-69). In Congress he served upon several important committees the ways and means (before it was divided), claims. Pacific Railroads, joint library and foreign affairs. In the Thirty-eighth Congress he was unanimously chosen by the Democratic members from New York to present, on their behalf, to the House of Representatives a resolution of censure of the executive authority for closing the offices and suspending the publication of the New York World and Journal of Commerce newspapers. In this Congress he made, among others, speeches in opposition to the Confiscation act; against the centralizing influence of the Currency bill; in favor of the reciprocity treaty with Canada, and upon the abolition of slavery. In the Fortieth Congress his principal speeches were on the treaty -making power, under the Alaska treaty with Russia; on the reconstruction acts, he being opposed to military rule in the Southern States; on the Diplomatic Appropriation bill; on the resumption of specie payments, and against the impeachment of President Johnson. In this Congress, on the part of the House, he was chosen a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution in conjunction with the Hon. Luke P. Poland of Vermont, and the late President Garfield, at that time a member from Ohio. On the first election of General Grant, Mr. Pruyn was appointed with the Hon. James F. Wilson of Iowa, a Teller of the House, and in conjunction with Mr. Wilson and Senator Morton of Indiana, he was one of the committee to inform General Grant of his election. Mr. Pruyn's remarks upon that occasion, referring chiefly to those holding office, were warmly endorsed. Mr. Pruyn did excellent work in the fields of philanthropy and education. In 1831 he was elected a member of the Albany Institute, which, as the successor of societies previously organized and consolidated, is really one of the oldest literary and scientific societies in the State. In it he held various positions, including that of President, to which he was elected about 1857 and held until his death.

In May, 1844, at the age of thirty-three he was appointed a Regent of the University of the State of New York, and in January, 1862, was chosen chancellor. He was regent for thirty-three years and chancellor (up to the time of his death) for over fifteen.

The Regents perform a very useful work, comparatively but little understood. The Board of Regents was organized by the Legislature in 1784, but important changes were made in 1787. The university is similar in idea to those of Oxford and of Cambridge, except that the institutions composing it are scattered throughout the State instead of being concentrated in a single city. The educational institutions of the State (colleges and academies) are under the visitations of the Regents, and the Regents conduct certain examinations known as the preliminary and higher academic examinations. The Regents have the power to confer degrees above that of master of arts. Unfortunately the usual Baccalaureate degrees, as well as most of the degrees in medicine and law, can be and are conferred by the several colleges. It is hoped, however, that the time will come when all degrees will be conferred by the central body. The excellent work that this body has done of recent years is largely due to Chancellor Pruyn.

Mr. Pruyn was also a member of the executive committee of the State Normal School at Albany, and president of the Board of Trustees of St. Stephen's College at Annandale, New York a training school of the Protestant Episcopal church.

The establishment of the State Commissioner of Charities was recommended by Governor Fenton upon Mr. Pruyn's suggestion. From the time of its organization, in 1867, until his death, he was, with a slight interruption, its president. He was also at the time of his death president of the Board of Commissioners of the State Survey. He had been a member of the Centennial Commission, but resigned before 1876. He was a member of the association for the codification of the law of nations, of the New York Historical Society, of the Wisconsin Historical Society, of the American Geographical and Statistical Society, of the Literary Fund Society of London, of the Union and Century Clubs of New York, and of other clubs and societies.

Mr. Pruyn received the degree of master of arts in 1835 from Rutgers College, and in 1845 from Union College, and in 1853 that of doctor of laws from the University of Rochester.

Originally brought up in and an officer of the Dutch Reformed church, he subsequently joined the Protestant Episcopal church, and was at one time a vestryman of St. Peter's church, Albany. In all church affairs he took a deep interest and his views were essentially broad.

Of his personal character it is for his friends to speak. A writer in the Albany Evening Times, November 21, 1877, says:

It may be added, however, in the language of one who has known him intimately from boyhood, that amid all the many virtues of John V. L. Pruyn, his pre-eminent characteristic was justice. "Is this just? Is this honest?" was the first question with him always, and the one which, answered, decided his course. He was always gentle, and was never known to speak ill of anyone, however much he might differ with him or be abused. The saying so common was of him strictly true: "He had not an enemy in the world." He led a life of personal purity and integrity, unsullied by even so much as a rumor of anything to the contrary. The wise counselor; the prudent, conscientious public servant; prominent in all things tending to dignify and elevate the human race; given to boundless hospitality; a kind,sympathizing, sincere friend; a loving, indulgent husband, father and brother: in all things the man of integrity, conservatism and good sense; such is the record of John V. L. Pruyn. In all that pertains to those "things which are of good report," it is a proud record for any man to leave a record that all may well study, and may well aim to equal.

Mr. Pruyn died November 21, 1877, at Clifton Springs, New York, where he had gone in October to take the mineral baths for a complication of disorders. A son by his first wife, his second wife and two daughters survive him.

1 This name is pronounced in one syllable, as if written Pryne, a corruption of one of the Dutch pronunciations of the name, which, as nearly as we can express it, it Proyn.



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