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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.

Thomas J. Van Alstyne

Hon. Thomas J. Van Alstyne, who has been active in business intercourse with the citizens of Albany county for nearly fifty years, has so identified himself with its advancement that its history would be incomplete without reference to him. In line of ancestry Mr. Van Alstyne traces, without break, citizenship in America, on both paternal and maternal side, back as early as 1636. John Martin Van Alstyne was a freeholder in Fort Orange as early as 1657, from which time his lineal descendants direct, down to the subject of this sketch, have been freeholders in either one of the three adjoining counties of Albany, Columbia, and Schoharie, and the descendants from this same head are to be found in several other counties of this State and many other parts of the United States. Samuel Gile, Mr. Van Alstyne's first (American) maternal ancestor, was freeman and freeholder in Haverhill, Mass., early in 1640. All of these first immigrants were intelligent and thrifty farmers who by industry and frugality acquired wide stretches of real estate and considerable personal property, which was mostly transmitted to their children, and became a fitting incentive to them to emulate such example of their parents. As these men were successful in their endeavors, public spirited in thought and action, so have their descendants been good citizens and loyal to their fellows, — especially so at the period of the Revolutionary war. Two of the great-grandfathers of Mr. Van Alstyne did service in council and in the field; William Van Alstyne having been captain, and Moses Gile a member of the Standing Committee of Correspondence of the county of Charlotte, Vt., and at fifty-eight years of age, having done service in the field in the regiment commanded by Colonel Marsh. Mr. Van Alstyne's grandfather, Thomas Van Alstyne, at the age of sixteen enlisted and served in the regiment commanded by Colonel Clyde. This manifestation of active loyalty by both extremes, advanced age and comparative youth, is, and should be considered, unchallengeable grounds for pride in patriotic ancestry. In the late Rebellion, while Mr. Van Alstyne was prevented by business interests and domestic obligations from entering the field in person, he placed in the service on behalf of the Union a representative, and was an active supporter of the government, so far as his influence could be exerted, in the vigorous and speedy prosecution of the war.

Mr. Van Alstyne is the son Dr. Thomas B. Van Alstyne (formerly an eminent physician and prominent citizen of the locality in which he lived), and Eliza Gile, his wife, late of Richmondville, Schoharie county, N. Y., at which place he was born July 25, 1827. Blessed with a vigorous constitution even in infancy, and continually growing and developing in physical strength and activity, he spent the first seven years of school life in the village school when in session, mastering the limited instruction there imparted, and during vacation baiting the tiny fishes of the brooks, or hunting the squirrel and partridge in the neighboring mountain forests — being in these times free from care, and in the full enjoyment of all those things that constitute happiness in the boy.

At the age of thirteen years, the boy, while visiting the house of his brother-in-law, a minister of a Baptist church in Cayuga county, conceived the purpose of acquiring advanced education, and became a student in the academy at Moravia, distant three and a half miles from Locke. Seven miles was, by choice, the regular school-day walk of the young student for months. After a year spent thus at Moravia, and a period at a select classical school, he became a student at Hartwick Seminary, where he completed his preparation for college. With six others from the same school he matriculated in Hamilton College, from which he graduated in 1848, receiving the degree of Bachelor of Arts, and in 1851 that of Master of Arts. In the college course his class standing was good, and he especially excelled in mathematics. In addition to the regular college course Mr. Van Alstyne with a few others, took a private course in law, under the instruction of Prof. Theodore W. Dwight, who subsequently became eminent as an instructor in the Law Department of Columbia College of New York.

In 1848, Mr. Van Alstyne entered the law office of Messrs. Harris and Van Vorst, of Albany. By diligent attention to the business of the office he was enabled, with his knowledge of the principles of law before acquired, to pass, before the close of the year, a satisfactory and successful examination for admission to practice in all the courts of the State, the late Hon. John H. Reynolds, Hon. John K. Porter and Orando Mead, esq., comprising the examining committee. Mr. Van Alstyne, however, retained his desk in the office of Harris & Van Vorst until 1850, continuing with the exception of business personal to himself and his father, study and practice as a student, devoting a reasonable portion of the time, however, to travel and vacation. After opening an office for public practice, he continued by himself until 1853, when he was invited to and formed a partnership with Mr. Matthew McMahon, with whom he was associated for four years. The firm did a large and diversified business, Mr. McMahon being the confidential adviser of the Prelates of the Diocese of the church of which he was a member, and Mr. Van Alstyne managing the legal details of the business and the trials of causes.

In 1858 Mr. Van Alstyne formed a copartnership with Mr. Winfield S. Hevenor, which has continued down to the present time— making the firm the oldest in continuance of any in Albany. When this firm commenced business Ira Harris, William B. Wright, George Gould and Henry Hogeboom were justices of the Supreme Court for the Third Judicial district (embracing the county of Albany), and a large proportion of the court business of the firm for years was transacted before these justices. The firm remains, and its members have survived all of these eminent men, and have seen of their respective successors, Judges Peckham (the elder), Miller, Danforth, Westbrook and Osborn yielding to the inevitable, gathered by the scythe of death. Judges Ingalls and Learned retired from the bench on account of age, and the younger Peckham promoted to the position of justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, leaving at this writing Messrs. Parker, Edwards, Mayham, Fursman and Chester as justices of the Third Judicial District, all of whom, except Judge Mayham, are much younger than the subject of this sketch. The business of the firm of Van Alstyne & Hevenor was large from the first, embracing most of the branches of the law. Both members being self-reliant and capable, they conducted all matters entrusted to them without help of counsel. They adopted as rules of action, never to give advice unfounded on actual or assured fact, or unwarranted in law; never to appeal from a just verdict upon the merits, though a reversal on account of error might be had and might result in a new trial (the final result in such cases generally ending in mulcting the client in greater loss in money, time and anxiety).

In politics Mr. Van Alstyne has always been a Democrat. Prior to the war of the Rebellion he was a Freesoiler on principle, but recognized the rights of the slaveholding States under the constitution, and approved their maintenance under the law. War supervening, based upon the institution of slavery, he urged its vigorous prosecution with the certain abolition of slavery as an incident.

In 1871, at the solicitation of many citizens of the county, Mr. Van Alstyne consented to become a candidate for the office of county judge on the ticket of his party, and was elected, receiving the largest vote cast for any candidate on the ticket. In assuming the duties of his office he adopted strict rules for conducting the business of the court, thereby effecting an immediate and needed reform in that tribunal. The court calendar during the twelve years of his service as county judge was large, the number of causes tried before him nearly equaling the number of those tried at the Albany Circuit, and were as varied and difficult in nature. Very few verdicts were reversed for mistrial, and very few decisions of his were set aside as being against the law.

In 1882 Mr. Van Alstyne was tendered, without solicitation, the nomination for Representative in Congress. It was accepted in the sense of duty; and he was elected by a most flattering vote. On taking his seat in the 48th Congress, he was appointed a member of the Committee on Claims, and also on the Committee on Expenditures of the Department of Justice. In the former committee the reports will show the activity of the new member, and the passage of bills resting upon them testifies to the correctness of his conclusions. In the latter committee, the two printed volumes of the reports exhibit the extent of labor and inquiry expended by its members, resulting in the reform of many evils in administration in many important branches of the service, and in saving much unnecessary expenditure of money to the country. He was also on the Special Committee of three (Messrs. Springer, of Illinois, and Stewart, of Vermont, being his associates), appointed to investigate charges of improper conduct on part of the United States marshal for the Southern District of Ohio at the Congressional election of 1884.

Mr. Van Alstyne had secured the confidence and cordial friendship of the ablest and best members of the House, and was renominated by acclamation to succeed himself. The election in 1884 was the first in fact after the reform in State offices introduced by Governer Cleveland had become operative, requiring the conducting of the affairs of the public on business principles. It generated an opposition to the party, which, aided by the fact that the opposing candidate for Congress, Hon. John Swinburne, was one of the ablest physicians and surgeons of the State, and one of the most philanthropic and charitable citizens of the district, resulted, without fault of Mr. Van Alstyne, and without implied condemnation of him, in a tidal wave in his defeat and for the success of his opponent. If he had been continued in the House of Representatives his influence in that body, already great, would have been more effective; but he accepted the result of the election more as a favor than as a loss, and thereafter refused a further tender of nomination and retired from politics, against the wishes and earnest protestations of the chiefs of his party.

Mr. Van Alstyne has been thrice married — first, in 1851 to Miss Sarah Clapp, daughter of the late Ruel Clapp, of Albany. Of this marriage one son survives, Mr. Thomas Butler Van Alstyne, lawyer and fruit grower, residing in Southern California. Secondly, in 1876 to Miss Louisa Peck, a daughter of the late Samuel S. Peck, of Albany; and thirdly, in 1886 to Miss Laura Louisa Wurdemann, daughter of W. W. Wurdemaan, esq., of Washington, D. C. Of this latter marriage one son aged nine years is living.

Mr. Van Alstyne is a member of Emmanuel Baptist church of Albany, as has been each of his wives. He is also a member of several orders and societies, but was never a devotee or habitue of the social society of the day so attractive to and patronized by many. He has a well selected library of over six thousand volumes of miscellaneous books, to which he gives constant nightly attention, and from which he gleans richer and less wearying enjoyment than could be derived from the social whirl. He is still in full vigor and perfect health, with a fair prospect of being permitted to survive many years in future.

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