Theodore Sedgwick

For his grandson the law writer, see Theodore Sedgwick (writer).
Theodore Sedgwick

Portrait by Gilbert Stuart c1808 (Museum Fine Arts Boston)
4th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives
In office
December 2, 1799  March 3, 1801
President John Adams
Preceded by Jonathan Dayton
Succeeded by Nathaniel Macon
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 1st district
In office
March 4, 1795  June 1796
Preceded by Fisher Ames
Samuel Dexter
Benjamin Goodhue
Samuel Holten
(General ticket)
Succeeded by Thomson J. Skinner
In office
March 4, 1799  March 3, 1801
Preceded by Thomson J. Skinner
Succeeded by John Bacon
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 2nd district
In office
March 4, 1793  March 3, 1795
Serving with Dwight Foster, Artemas Ward, and William Lyman (General ticket)
Preceded by Benjamin Goodhue
Succeeded by William Lyman
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 4th district
In office
March 4, 1789  March 3, 1793
Preceded by District created
Succeeded by Henry Dearborn
Peleg Wadsworth
George Thatcher
(General ticket)
United States Senator
from Massachusetts
In office
June 11, 1796  March 3, 1799
Preceded by Caleb Strong
Succeeded by Samuel Dexter
10th President pro tempore of the United States Senate
In office
June 27, 1798  December 5, 1798
President John Adams
Preceded by Jacob Read
Succeeded by John Laurance
Personal details
Born (1746-05-09)May 9, 1746
West Hartford, Connecticut
Died January 24, 1813(1813-01-24) (aged 66)
Boston, Massachusetts
Nationality American, U.S.
Political party Federalist
Spouse(s) Elizabeth "Eliza" Mason (m. 1767; d. 1771)
Pamela Dwight (m. 1774; d. 1807)
Penelope Russell (m. 1808–13)
Children 10
Alma mater Yale College
Occupation Attorney, politician and jurist
Profession Law
Religion Unitarianism
Military service
Service/branch Continental Army
Rank Major
Battles/wars American Revolutionary War

Theodore Sedgwick (May 9, 1746  January 24, 1813) was an American attorney, politician and jurist, who served in elected state government and as a Delegate to the Continental Congress, a U.S. Representative, and a United States Senator from Massachusetts. He served as the fourth Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. He was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1802 and served there the rest of his life.

Early life and education

Born in West Hartford, Connecticut, Sedgwick was the son of Benjaman Sedgwick (1716-1755). His paternal immigrant ancestor Major General Robert Sedgwick arrived in 1636 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as part of the Great Migration.[1]

Sedgwick attended Yale College,[2] where he studied theology and law. He did not graduate, but went on to study law ("read law") under the attorney Mark Hopkins of Great Barrington (He was the grandfather of the Mark Hopkins who later became president of Williams College.)

Early career

Sedgwick was admitted to the bar in 1766 and commenced practice in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He moved to Sheffield. During the American Revolutionary War, he served in the Continental Army as a major, and took part in the expedition to Canada and the Battle of White Plains in 1776.[3]

Freedom suit

As a relatively young lawyer, Sedgwick and Tapping Reeve pleaded the case of Brom and Bett vs. Ashley (1781), an early "freedom suit", in county court for the slaves Elizabeth Freeman (known as Bett) and Brom. Bett was a black slave who had fled from her master, Colonel John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, because of cruel treatment by his wife. Brom joined her in suing for freedom from the Ashleys. The attorneys challenged their enslavement under the new state constitution of 1780, which held that "all men are born free and equal." The jury agreed and ruled that Bett and Brom were free. The decision was upheld on appeal by the state Supreme Court.

Bett marked her freedom by taking the name of Elizabeth Freeman, and she chose to work for wages at the Sedgwick household, where she helped rear their several children. She worked there for much of the rest of her life, buying a separate house for her and her daughter after the Sedgwick children were grown. After Freeman's death, the Sedgwicks buried her at Stockbridge Cemetery in the Sedgwick Pie, the family plot. The family marked Freeman's grave with an inscribed monument, and it is beside that of their fourth child, writer Catharine Maria.[4]

Political career

A Federalist, Sedgwick began his political career in 1780 as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He was elected as representative to the state house, and then as state senator. He was a charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780.[5]

In 1789 Sedgwick was elected as Representative to Congress from Massachusetts' first congressional district, and over time also represented the Massachusetts' second district, serving until 1796. That year he was elected to the United States Senate, and served until 1799. In 1799 he was re-elected as a Representative, this time from the fourth district, and was elected the fifth Speaker of the House, serving until March 1801.

In 1802, Sedgwick was appointed a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. He held this position until his death.

Marriages and family

Around 1767, Sedgwick married Elizabeth "Eliza" Mason, the daughter of a deacon from Franklin, Connecticut. In 1771, Sedgwick contracted smallpox which he passed on to his wife who was then pregnant with the couple's first child.[6] She died of the disease on April 12, 1771 while eight months pregnant.[2]

Sedgwick married a second time on April 17, 1774 to Pamela Dwight of the New England Dwight family. She was the daughter of Brigadier General Joseph Dwight of Great Barrington and his second wife, the widow Abigail Williams Sargent. Abigail was the daughter of Colonel Ephraim Williams, and half-sister of Ephraim Williams, Jr. the founder of Williams College.[1]

The Sedgwicks had ten children, three of which died within a year of birth, reflecting the high infant mortality of the time. They were:[1][7]

  1. Elizabeth Mason Sedgwick (April 30, 1775 – October 15, 1827)
  2. A child died at birth on March 27, 1777.
  3. Frances Pamela Sedgwick (May 6, 1778 – October 15, 1827)
  4. Theodore Sedgwick II (December 9, 1780 1839), he married children's book author Susan Anne Livingston. Their son Theodore Sedgwick was a lawyer and author.
  5. Catherine Sedgwick (July 11, 1782 – March 3, 1783)
  6. Henry Dwight Sedgwick (April 18, 1784 – March 1, 1785)
  7. Henry Dwight Sedgwick (September 22, 1785 – December 23, 1831), his grandson was lawyer and author Henry Dwight Sedgwick III.
  8. Robert Sedgwick (June 6, 1787 – September 2, 1841) Lawyer, married Elizabeth Dana Ellery, granddaughter of William Ellery,. a signer of the Declaration of Independence
  9. Catharine Maria Sedgwick (December 28, 1789 – July 31, 1876), became one of the first noted female writers in the United States
  10. Charles Sedgwick (December 15, 1791 – August 3, 1856), became clerk of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. His grandson was anatomist Charles Sedgwick Minot.

During the marriage, Sedgwick frequently left his wife and children at their home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts while he focused on building his political career. His frequent absences, coupled with the death of three children and the strain of caring for numerous children (albeit with the help of her mother and many servants and slaves), caused Pamela's physical and mental health to decline.[8] After Pamela's mother died in February 1791, she developed depression and began exhibiting signs of hypomania.[9] She was institutionalized for a time in December 1795, but her physical and mental health continued to decline in the years following her release. She committed suicide by consuming poison on September 20, 1807.[10][11]

After Pamela's death, Sedgwick married his third wife Penelope Russell on November 7, 1808. The two remained married until Sedgwick's death in 1813.[12]


While on his death bed, Sedgwick converted to Unitarianism with his daughter Catharine Maria and William Ellery Channing in attendance.[13] On January 24, 1813, Sedgwick died in Boston, Massachusetts at the age of 66. He was buried in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. His grave is at the center of the "Sedgwick Pie".[4]

Modern-day relatives

Theodore Sedgwick is the fourth great-grandfather of actress Kyra Sedgwick.[14]

See also



  1. 1 2 3 (Dwight 1874, pp. 735–739)
  2. 1 2 (Kenslea 2006, p. 14)
  3. Banner, James M., Jr. "Sedgwick, Theodore"; American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  4. 1 2 "Sedgwick Pie - Listing of Graves, Stockbridge, Massachusetts Cemetery", Sedgwick Website
  5. "Charter of Incorporation of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 28, 2014.
  6. (Sedgwick 2008, pp. 40–41)
  7. "Sedgwick Genealogy North America: Theodore Sedgwick (1746 - 1813)". Retrieved December 21, 2012.
  8. (Kenslea 2006, pp. 20–24)
  9. Maslin, Janet (January 22, 2007). "Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Talking About the Family". Retrieved April 7, 2015.
  10. (Sedgwick 2008, p. 138)
  11. (Kenslea 2006, p. 27)
  12. (Kenslea 2006, p. 1386)
  13. Damon-Bach, Lucinda L.; Clements, Victoria, eds. (2003). Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Critical Perspectives. UPNE. p. XXXIV. ISBN 1-555-53548-8.
  14. "Sedgwick Genealogy North America: Kyra Sedgwick 1965". Retrieved December 21, 2012.
United States House of Representatives
New seat Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 4th congressional district

March 4, 1789 – March 3, 1793
Succeeded by
Henry Dearborn, George Thatcher, Peleg Wadsworth (General ticket)
(Maine District)
Preceded by
Benjamin Goodhue
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 2nd congressional district

March 4, 1793 – March 3, 1795
alongside: Dwight Foster, William Lyman, Artemas Ward on a General ticket
Succeeded by
William Lyman
Preceded by
Fisher Ames, Samuel Dexter, Benjamin Goodhue, Samuel Holten (General Ticket)
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 1st congressional district

March 4, 1795 – June 1796
Succeeded by
Thomson J. Skinner
United States Senate
Preceded by
Caleb Strong
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Massachusetts
June 11, 1796 – March 3, 1799
Served alongside: Benjamin Goodhue
Succeeded by
Samuel Dexter
Preceded by
Jacob Read
President pro tempore of the United States Senate
June 27, 1798 – December 5, 1798
Succeeded by
John Laurance
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Thomson J. Skinner
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 1st congressional district

March 4, 1799 – March 3, 1801
Succeeded by
John Bacon
Preceded by
Jonathan Dayton
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
December 2, 1799 – March 3, 1801
Succeeded by
Nathaniel Macon
Legal offices
Preceded by
Thomas Dawes
Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Succeeded by
Charles Jackson
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