Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

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For other men with the same name, see: Richard Henry Dana (disambiguation).
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Richard Henry Dana, Jr by Asa B. Eaton.png
Richard Henry Dana photographed by Asa B. Eaton, c. 1868.
Born (1815-08-01)August 1, 1815
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
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Rome, Italy


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 memoir Two Years Before the Mast. Both as a writer and as a lawyer, he was a champion of the downtrodden, from seamen to fugitive slaves and freedmen.

Early life and education

Dana was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 1, 1815[1] into a family that had settled in colonial America in 1640, counting Anne Bradstreet among its ancestors.[2] His father was the poet and critic Richard Henry Dana, Sr. As a boy, Dana studied in Cambridgeport under a strict schoolmaster named Samuel Barrett, alongside fellow Cambridge native and future writer James Russell Lowell.[3] 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.[4]


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."[4] 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.[5] 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, despite his high-class birth, to enlist as a merchant seaman. On August 14, 1834 he departed Boston aboard the brig Pilgrim bound for Alta California, at that time still a part of Mexico.[6] This voyage would bring Dana to a number of settlements in California (including Monterey, San Pedro, San Juan Capistrano, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa 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 at San Diego's Point Loma curing hides and loading them onto the ship.

To return home sooner, he was reassigned by the ship's owners to a different ship: the Alert. Of the return trip around Cape Horn in the middle of the Antarctic winter, Dana gives the classic account. He describes terrifying storms and incredible beauty, giving vivid descriptions of icebergs, which he calls incomparable. The most incredible part perhaps is the weeks and weeks it took to negotiate passage against winds and storms—all the while having to race up and down the ice-covered rigging to furl and unfurl sails. At one point he has an infected tooth, and his face swells up so that he is unable to work for several days, despite the need for all hands. After the Horn has been rounded he describes the scurvy that afflicts members of the crew. In White-Jacket, Herman Melville wrote, "But if you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana's unmatchable Two Years Before the Mast. But you can read, and so you must have read it. His chapters describing Cape Horn must have been written with an icicle."[7]

On September 22, 1836, Dana arrived back in Massachusetts.[8]

He thereupon enrolled at what is now Harvard Law School, then called the Dane Law School. Graduated in 1837, he was admitted to the bar in 1840[9] and went on to specialize in maritime law. In the October 1839 issue of a magazine, he took a local judge, one of his own instructors in law school, to task for letting off a ship's captain and mate with a slap on the wrist for murdering the ship's cook, beating him to death for not "laying hold" of a piece of equipment. The judge had sentenced the captain to ninety days in jail and the mate to thirty days.[10][11]

In 1841 Dana published The Seaman's Friend, which became a standard reference on the legal rights and responsibilities of sailors, He defended many common seamen in court.

Dana in 1842

During his voyages he had kept a diary, 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 ship's bow), officers' quarters being near the stern. His writing evidences his later sympathy for the oppressed. With the California Gold Rush later in the decade, Two Years Before the Mast would become highly sought after as one of the few sources of information on California.

Dana became a prominent abolitionist, helping to found the anti-slavery Free Soil Party in 1848 and represented the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston in 1854.

In 1853 Dana represented William T. G. Morton in Morton's attempt to establish that he discovered the "anaesthetic properties of ether".[12]

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. After the close of the war he resigned his office, as he did not approve of President Andrew Johnson's policy of Reconstruction, which was denounced by "Radical Republicans" as being too moderate in terms of African American civil rights and punishment of former Confederates, and entered private practice. 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, Henry Wheaton's Elements of International Law (8th ed., 1866). Immediately after the book's publication, Dana had been charged by the editor of two earlier editions, William Beach Lawrence, with infringing his copyright, and was involved in litigation which continued for thirteen years. In such minor matters as arrangement of notes and verification of citations the court found against Dana, but in the main Dana's notes were vastly different from Lawrence's.[13]

In 1877, Dana was one of the counsel for the Government of the United States, appearing before the Halifax Fisheries Commission, appointed under the Treaty of Washington (1871) to resolve outstanding issues, including fishing rights. The Commission gave an award directing the United States to pay $5,500,000 to the British Government. Towards the end of his life he went to Europe to devote himself to the preparation of a treatise on international law; but the actual composition of this work was little more than begun when he died in Rome, January 6, 1882.

His son, Richard Henry Dana III, married Edith Longfellow, daughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.[14]

There is additional biographical information and insights into the life of Richard Henry Dana, Jr. in the "Introductory Note" to the Harvard Classics edition of Two Years Before the Mast, edited by Charles W. Eliot, L.L.D. and published by P. F. Collier & Son in 1909. Here is an excerpt:

Richard Henry Dana, the second of that name, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 1, 1815. He came of a stock that had resided there since the days of the early settlements; his grandfather, Francis Dana, had been the first American minister to Russia and later became chief justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts; his father was distinguished as a man of letters. He entered Harvard College in 1831; but near the beginning of his third year an attack of measles left his eyesight so weak that study was impossible. Tired of the tedium of a slow convalescence, he decided on a sea voyage; and choosing to go as a sailor rather than a passenger, he shipped from Boston on August 14, 1834, on the brig Pilgrim, bound for the coast of California. His experiences for the next two years form the subject of the present volume.

In the December following his return to Boston in 1836, Dana re-entered Harvard, the hero of his fellow students, graduating in the following June. He next took up the study of law, at the same time teaching elocution in the College, and in 1840 he opened an office in Boston. While in the law school he had written out the narrative of his voyage, which he now published; and in the following year, 1841, issued The Seaman's Friend. Both books were republished in England and brought him an immediate reputation.

After several years of the practice of law, during which he dealt largely with cases involving the rights of seamen, he began to take part in politics as an active member of the Free-Soil Party. [Note: the Free-Soil Party was founded in 1847-48 in opposition to the extension of slavery into the western U.S. territories newly acquired from Mexico.] During the operation of the Fugitive-Slave Law he acted as counsel in behalf of the fugitives Shadrach, Sims and Burns, and on one occasion suffered a serious assault as a consequence of his zeal. His prominence in these cases, along with his fame as a writer, brought him much social recognition on his visit to England in 1856. Three years later, his health gave way from overwork, and he set out on a voyage round the world, revisiting California, where he made the observations which appear in the postscript to this book. [Note: The postscript is entitled: "Twenty-Four Years After," and is included in Dana's list of works, below.]

On his return, Dana was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as United States District Attorney for Massachusetts; and in his arguments before the Supreme Court in Washington in connection with the "Prize causes," dealing with the capture of private property at sea in time of war, he greatly increased an already brilliant legal reputation. He spoke out in favor of African American voting, education, property and firearms ownership, stating:

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We have got to choose between two results. With these four millions of Negroes, either you must have four millions of disfranchised, disarmed, untaught, landless, thriftless, non-producing, non-consuming, degraded men, or else you must have four millions of land-holding, industrious, arms-bearing, and voting population. Choose between the two! Which will you have?

— Richard Henry Dana, Jr., [15]

His sentiments were echoed by future U.S. President James A. Garfield in his speeches, who wholeheartedly agreed with Dana's message.


The record of Dana's life agrees with the picture of his temperament which he unconsciously painted in his first and greatest book. The ready sympathy for the suffering and the oppressed, the courage, unselfishness, and fair-mindedness which he exhibited on the merchant vessel when a boy of twenty, continued to characterize him throughout his long and distinguished career as lawyer and citizen.


Richard Henry Dana Branch, closed and vacant, May 2008
  • The point and city of Dana Point, California, located on the Pacific coast about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, are named for him, and a reproduction of the brig Pilgrim was sailed around Cape Horn and permanently placed on display there for the Ocean Institute.
  • A roadway in Coronado, California is named in his Honor. R.H. Dana Place looks across the entry to San Diego Bay towards where Richard Henry Dana, a young man of only 20 years, first set foot at San Diego, California in 1834. There he worked and lived in a large curing house processing hides which would be shipped to Boston and made into leather goods. It was this same view that inspired the Coronado City Council, in January 1931, to rename what was then Ada Place, as R.H. Dana Place, honoring Dana, and recognizing his accomplishments, and connection to San Diego and Coronado.[18]
  • The R.H. Dana Patio sits along R.H. Dana Place in Coronado, California. This garden patio at Coronado Plaza is dedicated to Richard Henry Dana and was developed by the Dan McGeorge Gallery.


Selected works by Richard Henry Dana

  • 1840. Two Years Before the Mast. Revised 1869 by the author; revised 1911 by his son.
  • 1841. The Seaman's Friend: Containing a Treatise on Practical Seamanship, with Plates; A Dictionary of Sea Terms; Customs and Usages of the Merchant Service; Laws Relating to the Practical Duties of Master and Mariners. 1st edition; 6th edition, 1851
  • 1839. Cruelty to seamen: being the case of Nichols & Couch. American Jurist and Law Magazine, October 1839, 22:92–107. This magazine was published in two volumes per year. Dana's article was republished in 1937 under the same title at Berkeley, California: The hand press of Wilder and Ellen Bentley. The original source is often miscited with the truncated name, American Jurist.
  • ca. 1842. An autobiographical sketch.
  • 1859. To Cuba and back.
  • 1859–1860. Journal of a Voyage Round the World. Reprinted in the Library of America volume on Dana and "records the 14-month circumnavigation that took Dana to California, Hawaii, China, Japan, Malaya, Ceylon, India, Egypt, and Europe. Written with unflagging energy and curiosity, the journal provides fascinating vignettes of frontier life in California, missionary influence in Hawaii, the impact of the Taiping Rebellion and the Second Opium War on China, and the opening of Japan to the West, while capturing the transition from the age of sail to the faster, smaller world created by the steamship and the telegraph."
  • 1869. Twenty-Four Years After. Now included in subsequent editions of Two Years Before the Mast
  • 1968. The journal. Robert F. Lucid, editor. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

See also

George Livermore


  1. Nelson 1981, p. 45.
  2. Sullivan, 1972, pages 98
  3. Duberman 1966, p. 15.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Sullivan 1972, p. 100.
  5. Sullivan 1972, p. 101.
  6. Sullivan 1972, p. 102.
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  8. Sullivan 1972, pp. 104-5.
  9. Encyclopædia Britannica online article: Richard Henry Dana
  10. Glenn 1984, pp. 99-100.
  11. Levine, p. 282.
  12. Morton 1853, pp. 222-232.
  13. 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article on Francis Dana
  14. Nelson 1981, p. 63.
  15. Religion, Race, and Reconstruction: The Public School in the Politics of the 1870s (1998), by Ward M. McCafee, Albany, New York: State University of New York, p. 11.
  16. Website of Dana Middle School in Hawthorne
  17. Website of Dana Middle School in San Pedro
  18. Minutes from the Coronado City Council meeting, December 15, 1930.
  19. page 20


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  • Adams, Charles Francis. 1890. Richard Henry Dana : A biography. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.
  • Duberman, Martin. 1966. James Russell Lowell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Glenn, Myra C. 1984. Campaigns against corporal punishment: prisoners, sailors, women, and children in antebellum America. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. SUNY series in American social history.
  • Levine, Robert S. 1989. Conspiracy and Romance: Studies in Brockden Brown, Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville. Cambridge University Press.
  • Morton, William T.G. 1853. Statements, Supported by Evidence, of Wm. T.G. Morton on His Claim to the Discovery of the Anaesthetic Properties of Ether Submitted to the Honorable the Select Committee Appointed by the Senate of the United States: 32d Congress, 2d Session.[citation needed] Washington, D.C., January 21, 1853.
  • Nelson, Randy F. 1981. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc. ISBN 0-86576-008-X
  • Sullivan, Wilson. 1972. New England Men of Letters; entry on Dana, Jr. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0-02-788680-8

External links

Legal offices
Preceded by United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts
Succeeded by
George Stillman Hillard