Among those to rise from humble Adirondack roots and pursue life in the big city was Charles P. Shaw, a native of Jay, New York, where he was born in 1836. “Humble,” meaning relative poverty, aptly described most North Country citizens in those early days. But Shaw may have had an advantage since there were two doctors in the family: his father, Daniel, and his grandfather, Joshua Bartlett. As educated men, they were more likely to stress among their family the importance of education.
For whatever reason, Charles was an excellent and precocious student. There survives in old newspapers an anecdote suggesting he was indeed an unusually bright pupil.
From the Plattsburgh Sentinel: “His first attempt at oratory was at the age of thirteen, when a Methodist picnic was being held near Upper Jay. After the audience had been well entertained by the speakers of the day, Superintendent George Tobey noticed the youth, a member of his Sunday school, wending his way along the banks of the Ausable River, with fish-pole in hand, angling the ‘speckled beauties,’ when he announced ‘Charlie Shaw’ as the next speaker. To the surprise of all, the young lad laid down his fishing rod and, mounting a large stump, proceeded to deliver the finest oration of the day, though it was strictly impromptu.”
He later attended Union College in Schenectady and developed a strong interest in politics, actively campaigning in 1856 for John Fremont, the anti-slavery candidate. Four years later, he would do the same in support of Abraham Lincoln.
In 1859, Charles graduated at the top of his class, delivering a powerful valedictory speech, calling for, among other things, “freedom of thought and independence of action.”
After graduating, he worked for one of the most prestigious law offices in New York City, that of John Edmonds, who had returned to his practice after ascending to several positions, including chief justice of the state supreme court. Earlier, when his career was in the same early stages as Shaw’s, Edmonds had lived with and worked for Martin Van Buren, the future president. With Edmonds, Charles had found the perfect environment for launching his career.
While working as an attorney, he became Edmonds’ private clerk, performing much of the background work for some high-profile cases, including what became known as the West Washington Market case (one of the world’s largest food markets). The firm won a $600,000 judgment from the city—equal to $17 million dollars today—and Shaw gained recognition as a rising star in the legal world.
For a young man of just 23, it was heady stuff. Shortly after the victory, Shaw was selected as the Republican candidate for Corporation Counsel (the chief legal officer of New York City), and the following year was nominated as a congressional candidate. In reality, there was little hope of his winning anything political, for two reasons: through Tammany Hall, the Democrats controlled the city; and Shaw himself was considered a liberal Republican, often choosing different positions from the mainstream party. Still, he was becoming a factor in city politics.
A major change occurred for Shaw when the Civil War began. President Lincoln had assigned Brigadier General Andrew Jackson Hamilton (grandson of Alexander Hamilton) as the Military Governor of Texas (and later as provisional governor during Reconstruction). Because conditions in Texas were so dangerous, Hamilton was based in New Orleans. Charles Shaw, commissioned a colonel, was appointed as his private secretary.
Through this arrangement, an opportunity arose for Shaw to further enhance his legal reputation. Among Hamilton’s very good friends was Sam Houston (yes, that Sam Houston), and a close friend of Houston’s, Simon Mussina, was in desperate need of legal help.
Mussina was a co-founder of Brownsville, Texas, with Charles Stillman, but Mussina’s land claims were being routinely dismissed in court. His opponent, Stillman, was aggressive and powerful. Already a wealthy man, he would soon help finance an invasion of Mexico in order to solidify and expand his holdings. Years later, two of his grandsons would marry into the Rockefeller family, after which the hyphenated name Stillman-Rockefeller ruled New York City’s banks. That’s the kind of power Mussina was up against in Stillman.
With the blessings of Houston and Hamilton, Shaw returned to New York City in 1863 and entered the fray on Mussina’s behalf. The situation was unexpectedly daunting, however, for Shaw found himself face-to-face with one of the nation’s most famous and able attorneys, Charles O’Connor. Among other career highlights, O’Connor helped dismantle the Boss Tweed ring, and he was eventually nominated for a presidential run.
Despite O’Connor’s best effort, Shaw won a settlement of $100,000 ($2.4 million today) and earned a fee of $18,000 ($425,000 today). From that point forward, he would have no trouble attracting clients.
During the next decade, he was nominated by city Republicans for several positions, including Corporation Counsel and the state senate. But his politics hadn’t changed, and even after being selected, Charles eventually withdrew, allowing others to take his place. Through the late 1870s, much to the displeasure of the mainstream party, he remained a favorite of the Independent Republicans, and was a featured speaker at events like Decoration Day.
Among his court cases to gain national attention was the William McGarrahan fight over mining rights in Santa Clara, California. Additionally, he served as counsel and a chief officer of the Big Pittsburgh Consolidated Silver Mining Company in Leadville Colorado. The company’s capital stock was valued at $20 million (nearly a half billion today); among the investors was Cyrus McCormick.
He also argued cases before the state Supreme Court and before Congress in Washington. Clients appreciated his wisdom and tenacity when fighting on their behalf.
Next week, the conclusion: a fighter battles to the end.