Erastus D. Culver

wikipedia Wikipedia view on Wikipedia
Erastus D. Culver
Minister to Venezuela
In office
Preceded byHenry Taylor Blow
Succeeded byJames Wilson
Judge of Brooklyn City Court
In office
Preceded byJohn Greenwood
Succeeded byGeorge G. Reynolds
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 14th district
In office
March 4, 1845 – March 3, 1847
Preceded byCharles Rogers
Succeeded byOrlando Kellogg
Member of the New York State Assembly from Washington County
In office
January 1, 1841 – December 31, 1841
Serving with Reuben Skinner
Preceded byJohn H. Boyd, Anderson Simpson
Succeeded byJames McKie Jr., Dan S. Wright
In office
January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1838
Serving with Leonard Gibbs
Preceded byJoseph W. Richards, Charles Rogers
Succeeded bySalmon Axtell, Jesse S. Leigh
Personal details
Born(1803-03-15)March 15, 1803
Champlain, New York
DiedOctober 13, 1889(1889-10-13) (aged 86)
Greenwich, New York
Political partyWhig
Alma materUniversity of Vermont

Erastus Dean Culver (March 15, 1803 – October 13, 1889) was an attorney, politician, judge, and diplomat from New York City.

Culver was active in the anti-slavery movement and, while in Congress in the 1840s, opposed the extension of slavery to Texas and the territory of Oregon. As an attorney, Culver was part of a team that defended eight Virginia slaves in a freedom suit, Lemmon v. New York (1852), successfully gaining their freedom in New York City's Superior Court. Culver was later elected judge of Brooklyn's City Court, serving from 1854 to 1861. In 1857 Culver decided the well-known freedom suit of a fugitive slave named "Jeems" and set him free by ruling against the people who had detained him, including police officers who hoped to collect a bounty under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

From 1862 to 1866 Culver served as Minister to Venezuela. He later returned to his former hometown of Greenwich, New York, where he was active in several business ventures until his death in 1889.

Early life and start of career[edit]

Culver was born in Champlain, New York on March 15, 1803.[1] He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1826, taught school for a period, and read the law with an established firm.[2][3] He was admitted to the bar in 1831 and commenced practice in Fort Ann, New York.

He joined the Whig Party and became active in government and politics, including winning election as Fort Ann's Town Clerk and serving from 1833 to 1835.[4]

In 1836 Culver moved to Greenwich, New York. He was elected the New York State Assembly in 1838 and 1841.[5]

Congressional career[edit]

In 1844 Culver was elected to Congress, and he served one term, March 4, 1845 to March 3, 1847. He was an anti-slavery advocate in the House, and his first act as a Congressman was to present a petition from residents of New York, which asked for slavery to be abolished in the District of Columbia.[6] He also drew attention for his speech opposing the extension of slavery to Oregon Territory and the Republic of Texas when they joined the United States.[7]

Judicial career[edit]

Culver moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1850, where he established a law practice and became prominent as an advocate for New York City and Brooklyn abolitionists. Chester Alan Arthur studied law with Culver, and later became a partner in Culver's firm.[8]

Together Culver, Arthur and John Jay (grandson of the Chief Justice of the same name) successfully argued Lemmon v. New York (1852), a freedom suit. Virginia slave owners had brought slaves with them and stopped temporarily in New York, from where they intended to travel to Texas. The slaves were discovered to be in New York by an African-American activist, who petitioned the court by a writ of Habeas corpus. They were temporarily freed and Culver, Arthur and Jay successfully argued that the slaves could not be considered property in New York, which had abolished slavery, and should remain free.[9]

Culver became a Republican when the party was founded in the 1850s.[10] In 1854 he was elected judge of Brooklyn's city court, and he served until 1861.[11][12]

One of Culver's prominent cases took place in 1857, soon after the decision in the Dred Scott case, and as tensions over slavery were rising before the American Civil War. He ruled in a freedom suit in favor of a fugitive slave owned by James Stead of Georgia. The slave Jeems, described as "nearly white," had escaped and traveled by steamship from Florida to New York City. Upon arrival, Jeems was detained by police officers (alerted by the ship's captain), who put him in irons and detained him at a house in Brooklyn, intending to return him under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and claim the bounty.

Upon being detected and cited into court, the police officers and Stead's attorney argued that New York's laws against slavery did not apply because Stead and Jeems were residents of another state. Culver disagreed and issued a writ of habeas corpus. Jeems was freed, and activists aided him in reaching the Underground Railroad and relocating to Canada. The steamship captain, the owner of the house were Jeems was held, and the two police officers were charged with conspiracy and kidnapping.[13][14]

Diplomatic career[edit]

Culver was a popular orator. He was seated on the dais when Abraham Lincoln gave his 1860 Cooper Union speech and, by popular demand, he gave a speech after Lincoln's.[15][16]

In 1862 Culver was appointed by President Lincoln as Minister to Venezuela, and he served until 1866. Upon arriving to begin his duties, Culver unwittingly caused a diplomatic faux pas by presenting his credentials to José Antonio Páez, whose government was not recognized by the United States. Culver's instructions had not been clear, and after he provided de facto recognition of the Páez government by this action, Secretary of State Seward wrote to him with instructions to formally withdraw it. Official diplomatic relations were broken off, but Culver had become friendly with Páez, who allowed him to remain.[17]

Later life[edit]

Upon returning to the United States, Culver again took up residence in Greenwich, where he continued to practice law. He also became involved in several business ventures, including serving as president of the First National Bank of Greenwich[18] and member of the board of directors of the Greenwich and Johnsonville Railway.[19]

Death and burial[edit]

Culver lived in Greenwich during his retirement. He died there on October 13, 1889,[20] and was interred in the Culver vault at Greenwich Cemetery.[21]


  1. ^ University of Vermont Alumni Association, University of Vermont Obituary Record, Volume 1, 1895, page 41
  2. ^ University of Vermont, General Catalogue of the University of Vermont, 1901, page 50
  3. ^ Frederic Lathrop Colver, Colver-Culver Genealogy: Descendants of Edward Colver, 1910, page 163
  4. ^ William L. Stone, Washington County, New York, Its History to the Close of the Nineteenth Century, 1901, retrieved via, June 27, 2014
  5. ^ Edgar A. Werner, The New York Civil List, 1888, pages 396, 398
  6. ^ George Washington Mitchell, The Question Before Congress: A Consideration of the Debates and Final Action by Congress Upon Various Phases of the Race Question in the United States, 1918, page 56
  7. ^ J. & G.S. Gideon, publishers, "Speech of Mr. Culver, of New York, on the Texas and Oregon Questions", 1846, page 1
  8. ^ John F. Collin, Political Affairs of the Country, 1881, pages 89-90
  9. ^ Benjamin Perley Poore, The Bay State Monthly, Chester Alan Arthur, May 1884, page 266
  10. ^ Home Market Bulletin, Origin of the Republican Party, October 1915, page 388
  11. ^ Edgar Albert Werner, The New-York Civil List, 1888, page 309
  12. ^ Harry A. Lewis, Hidden Treasures Or, Why Some Succeed While Others Fail, 1888, unknown page number
  13. ^ The Illustrated London News, Foreign and International News: United States, Volume 31, December 19, 1857, page 603
  14. ^ Tom Calarco, People of the Underground Railroad: A Biographical Dictionary, 2008, pages 89-90
  15. ^ Raymond J. McKoski, Kentucky Law Journal, Reestablishing Actual Impartiality as the Fundamental Value of Judicial Ethics: Lessons from “Big Judge Davis”, Volume 99, 2010-2011, page 282
  16. ^ Harold Holzer, Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, 2006, pages 146-147
  17. ^ Judith Ewell, Venezuela and the United States: From Monroe's Hemisphere to Petroleum's Empire, 1996, pages 55-56
  18. ^ The Bankers Magazine, Official Bulletin of New National Banks, Volume 35, 1881, page 903
  19. ^ New York State Engineer and Surveyor, Annual Report on the Railroads of New York, 1881, page 515
  20. ^ Walter Romeyn Benjamin, The Collector, A Magazine for Autograph and Bookplate Collectors, A Dictionary of American Political Biography, April 1898, page 78
  21. ^ Thomas E. Spencer, Where They're Buried, 1998, page 236

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Charles Rogers
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 14th congressional district

March 4, 1845 – March 3, 1847
Succeeded by
Orlando Kellogg
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Henry T. Blow
United States Minister to Venezuela
7 October 1862 – 17 May 1866
Succeeded by
James Wilson

 This article incorporates public domain material from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress website