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(1841-1914) ~ Inducted 2009
Amasa Eaton (1841-1914) was a prominent Providence attorney who might be described as the quintessential Progressive reformer. His distinguished lineage included Providence’s Brown family and the Herreshoffs of Bristol.
He was an outspoken advocate of home rule for Providence and a member of the Metropolitan Park Commission, the Blackstone Neighborhood Improvement Association, and various good-government organizations. He supported the local Equal Rights movement of the 1880s and advocated the implementation of the merit system and civil service reform. In one reformist essay he stated that “the routine business of government should be conducted on business principles” and “officeholders should be appointed on account of their fitness for the work to be done.”
Eaton graduated from Brown in 1861, fought with the First Rhode Island Volunteers in the Civil War, served as a state representative from Providence in 1865 and 1866 and again from 1872 to 1874. Then he studied law at Harvard receiving his degree in 1878. In 1893 he was elected president of The Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.
State constitutional change was Eaton’s major concern. In 1899 he wrote a learned 128-page tract entitled Constitution-Making in Rhode Island, which traced the history of his subject and me numerous recommendations for reform, including women’s suffrage, removal of all property qualifications for voting, a strengthening of the governor’s powers, and municipal home rule. From 1903 to 1905 he played a leading role in advocating the establishment of Rhode Island’s modern court system through his strenuous advocacy of the Court and Practice Act of 1905.
On the national state, Amasa was a member of the Commission on Uniform State Legislation serving as its president from 1901 to 1910 and first vice president of the National Divorce Congress during 1906-07.
Attorney Eaton was such a persistent advocate of political, legal, constitutional, and social improvements that in the breadth of his reformist zeal he resembled Thomas Wilson Dorr. Undoubtedly it was this perceived similarity that led Eaton in 1908 to write an extensive (53-page) and highly favorable biographical sketch of Dorr for William Draper Lewis’s multivolume Great American Lawyers series. That profile remains the best life of Dorr yet published.
Eaton died in 1914 at his Providence home on Smith Street in his seventy-fourth year.
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