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.
Dana was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 1, 1815 into a family that had settled in colonial America in 1640, counting Anne Bradstreet among its ancestors. 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. 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.
Read Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s classic Two Years Before the Mast, free from Project Gutenberg.
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." 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. 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 to enlist as a merchant seaman, despite his high-class birth. On August 14, 1834 he departed Boston aboard the brig Pilgrim bound for California, at that time still a part of Mexico. 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 tanning hides and loading them onto the ship. To return home sooner, he caught a different ship, the Alert, and on September 22, 1836, Dana arrived back in Massachusetts.
He thereupon enrolled at Harvard Law School. He graduated from there in 1837 and was admitted to the bar in 1840. He went on to specialize in maritime law, writing The Seaman's Friend in 1841 — which became a standard reference on the legal rights and responsibilities of sailors — and defending many common seamen in court.
He had kept a diary during his voyages, and in 1840 (coinciding with his admission to the bar) he published a memoir, Two Years Before the Mast, an American classic. 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 social feeling 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.
He became a prominent abolitionist, helping to found the anti-slavery Free Soil Party in 1848 and representing the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston in 1854.
In 1853 he represented William T.G. Morton in Morton's attempt to establish that he discovered the "Anaesthetic Properties of Ether".
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. 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.
Dana died of influenza in Rome and is buried in that city's Protestant Cemetery.
His son, Richard Henry Dana III, married Edith Longfellow, daughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.