Dana rose to fame as the author of Two Years Before the Mast, and spent his legal career advocating for the rights of sailors and the abolition of slavery.
Richard Henry Dana, Jr. was born in Cambridge at 6 Green St., the second child of Richard Henry Dana, Sr. and Ruth Charlotte (Smith) Dana. He attended schools in Cambridgeport and Westford, MA. He entered Harvard College but became embroiled in a student rebellion at the end of his second term and was suspended for six months. He returned to Harvard and at the end of his sophomore year contracted measles which apparently damaged his eyes. Richard resolved to go to sea as a sailor before the mast: "I can hardly tell which predominated, a desire to cure my eyes, my love of adventure & the attraction of the novelty of a life before the mast, or anxiety to escape from the depressing situation of inactivity & dependence at home."
Dana left Boston August 14, 1834 on the brig Pilgrim, sailed around Cape Horn and along the California coast, and returned two years later on September 22, 1836 on the Alert. Dana wrote an account of his trip in 1838 and Two Years Before the Mast was published in 1840. The success of his story and the subsequent publication of The Seaman's Friend established Dana's reputation as a writer and a supporter of the fair treatment of sailors.
After his long absence, Dana returned to Harvard as a senior and graduated in 1837 with excellent grades and prizes. He went on to enter the Dane Law School at Harvard and studied with Judge Joseph Story and Professor Simon Greenleaf. He left the law school in 1840 and went into the law office of Charles Greely Loring. In 1854, he was a leading defense lawyer for freedom seeker Anthony Burns, in an unsuccessful effort to prevent Burns's return to slavery. In 1862, Dana successfully argued the case of the Amy Warwick before the U.S. Supreme Court, thereby ratifying the Federal blockade against southern shipping. After 1866 his legal practice was sufficiently successful so as to achieve financial security.
In 1852, his neighbor and friend Henry Longfellow observed of Dana: "His head is full of politics. It is impossible to resist the fascinations of dealing with the great active questions of life." Dana was one of the founders of the Free-Soil party and a delegate from Boston to the Buffalo convention in 1848. He was also a delegate of the Massachusetts constitutional convention in 1853 and helped establish the Massachusetts Republican Party in 1855. Biographer John F. Lucid describes Dana's politics as, "being labeled a conservative within the Free-Soil party, however, outside that party he was coming more and more to be regarded as a radical." In 1861, President Lincoln appointed Dana U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts.
In 1868, Dana's nomination by a faction of the Republican Party to run for the seat of the incumbent Ben Butler ended in disaster. Dana received only 10 percent of the vote and the lasting enmity of Butler. Eight years later, in 1876, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish appointed Dana to the post of Ambassador to Great Britain, but Butler and others succeeded in blocking Senate confirmation.
Dana married Sarah Watson of Wethersfield, Connecticut on August 25, 1841. They had six children, born in Boston and Cambridge, MA.
In 1878 Dana gave his law practice to his son Richard Henry Dana III as a wedding present upon Richard's marriage to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's daughter Edith. Richard and Sarah Dana moved to Paris where they lived until the death of Richard's father in 1879. After settling his father's estate, he and Sarah moved to Rome where they lived until his death in January of 1882.
Adapted from the biographical note in the Finding Aid to the Dana Family Papers in the Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site collections.