Richard Henry Dana, Jr., was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on August 1, 1815, the son of Richard Henry Dana, critic and editor of the North American Review. The younger Dana enrolled at Harvard University in 1831, but bad health and failing eyesight caused him to resign. Instead of taking a pleasure trip to Europe, he sailed before the mast as a common sailor on the brig Pilgrim. This voyage around Cape Horn to California and Oregon furnished the material for his celebrated work, Two Years Before the Mast. Published in 1840, this book had a wide influence on other writers about the sea, and its realistic approach was much imitated. In this volume, Dana was successful in bringing to public attention the hardships of a sailor’s life. Today, the book is also valuable as a picture of life in California in the nineteenth century.
After returning home from his trip, Dana finished at Harvard in 1837 and entered the law school there. After graduation, he opened his law offices, specializing in maritime law. In 1841, he married Sarah “Sally” Watson and published The Seaman’s Friend, dealing with the responsibilities, duties, and legal rights of the sailor. As a manual, it was widely recognized and used both in the United States and in England. In 1859, after a short trip to Cuba, he published To Cuba and Back.
Interested in politics, Dana early joined the Free Soil movement. He was also an early member of the Republican Party. In 1860, he was interested in the presidential campaign and in 1861 was appointed to the office of United States district attorney for Massachusetts by President Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, Dana won the Amy Warwick case, which helped establish the legality of blockading Southern ports. In 1866, he published his edition of Wheaton’s International Law and was subsequently sued for plagiarism by William Bach Lawrence, an earlier editor. Thirteen years of litigation followed. Dana was eventually acquitted, but only after his reputation had been damaged. In 1868, he ran for Congress unsuccessfully. In 1876, he was nominated by President Ulysses S. Grant as minister to England, but Congress did not confirm the appointment. He also courted controversy when he was asked to prosecute Confederate president Jefferson Davis but advised the government against it for political reasons. In 1877, Dana was a member of a commission which met in Nova Scotia concerning problems of fisheries which arose between Britain and the United States.
In 1878, he retired from his duties as a lawyer to spend the rest of his life writing and traveling. His death occurred in Rome on January 6, 1882. Though he achieved his greatest fame during his lifetime as a lawyer, he is chiefly remembered for his famous story of life at sea, Two Years Before the Mast.