Although the American legal system was still in its infancy when the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, many of the Founding Fathers were already lawyers.
In celebration of Independence Day, here are some of the lawyers and judges who helped lay the foundation for the United States of America.
America’s Law Professor
Several of the founding fathers’ lives in the law can be traced back to one man: George Wythe.
Wythe is best known for his work as a judge as well as a law professor. Wythe only took on two hundred students over the course of his life. His pupils included delegates to the Continental Congress, presidents, a vice president, secretaries of state, attorneys general, U.S. senators, the speaker of the house, two Supreme Court justices, state supreme court and federal district court judges, a foreign minister, governors, and members of several state legislatures.
Wythe maintained an active law practice. After the judicial reorganization of 1788, Wythe became sole Judge of the Chancery Court of Virginia but refused offers from President George Washington of a judgeship on the new federal courts.
One of the first American judges to void a law deemed unconstitutional, Wythe’s judicial opinions attempted to steer Virginia away from slavery, and in one case he even tried to abolish slavery via judicial interpretation.” Referred to by Rev. Lee Massey as “the only honest lawyer I ever knew,” Wythe kept his reputation for personal integrity. He met a mysterious untimely death from poisoning.
The First Lawyer-Presidents
After Wythe’s tutelage, Jefferson was regarded as “the nation’s best-read lawyer.” Jefferson went on to take a wide variety of cases ranging from slaves seeking their freedom to cases relating to property (and paternity) disputes among warring elite families in Virginia that would make the Kardashians’ heads spin.
Founding father John Adams was the first president to be a lawyer and his son, John Quincy Adams, was the first to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court in the famous Amistad case.
Adams had been reluctant to become a lawyer because he believed it to mean “enriching himself by impoverishing others.” It was only after James Putnam, a well-established lawyer in Worcester, invited Adams to accompany him to “Court Week”—lawyers plead their cases before the Court of Common Pleas—that Adams realized his calling. Going on to pursue his legal education under Putnam, Adams continued to work as a teacher and maintain a thrifty lifestyle with the exception of spending all his money on books.
Adams established his law practice in Boston and eventually relocated his family there. A staunch believer in the right to a fair trial, Adams even chose to defend British soldiers brought to trial after the Boston Massacre.
Hamilton was one of the only key founders who seriously engaged in law practice after the American Revolution. A mostly self-taught lawyer, Hamilton began preparing for the bar after resigning from his military position and is said to have prepped for the bar with only three months of “law reading.” He passed a legal examination within six months of his resignation from the military in 1782. He had been reading the law on his own then studied with two future Supreme Court Justices.
In the years leading up to their deadly duel that took Hamilton’s life in 1804, Hamilton and Burr faced off in a number of legal showdowns as two of New York’s top lawyers. At times, they also collaborated on the same case—including the first formally recorded murder trial in the United States.
Patrick Henry is best known best for a speech in which he proclaimed, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Another fiery orator, it would come as no surprise that Henry also had an illustrious career as a lawyer. A failed shopkeeper and farmer, Henry pursued a number of hobbies from playing the violin to hunting and a string of ill-fated business ventures before taking up work at his father-in-law’s tavern near the Hanover County Courthouse. There, he encountered lawyers who inspired him to enter the legal profession. He later took up lodging there again while arguing the landmark Parson’s Cause case.
As principal players shaping the nation, many other founding fathers also went on to serve as judges.
One of the few Founding Fathers who was neither a Declaration of Independence signer nor a Framer of the U.S. Constitution, John Jay practiced law in New York and was a key figure in the American Revolution before going on to become the nation’s first chief justice. Jay was instrumental in peace negotiations to end the Revolutionary War, signing the Treaty of Paris which brought the war to an end. Jay also wrote five of The Federalist Papers along with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.
Despite having been written into the Constitution, the Supreme Court was nomadic for the entirety of Jay’s tenure as a Supreme Court Justice. First, they met in the Merchants Exchange Building in New York City, then relocated to Pennsylvania in the Chambers of the State House and then City Hall. Jay no longer presided over the court by when the federal government moved to the permanent Capital in Washington, DC.
Jay was not the sole Supreme Court Justice considered to be a founding father. John Marshall turned down offers from President Washington to be attorney general and minister to France as well as President John Adams’ initial offer for an appointment to the Supreme Court but eventually accepted the appointment in 1801. During the thirty-four years Marshall served as chief justice, he ruled on several landmark cases that went on to shape the judiciary and the nation, including, of course, Marbury v. Madison.
America’s Renaissance Men
Founding father Robert Yates coupled his career in law with work as a surveyor. Yates went head-to-head with future Supreme Court Justice John Jay in the gubernatorial campaign of 1795 but was defeated and returned to practicing the law. In September 1790, Robert Yates was chosen to be the Chief Justice of the New York State Supreme Court and continued serving until the mandatory retirement age of sixty.
Roger Sherman also began his work as a surveyor due to his mathematical skills then went on to be a provider of astronomical calculations for almanacs of the day. Despite having no formal legal training, Sherman was urged read for the bar exam and was later admitted to the Litchfield bar in 1754. He held the offices of justice of the peace in the Court of Common Pleas and county judge before rising to an associate judge of the Connecticut Superior Court. Sherman served on the committee responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence and was one of the only two Founding Fathers to have signed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation and the Articles of Association.
In addition to serving as a lawyer and judge, Francis Hopkinson was a prolific composer and writer, customs collector, treasurer, songwriter, inventor, poet, writer, artist, and claimed to have designed the American flag. Hopkinson’s design work included the Great Seal of the United States and evidence suggest that he worked on the design of the flag. However, Congress denied his request for a quarter cask of wine as payment for its creation. Unfair.
Hopkinson signed the Declaration of Independence and supported ratification of the Constitution, but also demonstrated his support for independence writing popular Revolutionary War ballads like “The Battle of the Kegs.”
Hopkinson went on to accept a U.S. district judgeship for eastern Pennsylvania, a position that he held until his death.
The Other Founding Father
Not only did Webster publish the first American English dictionary, but he is also considered to be the father of the American English dialect. By changing the spelling of many words, Webster “Americanized” them to be more simple and standardized.
Webster lacked career plans after graduating, so he began teaching, later writing that a liberal arts education “disqualifies a man for business.” When he asked his father for money to study law, his father gave him worthless currency. While studying law under future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, Webster also attempted to teach full-time in Hartford, but the mental strain eventually became too much. After a bout of depression and anxiety forced him to quit law school—a circumstance also faced by founding father William Samuel Johnson, who served as a judge on Connecticut’s colonial supreme court—Webster later found another lawyer to tutor him and passed the bar examination in 1781.
In addition to devoting twenty-seven years to compiling his now-famous dictionary, Webster set up New York City’s first daily newspaper. He authored a pamphlet in which he debated climate change with other great minds such as Jefferson, and translated the Bible because he thought it was dirty and felt that “a woman couldn’t read it without blushing.”
Webster also played a critical role in lobbying Congress to pass the first major statutory revision of U.S. copyright law as well as getting individual states to pass the first American copyright laws. Thus, Webster fathered the American English dictionary, the American English language, and copyright law. Not bad for someone who had to quit law school.
Originally published 2016-07-04. Republished 2017-07-04.