Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
“America’s Lawyer-Presidents: From Law Office to Oval Office” Edited by Norman Gross Foreword by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (Northwestern University Press/ABA Museum of Law; 364 pp.; $39.95) I’ll never forget the shock of disillusionment I felt the first time I read an international treaty. What I had imagined as august documents of war and peace, comity between nations, the elevated realm of national interests, statesmanship and realpolitik were just … contracts. Opaque, turgid, stilted contracts, just like the ones I review every day (and, all too often, write). There’s Andrew Jackson collecting debts, Abraham Lincoln suing to recover the value of wrongfully logged trees and Franklin Roosevelt practicing admiralty law — not to mention Benjamin Harrison (as the city attorney of Indianapolis) prosecuting a hotel maid for poisoning a guest, Calvin Coolidge drafting wills for the Northampton gentry, and Gerald Ford handling title conveyancing in Grand Rapids. In other words, these guys did the same routine, often mind-numbingly boring tasks lawyers do every day, just like the rest of us. Most of our lawyer-presidents had garden-variety general practices, and they often grappled with the soul-killing drudgery that has always bedeviled the profession — especially for its junior members — before finding a higher calling in the law. John Adams, the first lawyer to occupy the presidency, is exemplary. He took a detour before being admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1758, first becoming a teacher in Worcester after graduating from Harvard in 1755. Adams wanted to avoid a life “fumbling and raking amidst the rubbish of Writs, indightments, Pleas, ejectments, enfiefed, illatebration and 1,000 other lignum vitae words … and the noise and bustle of Courts and the labor of inquiring into and pleading dry and difficult Cases,” as he recalled later. Within a year, however, Adams’ lifelong interest in political philosophy won out, and he started reading law with the leading practitioner in Worcester, immersing himself in Coke and the other classic authors of English jurisprudence. When he went to Boston in 1758, he took direction from Jeremiah Gridley, the dean of the colony’s bar, who famously counseled Adams to “purse the Study of Law rather than the Gain of it. Pursue the Gain of it enough to keep out of the Briars, but give your main attention to the study of it.” And so he did: Adams became one of the New World’s experts in Roman law, helped to establish the legal and political theories underpinning the Declaration of Independence in the many pamphlets he published before the Revolution, was the primary drafter of the Massachusetts constitution (a model for the Bill of Rights), and wrote the seminal Thoughts on Government (1776), which proposed the basic forms of checks and balances that are the hallmark of American government — the separation of powers among the executive branch, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judiciary. He even drafted treaties, including the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which set the terms for peace with Great Britain after the War of Independence. Adams did manage enough of the gain of the law as well. He lost his first Suffolk County case (a matter of wandering cows) due to his defective drafting of the writ, but rapidly became the leading trial lawyer in Massachusetts, handling commercial and real estate litigation, criminal cases, and family law disputes. His clients ranged from modest farmers to grandees such as John Hancock. Hancock’s case was a crucible of the growing political resistance to British authority in the colonies and a landmark in Adams’ emergence as a public intellectual and American patriot. Hancock was charged with evading duties on a shipload of wine by British customs authorities in 1768. Adams successfully challenged the removal of the case from the common law courts to a royal court of vice admiralty (which followed civil law and had no jury, guaranteeing a verdict for the crown) as a violation of fundamental rights. The extraordinary scope of Adams’ career — as a legal scholar, political journalist, eminently successful practitioner, ambassador, vice president and president — makes him the preeminent, not just the first, lawyer-president. The competition has been formidable. So far, 25 of 43 presidents have been lawyers — 12 of the first 16, and three-quarters of all those elected through 1900. (In the 20th century, the percentage fell to 39 percent — but it could have been higher. Harry Truman spent two years at the Kansas City School of Law in the 1920s before becoming a county judge, and applied by mail for a Missouri law license in 1947. The application wasn’t notarized, and the state bar sent it back to the White House with a request that it be authenticated. Truman never returned it — although, when the original application was discovered 50 years later, the Missouri bar admitted Truman posthumously.) Only seven lawyer-presidents went to law school. Most practiced in the era before the emergence of graduate legal education in the United States, and read law with established practitioners before taking an informal, usually oral, bar exam (the most famous of such apprenticeships being James Monroe’s course of reading with Thomas Jefferson while Jefferson was the governor of Virginia). For those keeping score, Yale is the law school leader (Ford and Clinton), with Harvard (Hayes, the law school not being in existence for the Adamses), Cincinnati Law School (Taft), the University of Virginia (Wilson, who didn’t graduate), Columbia (Franklin Roosevelt, who didn’t graduate) and Duke (Nixon) each tied for second place. These statistics and many more about the legal profession’s role in producing politicians (as of the 2002 election cycle, people with law degrees occupied one-half of state governorships, over one-half of U.S. Senate seats, and more than one-third of U.S. House seats, for example) are handsomely presented in “America’s Lawyer-Presidents.” It’s a lavishly illustrated, well-designed coffee table book, produced in conjunction with the ABA Museum of Law’s project on the legal careers of American presidents and its traveling exhibit, which premiers in Chicago this September. Separate essays on each lawyer-president by an academic expert are interleaved with brief overviews of the structure of the law and legal profession in key eras of American history (colonial, antebellum, Gilded Age, 20th century) by Lawrence M. Friedman, the eminent historian from Stanford Law School. Useful appendixes cover each president’s U.S. Supreme Court appointments and the roles of attorneys general and solicitors general (with lists of each president’s appointments to these offices as well). The book is generously salted with sidebars containing entertaining anecdotes, such as the story of how Andrew Jackson, then prosecuting attorney for Nashville, knocked a disgruntled debtor out cold with a two-by-four after the man stepped on his foot, or FDR’s fabled retort to Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler, who admonished him, after Roosevelt had dropped out of law school following his second year, that “you will never be able to call yourself an intellectual until you come back to Columbia and pass your law exams.” To which the future president supposedly replied, “That shows you how unimportant the law really is.” There are also gems like Lincoln’s notes for a law lecture from the 1850s, a superb, quintessentially Lincoln-esque combination of practical advice and moral vision. “The leading rule for the lawyer,” Lincoln wrote, “is diligence. Leave nothing for to-morrow, which can be done to-day … When you bring a common-law suit, if you have the facts for doing so, write the declaration at once. If a point of law be involved, examine the books, and note the authority you rely on, upon the declaration itself, where you are sure to find it when wanted … [M]ake all examinations of titles and note them, and even draft orders and decrees in advance. This course has a triple advantage; it avoids omissions and neglect, saves your labor … performs the labor out of court when you have leisure, rather than in court, when you have not.” But even more important: “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise when you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser, in fees, expenses and waste of time. As a peace-maker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity to be a good man. There will still be business enough.” And, fittingly for Honest Abe, his notes reveal this finale to the lecture: “There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest … Let no young man, choosing the law for a calling, for a moment yield to this popular belief. Resolve to be honest in all events; and if, in your own judgment, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.” Unlike most lawyer-presidents, Lincoln made his living as a lawyer for most of his life. His firm, Lincoln and Herndon, was one of the most important in Illinois. It handled more than 50 cases for the Illinois Central Railroad, winning, among other signal victories, the Mclean County tax case, which established the railroad’s exemption from local taxes, saving it millions of dollars. (Ironically, Lincoln had to sue the company to collect his $5,000 fee, the largest of his career. More typical was his response to a client that sent him $25 for some legal work he performed in 1857: “You must think I am a high-priced man. You are too liberal with your money. Fifteen dollars is enough for the job. I send you a receipt for fifteen dollars, and return to you a ten-dollar bill.”) Like Adams’ career, Lincoln’s exemplifies the overall thesis of “America’s Lawyer-Presidents:” that the study and practice of law has profoundly shaped the political lives, and the presidencies, of our lawyer-presidents. Indeed, no less a critic than Karl Marx understood that the genius of Lincoln’s single most important action — the Emancipation Proclamation — lay precisely in its nature as a legal document. Derided both by contemporaries and historians ever since for its dry, bureaucratic formalism (“all of the moral grandeur of a bill of lading,” Richard Hofstadter memorably sniffed), the essence of the proclamation’s effectiveness lay in its lack of sweeping political rhetoric. “The most formidable decrees which [Lincoln] hurls at the enemy and which will never lose their historic significance,” Marx wrote, “resemble — as the author intends them to do — ordinary summons, sent by one lawyer to another.” Overall, however, this thesis seems a bit like the old nostrum that learning Latin was necessary for developing the mental habits essential to a gentleperson’s success — a mistaking of means for ends. Andrew Jackson was described by one of his partners as “the most roaring, rollicking, game-cocking, horse-racing, card-playing mischievous fellow” who “did not trouble with the law-books much [and] was much more in the stable than in the office.” Woodrow Wilson, “terribly bored,” dropped out of law school and went back to Johns Hopkins University to get his Ph.D. in history, surely the more formative experience for his political career (he later joined the bar to please his father, but only practiced for a year). And did FDR, arguably our greatest president, really think like a lawyer? He described his job (at the white-shoe Carter Ledyard & Milburn) as being an “office boy,” and his mock practice notice joked, “Unpaid bills a specialty. Briefs on the liquor question furnished free to ladies. Small dogs chloroformed without charge.” It is both entertaining and instructive, in any case, to see the interplay of the mundane realities of life in the law with the social identities (as often upwardly mobile members of an elite profession) and political careers of so many of America’s leaders. Knowing how the politico-legal sausage gets made, so to speak, may diminish your appetite but improve your taste. After all, come November, the percentage of lawyer-presidents elected in the 21st century to date might turn out to be 100 percent (John Kerry, Boston College Law School, 1976). Michael Stern, a former journalist and English professor, is the head of Cooley Godward’s technology transactions group.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.