Many Americans recall that, ironically, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826 within hours of one another. Few recall that another noteworthy lawyer, Luther Martin of Maryland, who was a bitter antagonist of Jefferson, died that very month. Although Adams and Jefferson are justifiably revered public figures celebrated in various media events, Martin lies forgotten in what was once a Greenwich Village graveyard that was paved over for a public park in the 20th century.
It was not always that way. Martin, who was born in New Jersey, practiced law for decades in Maryland. Politically active in the patriot cause, he was named attorney general for Maryland during the Revolution. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he was a staunch opponent to the concentration of federal power, concerned that it would subsume the power of the states. Martin also vigorously fought for the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in the proposed Constitution. He left in disgust before the conclusion of the Convention and did not sign the document. Returning to Maryland, he aggressively fought to prevent its ultimate ratification by the Maryland House of Delegates.
It was Martin’s legal career however that drew the most notoriety. He had an extensive and highly successful practice well beyond the confines of the state of Maryland. The cases he was involved with read like a legal history of the early Republic. For example, Martin served as counsel to Aaron Burr in his celebrated treason trial in Richmond in 1807 engendering the enmity of Jefferson. Martin also represented Maryland in the United States Supreme Court in McCulloch v. Maryland. Further, he came to the successful defense of his longtime mentor, United States District Judge Samuel Chase of Maryland, in his notorious impeachment trial of 1805.
Notwithstanding his legal brilliance, Martin suffered a difficult personal and family life. He developed a severe alcohol problem, which earned him the mocking title of “Lawyer Brandy Bottle.” Martin suffered a debilitating stroke in 1820, which ended his days of practice and left him penniless. Martin was such a respected figure that Maryland enacted a law that taxed each lawyer the sum of $5 annually for his support. His former client Burr took pity on Martin and brought him to New York City to live with him until Martin’s death on July 10, 1826. The Baltimore bar declared a 30-day period of mourning and each member wore black during this time.
Although Adams and Jefferson well deserve their recognition in the founding of this nation, Luther Martin deserves recognition for being one of the finest lawyers in this country during the early days of the Republic and providing an early warning to the young nation about the dangers of unchecked federal power.