The Country Lawyer in National Affairs


The Country Lawyer in National Affairs


The Country Lawyer in National Affairs

Lawyers have always occupied prominent positions in the legislatures of the world, and it is no new thing to hear of lawyers in national affairs. What is surprising, though, is the number of lawyers from rural communities who have come to the front in public life. Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln and others are brought forward as striking examples by exPresident Cleveland.


GOD made the country and man made the town." These words, written more than a century ago, give voice to a sentiment which has been deep-rooted in the minds of men ever since the first city was built. And as an outgrowth of this sentiment, the belief has been very generally accepted that nearness to nature and the environments of rural existence exert a benign influence upon heart and character not

found in the rush and noise of city life.

This belief is too well justified to be regarded as fanciful or imaginary. Beyond all question the agencies which have been especially potent in the elevation and refinement of human nature have derived their life and impulse from rural surroundings. The most sympathetic and tender charms of song and story have been born of the inspiration of-field, wood

and stream; and in such associations as these the highest purposes and noblest ideals have grown strong.

Nor is it alone the beautiful and more refined traits of humanity that have thus been developed and cultivated. “God made the country;” and He so made and set it in order that it has an affinity with every side of man’s nature for its betterment. Thus it is that the incidents of country life not only stimulate the delisate and lovable features of human character, but promote and foster mental vigor, wholesome self-reliance, sturdy pertinacity, unflinching courage and faith in honest endeavor.

The relationship of rural conditions which produce these qualities to success in the rugged and stern realities of life is indicated by the fact that a large proportion of all those who in town and city have won professional honors or wealth have been of country birth and breeding.

This is a matter of common knowledge. It was brought home to me in a most impressive way a number of years ago, when, on an anniversary of the founding of a leading medical society in the City of New York, I addressed a large assemblage of distinguished physicians and surgeons representing the most advanced stages of medical and surgical science.

In my desire to say something not entirely unrelated to the occasion, and intending at the same time to keep on ground somewhat familiar to me, I spoke of the country doctor, of his devotion, his methods, his services, and the place he earned in the affections of those he served.

I confess I was unprepared for the immediate and unmistakable assurance I received that I had no monopoly of familiarity with the phase of rural life which I had recalled;

and it subsequently came to my knowledge that I had simply reminded a large number of my audience of their own observations or experience in country homes.

I have referred to an affinity between man’s unperverted nature and the country, regarded as distinctively the work of God. It has always seemed to me that very satisfactory evidence of such affinity is supplied /by the fact that the impressions made on the mind and heart by early rural associations are so deep and lasting that no lapse of time or change of circumstance can efface them.

How often is it that one who has grown old in the wearing trade and speculation of the city, or in the pursuit of the honor and fame its larger opportunities promise, turns to the memory of his boyhood days in the country as his most satisfying and perhaps his only source of comfort and refreshment ; and how often it happens that after wealth or honors have been won, and the contemplation of death succeeds the fitful fever of life ’s activities, the thought of final rest and peace associates itself with a mental picture of some well-remembered old country churchyard. It was Edmund Burke who wrote, “I had rather sleep in the southern corner of a little country churchyard than in the tomb of all the Capulets. ”

I have thus far only intended to suggest that rural life and its influences should be regarded as creative forces, constantly acting on the character and conduct of individuals, without especial regard to their classification. I believe these forces are more potent and beneficent as they more nearly retain their undiluted and distinctive separateness; and that besides their effect on the individual, they indirectly involve

much larger results—especially as they are related to American national life and conditions.

In a country like ours, where the people rule, a great number of individuals cannot be subjected to a moral force without implicating to a greater or less extent our public interests. Therefore, if we rest alone upon a general conception of the collateral relationship between rural influences and the public weal, we cannot fail to recognize these influences as largely affecting the success of our experiment of popular government. There is, however, a more direct and palpable relationship between at least one of the distinct pn-ducts of rural life and our political conditions. This product is the country lawyer.

It is not difficult to discover a sort of kinship between legal pursuits and political service. We therefore should not be surprised to find that the legal profession has always been the most extensive reservoir from which our nation’s constructive and guiding political leadership has (been drawn.

Of the fifty-six representatives of the revolting colonies who signed the Declaration of Independence, twentynine had studied law. There were fifty-five delegates who actually took part in the convention which framed our Constitution, and thirty-three of these were lawyers.

Since our beginning as a nation there have been twenty-five incumbents of the presidential office. Of these, eighteen were members of the legal profession in their respective states. Nineteen lawyers are found among the twenty-six vice-presidents who have been elected.

It may be safely said, without giving further details, that fully as great a proportion of the legal fraternity will be found among those

who have filled cabinet positions and other important places in our government.

While this presentation furnishes abundant evidence of a connection between legal training and active participation in public affairs, it does not, standing alone, altogether fairly meet the needs of our especial topic. We have to do with the prominence in national affairs of country lawyers as distinguished from lawyers belonging in large towns and cities.

It may well be said that as between these two divisions of the legal fraternity, a review of the early stages of our nation’s history does not afford a basis for just comparison, since at that time our towns and cities were few, and our rural population in all walks of life was greatly predominant.

This point is well taken; but it by no means follows that we are driven away from historical reference in dealing with our subject. No one can question, for instance, the valuable bearing of the statement that of the fourteen lawyer incumjbents of the presidency since the inauguration of Andrew Jackson in 1829, more than one-half came from the ranks of country practice.

I am, moreover, convinced that an examination as to other important members of our public service since the date mentioned would yield results equally pertinent and forceful.

(It seems to me, however, to be more profitable and interesting to submit, in aid of our discussion, certain conditions within present observation, and to recall a few notable and not too remote examples of “The Country Lawyer in National Affairs. ’ ’

The Senate of the United States during the last Congress, in its total membership of ninety, contained

fifty-three lawyers, only sixteen of whom resided in large cities. Twentyfour of the remaining thirty-seven, or nearly one-half of the entire number of lawyers in the body, resided in communities of less than ten thousand inhabitants.

Two hundred and fifty-seven lawyers were elected to the House of Representatives in the same Congress. Of these, only sixty-two were residents of large cities. One hundred and forty-eight, or considerably more than one-half of the entire number, resided in towns and villages whose population numbered ten thousand or less.

All the six members who during the last twenty-five years have been selected by that body to the powerful and influential position of Speaker have been lawyers residing in places whose population at the time was less than forty thousand, and in three instances less than twelve thousand.

When we pass from general classification to the mention of fairly recent individual instances tending to establish the prominence and influence of the country lawyer in national ■ politics, while many will be overlooked, we readily recall Henry Clay of Lexington, Kentucky ; Thomas H. Benton of St. Louis, Missouri (which had a population of less than seven thousand when he was elected to the Senate) ; Silas Wright of Canton, New York; William H. Seward of Auburn, New York; John Sherman of Mansfield, Ohio; Thaddeus Stevens of Lancaster, Pennsylvania; George P. Edmunds of Burlington, Vermont; John A. Andrew, the country-bred war governor of Massachusetts; Andrew G. Curtin of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, the war governor of that state, and Roscoe Con'kling of Utica, New

York—all of whose names fittingly embellish the catalogue in which, they are here placed.

I have reserved for final mention the names of two transcendently great Americans whose careers and public service supply unaided the most convincing proof of the greatness in public life which is within reach of the country lawyer.

[Daniel Webster was a country lawyer. He had reached the age of thirty-four years when he left rural surroundings in the State of New Hampshire to enter the broader field of legal practice in the city of Boston. Before that time he had laid broad and deep the foundations of professional fame, and had displayed on the floor of Congress the powe?s which afterward moved a nation to wonder and admiration.

He was a devotee of country life, and he brought to the public service such inspiration as God gives to those who love His works in spirit and in truth. This inspiration made him the expounder of the Constitutio a and the most powerful and invincible defender of our national life and unity.

And yet this leader on the highest plane of human endeavor has left in unpublished letters, written by him in the height of his fame and public labors, ample proof that in the midst of it all his thoughts constantly turned with joy and unabated enthusiasm to farm and field and stream. His genius for supreme national service won for him a solitary place in American statesmanship, and he lived in the atmosphere of his countrymen’s idolatry; but when it came his time to die, he sought with childlike yearning the quiet and peace of Marshfield.

Lincoln, too, was a country lawyer; and he was called to save a nation.

He never lost the impress of an early life closely surrounded by all the incidents of rural existence, and encompased by the stern providences of God. He, too, loved the country; and He Who made the country gave him, in compensation, an unstinted measure of inspiration for the most impressive and solemn public duty.

The deeds of these two country lawyers need no especial recital. They are written in the annals of a grateful nation, and 'challenge the admiration of mankind. And who shall say that the majestic forms of Webster and Lincoln, standing forth in the bright light of human achievement, ,do not teach the world how the nobility of American character is developed by American rural life?

We seem now to have reached a branch of our subject requiring the suggestion of some reasons for the prominence of the country lawyer in public life.

In my opinion this is partly due to the form and texture of our scheme of government. I believe that God has been ever mindful of our nation, and that in the beginning He so overruled the efforts of the fathers of the republic that they were led to set on foot a government so simple and so adjusted to the exigencies of our people that its safety and effective operation can be most suitably entrusted to the stout hearts, clear heads and patriotic impulses which grow strong in rural environment.

I believe legal study and practice in the country are calculated to sharpen all these qualities, and that this is their usual effect. I know that the struggle for a livelihood from the practice of law in the country, and the almost endless number of practical things which the country lawyer must learn in contests involving every social and business ques-

tion, prepare him, as no other conditions can, to deal intelligently and usefully with the various and widely separated questions met with in the public service.

He has an advantage in this regard over members of the profession in large cities, because legal work is there largely specialized ; and because of less distracting surroundings he is apt to be not only more thoughtfully, (but more patriotically interested and active in political matters.

1 believe that in the absence of too many labor-saving devices in his profession, and Avith more dependence upon hard work, the country practitioner, as distinguished from his city brother, develops greater selfreliance and homespun industry, and greater tenacity of wholesome, clearly Avrought out convictions—all of which are exceedingly important traits Avhen carried into public life.

I am also of the opinion that the study of indiAÙdual ways and means, Avhich the moderate income of the country laAvyer makes necessary, and a familiarity Avith the simple, inexpensive manner of living prevalent in rural communities, tend to foster ideas of frugality and economy which, although too frequently left at home when public instead of priArate expenditures are under consideration, ought to be inexorably insisted upon as indispensable to a satisfactory discharge of official duty.

It may not be amiss to intimate also in this connection that the cióse personal intimacy and neighborliness of rural life and a consequent sensitiveness to the interests of those with whom they .dwell, more easily persuade lawyers in the country that they should be willing on patriotic grounds to devote time and effort to official work.

These suggestions, intended to ac-

count in some degree for the prominence of the country lawyer in public affairs, should be promptly supplemented by the mention of another requisite to an entrance upon a career of political service, so imperious and controlling that it subordinates ail others. I refer to the factor of opportunity.

Without this all other advantages are inefficient. Under our system of government, which gives the people the selection of their public agents, it is only through its bald perversion that any one, however well-fitted and wherever located, can in the absence of legitimate opportunity break his way into political importance.

Undoubtedly there has been a multitude of country lawyers endowed with latent power, “the applause of listening senates to command,” of whom, because opportunity failed them, it may be said:

Along the cool sequestered vale of life,

fFhey kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Nevertheless, opportunity has come to thousands of them, and I believe that, as a general proposition, it can safely be affirmed that country lawyers are more in the way of such opportunity than city members of the fraternity.

In the first place, a lawyer in a rural community occupies by virtue of his profession a position of mark. The intricacies of the law, with which he is supposed to be familiar, are mysteries to those about him; and differences among neighbors take on a serious aspect when one side or the other invokes his interposition. Besides, he argues cases before the “high court” and makes speeches before juries in the court-house, and sometimes before those assembled at political meetings.

It is curious to observe how lasting and favorable an impression is made in such circumstances by ‘a lawyer of the neighborhood who can not only talk in public, but who can talk loud and long. I knew very well, years ago, an able country lawyer in Erie County, New York, who could do this, and do it well. He was so extensively and affectionately known that we called him “Uncle Jim.”

When he was elected district attorney of the county, he removed to Buffalo, and thereafter served a city constituency with ability and efficiency as a member of the state Senate and as a Representative in Congress.

After his removal to the city he occasionally delighted his old friends in the country by addressing them on pending political issues. I recall the forcible description of one of those meetings given by an. enthusiastic participant. He reached his climax when he said:

“Uncle Jim was there. He talked more than two hours, and you could have heard him a quarter of a mile.9’

/This ability to make what is called “a good speech” is not only something which in and of itself is impressive and attractive to those by whom the country lawyer is surrounded, but these good people are also apt to loök upon it as a qualification intimately the successful discharge of any public duty.

If the conditions I have mentioned do not constitute opportunity they certainly lead directly to it. Whether a movement toward the country lawyer’s entrance upon political life originates in his own laudable ambition or owes its initiative to the patriotic suggestion of others, in either case the prospect of his success will be greatly enhanced by his reputation among his neighbors, the

«lose intimacies created by incidents of his legal practice, the devotion of those whom he has faithfully and generously served, and a prevalent assurance on the part of those whom he aims to represent that he will honor them and serve the country well in public place.

Of course it cannot be reasonably claimed that city members of the legal fraternity are altogether negligent of public and political duty; on the contrary, instances are numerous in which they have rendered the highest and best political service. Nor can it be safely asserted that every country lawyer’s advent in public affairs has been an undiluted blessing to the body politic ; no one can deny that some of them have proved disgracefully recreant and shamefully dishonest.

We should also take into account,

in connection with the large proportion of country lawyers in our highest legislative bodies, the fact that a majority of all the districts represented are largely made up of rural population.

In conclusion, and after every fair concession and allowance has been made, it still remains established beyond controversy that in national affairs the country lawyer has had and still has an astonishing and significant amount of power and direction ; that the practice of law in a rural community is calculated to strengthen mental traits which increase the promise of usefulness in public life; and that there are influences emanating from God through the works of His creation, which if recognized, and received with a pure and open heart, will point the way to the greatest and grandest statesmanship.