CONSIDER this a footnote to the above editorial, "To...

July 04, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

CONSIDER this a footnote to the above editorial, "To Secure These Rights," which I did not write but got an advance peek at.

Recently while doing research for a speech to a group of lawyers' clubs about the legal careers of U.S. presidents, I re-discovered an anecdote in Dumas Malone's "Jefferson the Virginian" about the third president's days as a young lawyer that fits right in with the theme of the Fourth of July editorial.

That is to say, judged by his own time and not ours, Jefferson was practically a radical liberal on the race issue.

I didn't get to use the anecdote in the speech, and it's too good to waste.

Jefferson began the study of law under George Wythe, who later became the first actual law professor in America. Jefferson studied in Wythe's office, as was the custom then, and in 1767, at age 23, Jefferson's law career began. He continued until 1774, when he retired.

No, he didn't get rich charging $450 an hour like today's lawyers do. He was able to retire at age 31 because he was independently wealthy. Malone says his fees never amounted to more than 500 pounds a year, and he usually collected only about half of that.

Though Jefferson was a great keeper of personal records, few of his arguments in actual trials survived. The few he preserved seem to have been selected with an eye on posterity.

One involved his representation of a mulatto woman's grandson who was claiming his freedom. This was in the late 1760s, when TJ was still in his mid-20s. Jefferson said that one act of the state legislature covered the grandmother's status and another covered her children, but not the next generation. A new act would be required of a subsequent state legislature "if any should be found wicked enough."

That utterance would have been shocking enough to the court, but he went even further and argued that the court should consider "the law of nature. . . under which we are all free." Crazy Tom! The court ruled against his client without even waiting to hear the slaveowner's lawyer (who was George Wythe).

The most appropriate evidence for today that Jefferson hated slavery is found in his most famous writing, the Declaration. But you have to go to the archives to find it, for it was stricken from the final version by his peers as too radical. Sounding like a tough prosecutor, he laid out this indictment of George III:

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither."

A couple of years later Jefferson even proposed emancipating the slaves in Virginia. Fat chance! It remained for another lawyer four score and six years later to do that.

& Thursday: Abe Lincoln.

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