America's Lawyer-Presidents: From Law Office to Oval Office

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The historic election of Barack Obama was rife with references to Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest lawyer-president, whose legal career spanned 25 years and 5,100 cases. President Obama’s ties to Lincoln are part of a great tradition begun by John Adams, the first lawyer-president, who combined a twenty-year law practice with major contributions to our nation’s founding charters. His son, John Quincy Adams, argued landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases both before and after his presidency, one of eight lawyer-presidents to appear as counsel before the highest court in the land. And Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison were among those lawyer-presidents who handled notable high-profile cases, including sensational murder trials.

These are but a few of the fascinating—yet still largely unknown—stories about America’s lawyer-presidents. Now available in an updated, expanded paperback edition, America’s Lawyer-Presidents sheds light on the legal backgrounds of each of these chief executives and how their experiences as lawyers impacted and shaped their presidencies. Written by historians and presidential scholars and featuring an engaging and image-rich presentation, America’s Lawyer-Presidents provides unique insights into our national leaders and their lives and times, from colonial days to the present.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Twenty-five of the United States' forty-three Presidents have been lawyers, and yet their careers as attorneys have tended to receive scant attention when compared to their political lives, even though the training and activity of these men as lawyers often contributed deeply to their views on American institutions. America's Lawyer-Presidents, which is the work of an impressive assembly of respected scholars, is lucid, informative, and highly engaging. The book provides intriguing biographical perspectives on the professional lives of a number of our most influential citizens, and also demonstrates yet again the profound relationship between the development of American law and our democracy." -Scott Turow, commenting on the first edition
Publishers Weekly
Edited by the director of the American Bar Association's Museum of Law, this volume provides useful essays on each of America's 25 "lawyer presidents," among them Jefferson, both Adamses, Monroe, Lincoln, McKinley, Taft, Wilson, FDR, Nixon and Clinton. Contributors, including such scholars as Paul Finkelman, Lawrence Friedman and Lewis L. Gould, focus on how legal training prepared these men for their tenure as chief executive and influenced their conduct in office. These themes derive quite directly, as Gross writes, from Edmund Burke's view that "no other profession is more closely connected with actual life as the law. It concerns the highest of all temporal interests... property, reputation, the peace of all families, liberty, life even, and the very foundations of society." Of course, the law is quite a varied thing. While John Quincy Adams argued great cases involving human rights before the Supreme Court, Lincoln was primarily a business attorney specializing in railroads, while other presidents, like Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison, made their reputations prosecuting and defending headline-grabbing criminal cases. As this profusely illustrated volume demonstrates, each man was unique in what he brought to the law, what he took from the law and the extent to which he allowed his legal training to influence and inform executive policy. (Aug.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Twenty-five of America's 43 Presidents have been lawyers. This book, edited by the director of the American Bar Association's Museum of Law and part of the museum's "America's Lawyer-Presidents Project," attempts to shed light on how the legal experience of these Presidents has affected their performance. Some of these presidents rank among our best (e.g., Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt), while others rank among our worst (e.g., Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Richard Nixon). Many practiced law only half-heartedly, using it as a steppingstone to a political career. The individual portraits here are generally good, though some are a bit questionable, as when Irwin F. Gellman downplays Nixon's clearly authenticated criminal involvement in the Watergate scandal. Overall, however, this is an interesting and useful resource. Recommended for all libraries. Michael A. Genovese, Loyola Marymount Univ., Los Angeles Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810126183
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 8/30/2009
  • Edition description: 1, Updated edition
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.90 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

A lawyer and educator, Norman Gross is currently director of the ABA Museum of Law in Chicago. He formerly served as director of Entrepreneurial Projects for the ABA and headed its Division for Public Education. America's Lawyer Presidents is a co-publication with the American Bar Association Museum of Law.

Individual chapters on the "lawyer-Presidents" have been written by professors, lawyers, and historians of the Presidency.

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Read an Excerpt

Throughout his presidency, lawyer Clinton would demonstrate the importance of his legal training. In lower court judicial appointments - particularly those in his first year in the White House - he had extensive meetings with candidates, carefully reviewing their backgrounds and legal positions. In considering Supreme Court justices, he similarly delved into the work of his nominees, choosing centrists rather than ideologues. A former professor of antitrust law, for example, he reviewed the writings of Steven Breyer. Also, while Clinton recognized that there was some anxiety about the position taken by Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Roe v. Wade, he clearly understood her stance and other legal aspects of the abortion issue.

Indeed, several members of the White House Counsels Office would note that Clinton's background in constitutional law - as well as his agile mind - allowed him to immediately grasp the legal implications of numerous policy questions. The fact that he was "an attorney who happened to be a very bright fellow," one observed, made a "critical difference," for on constitutional issues his "faculty for understanding that was far greater" than that of a non-lawyer.

He spent hours with White House lawyers, for example, discussing the legal issues involved in the Securities Law Reform Act, the Brady Bill, and the Oklahoma City bombing. He also sought to reverse the position of the Justice Department, which had intervened on the side of a plaintiff challenging the constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. One observer recalls that "after discussing the case for thirty minutes or so, the president walked in and engaged in an invigorating and free-ranging debate - the kind law professors die for - about tithing, the meaning of the Religion clauses and RFRA, and the application of the law to this case."

Later in his administration, Clinton issued school prayer guidelines for the attorney general and secretaries of education, setting out in detail the principles governing what types of religious activity in school are permissible under current law. In announcing his guidelines, which were distributed to every public school district in the country, the president stated: "Our Founding Fathers understood that religious freedom was basically a coin with two sides. The constitution protected the free exercise of religion but prohibited the establishment of religion. It's a careful balance that's uniquely American. It is the genius of the First Amendment. It does not make us a religion-free country as some people have implied. It has made us the most religious country in the world."

Clinton also had a high regard for lawyers. Two of his chiefs of staff were attorneys, as were several of his deputies. Many close friends and colleagues were attorneys, and, of course, his closest confidante, Hillary, was a lawyer as well. It was significant that he periodically dined with members of the White House Counsels Office; he valued their judgment and they appreciated Clinton's willingness to hear their views.

Still, although he was a student of the law, Clinton primarily focused on policy matters, remaining always the adroit politician. The two merged most forcefully in the Whitewater investigation, which involved independent counsel investigations - leading to such Watergate-sounding affairs as Filegate and Travelgate-and ultimately to the Lewinsky affair and impeachment proceedings.

Throughout the independent counsel investigations, Clinton responded as a politician and a lawyer. While he deferred to the legal judgments of White House counsel and his personal attorneys, the presidents' legal training made an important difference. As one close observer noted, the fact that he was a lawyer "added even more to his understanding of the illegitimacy of most of these added to his sense of outrage." I a final report, the last independent counsel to investigate this president concluded that there was no persuasive evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the Whitewater case by either the president of the first lady.

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

James R. Silkenat and Robert A. Stein

Norman Gross

Founding Fathers and Sons

Law in Colonial America
Lawrence M. Friedman

John Adams: Patriot Lawyer
L. Kinvin Wroth

Thomas Jefferson: Legal Wordsmith
David T. Konig

James Monroe: Occasional Lawyer
Daniel Preston

John Quincy Adams: Eloquent Advocate
Howard Jones

Antebellum Presidents

Law in Antebellum America
Lawrence M. Friedman

Andrew Jackson: Frontier Justice
David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

Martin Van Buren: Boy Lawyer
James A. Henretta

John Tyler: Virginia Counsel
E. Lee Shepard

James K. Polk: Sometime Lawyer
Robert W. Johannsen

Millard Fillmore: Lawyer Mentor
Elbert B. Smith

Franklin Pierce: Courtroom Orator
Christopher M. Johnson

James Buchanan: Strict Constructionist
Jean H. Baker

Lawyer Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln: Prairie Lawyer
Paul Finkelman

Selected Cases of A. Lincoln, Esq., Attorney and Counsellor-at-Law
John A. Lupton

Lincoln's Notes for a Law Lecture

Gilded Age Presidents

Law in the Gilded Age
Lawrence M. Friedman

Rutherford B. Hayes: Volunteer Counsel
Ari Hoogenboom

James A. Garfield: Supreme Court Counsel
Allan Peskin

Chester A. Arthur: War Claims Lawyer
Thomas C. Reeves

Grover Cleveland: An Honest Lawyer
Eugene C. Gerhart

Benjamin Harrison: High-Priced Counsel
Allen Sharp

William McKinley: A Good Lawyer
Lewis L. Gould

New Century Presidents

Law in the New Century
Lawrence M. Friedman

William Howard Taft: Mr. Chief Justice
Melvyn Dubofsky

Woodrow Wilson: Reluctant Lawyer
Melvin I. Urofsky

Calvin Coolidge: Country Lawyer
Russell Fowler

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Contrarian Counselor
Jerome J. Shestack

The Modern Presidency

Law in Modern America
Lawrence M. Friedman

Richard M. Nixon: Bicoastal Practitioner
Irwin F. Gellman

Gerald R. Ford: All-American Counsel
David Horrocks

William Jefferson Clinton: Political Lawyer
David H. Bennett

Presidential Appointments: Supreme Court Justices and Chief Government Lawyers

Lawyer-Presidents and Their Supreme Court Appointments
Barbara A. Perry

Supreme Court Appointments

Lawyer-Presidents and Their Attorneys (General)
Cornell W. Clayton

Attorneys General Appointments

Solicitors General Appointments

Further Reading
Illustration Credits

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