Read CHAPTER III - BECOMES A LAWYER of Patrick Henry , free online book, by Moses Coit Tyler, on

Some time in the early spring of 1760, Thomas Jefferson, then a lad in the College of William and Mary, was surprised by the arrival in Williamsburg of his jovial acquaintance, Patrick Henry, and still more by the announcement of the latter that, in the brief interval since their merrymakings together at Hanover, he had found time to study law, and had actually come up to the capital to seek an admission to the bar.

In the accounts that we have from Henry’s contemporaries respecting the length of time during which he was engaged in preparing for his legal examination, there are certain discrepancies, some of these accounts saying that it was nine months, others six or eight months, others six weeks. Henry himself told a friend that his original study of the law lasted only one month, and consisted in the reading of Coke upon Littleton and of the Virginia laws.

Concerning the encounter of this obscure and raw country youth with the accomplished men who examined him as to his fitness to receive a license to practice law, there are three primary narratives, two by Jefferson, and a third by Judge John Tyler. In his famous talk with Daniel Webster and the Ticknors at Monticello, in 1824, Jefferson said: “There were four examiners, Wythe, Pendleton, Peyton Randolph, and John Randolph. Wythe and Pendleton at once rejected his application; the two Randolphs were, by his importunity, prevailed upon to sign the license; and, having obtained their signatures, he again applied to Pendleton, and after much entreaty, and many promises of future study, succeeded also in obtaining his. He then turned out for a practicing lawyer."

In a memorandum prepared nearly ten years before the conversation just mentioned, Jefferson described somewhat differently the incidents of Henry’s examination:

“Two of the examiners, however, Peyton and John Randolph, men of great facility of temper, signed his license with as much reluctance as their dispositions would permit them to show. Mr. Wythe absolutely refused. Rob. C. Nicholas refused also at first; but on repeated importunities, and promises of future reading, he signed. These facts I had afterwards from the gentlemen themselves; the two Randolphs acknowledging he was very ignorant of law, but that they perceived him to be a young man of genius, and did not doubt he would soon qualify himself."

Long afterward, and when all this anxious affair had become for Patrick Henry an amusing thing of the past, he himself, in the confidence of an affectionate friendship, seems to have related one remarkable phase of his experience to Judge John Tyler, by whom it was given to Wirt. One of the examiners was “Mr. John Randolph, who was afterwards the king’s attorney-general for the colony, a gentleman of the most courtly elegance of person and manners, a polished wit, and a profound lawyer. At first, he was so much shocked by Mr. Henry’s very ungainly figure and address, that he refused to examine him. Understanding, however, that he had already obtained two signatures, he entered with manifest reluctance on the business. A very short time was sufficient to satisfy him of the erroneous conclusion which he had drawn from the exterior of the candidate. With evident marks of increasing surprise (produced, no doubt, by the peculiar texture and strength of Mr. Henry’s style, and the boldness and originality of his combinations), he continued the examination for several hours; interrogating the candidate, not on the principles of municipal law, in which he no doubt soon discovered his deficiency, but on the laws of nature and of nations, on the policy of the feudal system, and on general history, which last he found to be his stronghold. During the very short portion of the examination which was devoted to the common law, Mr. Randolph dissented, or affected to dissent, from one of Mr. Henry’s answers, and called upon him to assign the reasons of his opinion. This produced an argument, and Mr. Randolph now played off on him the same arts which he himself had so often practiced on his country customers; drawing him out by questions, endeavoring to puzzle him by subtleties, assailing him with declamation, and watching continually the defensive operations of his mind. After a considerable discussion, he said, ’You defend your opinions well, sir; but now to the law and to the testimony.’ Hereupon he carried him to his office, and, opening the authorities, said to him: ’Behold the force of natural reason! You have never seen these books, nor this principle of the law; yet you are right and I am wrong. And from the lesson which you have given me (you must excuse me for saying it) I will never trust to appearances again. Mr. Henry, if your industry be only half equal to your genius, I augur that you will do well, and become an ornament and an honor to your profession.’"

After such an ordeal at Williamsburg, the young man must have ridden back to Hanover with some natural elation over his success, but that elation not a little tempered by serious reflection upon his own deficiencies as a lawyer, and by an honest purpose to correct them. Certainly nearly everything that was dear to him in life must then have risen before his eyes, and have incited him to industry in the further study of his profession.

At that time, his father-in-law had become the keeper of a tavern in Hanover; and for the next two or three years, while he was rapidly making his way as a general practitioner of the law in that neighborhood, Patrick seems occasionally to have been a visitor at this tavern. It was in this way, undoubtedly, that he sometimes acted as host, especially in the absence of his father-in-law, receiving all comers, and providing for their entertainment; and it was from this circumstance that the tradition arose, as Jefferson bluntly expressed it, that Patrick Henry “was originally a barkeeper," or, as it is more vivaciously expressed by a recent writer, that “for three years” after getting his license to practice law, he “tended travelers and drew corks."

These statements, however, are but an exaggeration of the fact that, whenever visiting at the tavern of his father-in-law, he had the good sense and the good feeling to lend a hand, in case of need, in the business of the house; and that no more than this is true may be proved, not only from the written testimony of survivors, who knew him in those days, but from the contemporary records, carefully kept by himself, of his own earliest business as a lawyer. These records show that, almost at once after receiving his license to practice law, he must have been fully occupied with the appropriate business of his profession.

It is quite apparent, also, from the evidence just referred to, that the common history of his life has, in another particular, done great injustice to this period of it. According to the recollection of one old man who outlived him, “he was not distinguished at the bar for near four years." Wirt himself, relying upon the statements of several survivors of Patrick Henry, speaks of his lingering “in the background for three years,” and of “the profits of his practice” as being so inadequate for the supply of even “the necessaries of life,” that “for the first two or three years” he was living with his family in dependence upon his father-in-law. Fortunately, however, we are not left in this case to grope our way toward the truth amid the ruins of the confused and decaying memories of old men. Since Wirt’s time, there have come to light the fee-books of Patrick Henry, carefully and neatly kept by him from the beginning of his practice, and covering nearly his entire professional life down to old age. The first entry in these books is for September, 1760; and from that date onward to the end of the year 1763, by which time he had suddenly sprung into great professional prominence by his speech in “the Parsons’ Cause,” he is found to have charged fees in 1185 suits, besides many other fees for the preparation of legal papers out of court. From about the time of his speech in “the Parsons’ Cause,” as his fee-books show, his practice became enormous, and so continued to the end of his days, excepting when public duties or broken health compelled him to turn away clients. Thus it is apparent that, while the young lawyer did not attain anything more than local professional reputation until his speech against the parsons, he did acquire a very considerable practice almost immediately after his admission to the bar. Moreover, so far from his being a needy dependent on his father-in-law for the first two or three years, the same quiet records show that his practice enabled him, even during that early period, to assist his father-in-law by an important advance of money.

The fiction that Patrick Henry, during the first three or four years of his nominal career as a lawyer, was a briefless barrister, earning his living at the bar of a tavern rather than at the bar of justice, is the very least of those disparaging myths, which, through the frailty of human memory and the bitterness of partisan ill-will, have been permitted to settle upon his reputation. Certainly, no one would think it discreditable, or even surprising, if Patrick Henry, while still a very young lawyer, should have had little or no practice, provided only that, when the practice did come, the young lawyer had shown himself to have been a good one. It is precisely this honor which, during the past seventy years, has been denied him. Upon the evidence thus far most prominently before the public, one is compelled to conceive of him as having been destitute of nearly all the qualifications of a good lawyer, excepting those which give success with juries, particularly in criminal practice: he is represented as ignorant of the law, indolent, and grossly negligent of business, with nothing, in fact, to give him the least success in the profession but an abnormal and quite unaccountable gift of persuasion through speech.

Referring to this period of his life, Wirt says:

“Of the science of law he knew almost nothing; of the practical part he was so wholly ignorant that he was not only unable to draw a declaration or a plea, but incapable, it is said, of the most common or simple business of his profession, even of the mode of ordering a suit, giving a notice, or making a motion in court."

This conception of Henry’s professional character, to which Wirt seems to have come reluctantly, was founded, as is now evident, on the long-suppressed memorandum of Jefferson, who therein states that, after failing in merchandise, Patrick “turned his views to the law, for the acquisition or practice of which however, he was too lazy. Whenever the courts were closed for the winter session, he would make up a party of poor hunters of his neighborhood, would go off with them to the piny woods of Fluvanna, and pass weeks in hunting deer, of which he was passionately fond, sleeping under a tent before a fire, wearing the same shirt the whole time, and covering all the dirt of his dress with a hunting-shirt. He never undertook to draw pleadings, if he could avoid it, or to manage that part of a cause, and very unwillingly engaged but as an assistant to speak in the cause. And the fee was an indispensable preliminary, observing to the applicant that he kept no accounts, never putting pen to paper, which was true."

The last sentence of this passage, in which Jefferson declares that it was true that Henry “kept no accounts, never putting pen to paper,” is, of course, now utterly set aside by the discovery of the precious fee-books; and these orderly and circumstantial records almost as completely annihilate the trustworthiness of all the rest of the passage. Let us consider, for example, Jefferson’s statement that for the acquisition of the law, or for the practice of it, Henry was too lazy, and that much of the time between the sessions of the courts was passed by him in deer-hunting in the woods. Confining ourselves to the first three and a half years of his actual practice, in which, by the record, his practice was the smallest that he ever had, it is not easy for one to understand how a mere novice in the profession, and one so perfectly ignorant of its most rudimental forms, could have earned, during that brief period, the fees which he charged in 1185 suits, and in the preparation of many legal papers out of court, and still have been seriously addicted to laziness. Indeed, if so much legal business could have been transacted within three years and a half, by a lawyer who, besides being young and incompetent, was also extremely lazy, and greatly preferred to go off to the woods and hunt for deer while his clients were left to hunt in vain for him, it becomes an interesting question just how much legal business we ought to expect to be done by a young lawyer who was not incompetent, was not lazy, and had no inordinate fondness for deer-hunting. It happens that young Thomas Jefferson himself was just such a lawyer. He began practice exactly seven years after Patrick Henry, and at precisely the same time of life, though under external circumstances far more favorable. As a proof of his uncommon zeal and success in the profession, his biographer, Randall, cites from Jefferson’s fee-books the number of cases in which he was employed until he was finally drawn off from the law into political life. Oddly enough, for the first four years of his practice, the cases registered by Jefferson number, in all, but 504. It should be mentioned that this number, as it includes only Jefferson’s cases in the General Court, does not indicate all the business done by him during those first four years; and yet, even with this allowance, we are left standing rather helpless before the problem presented by the fact that this competent and diligent young lawyer whom, forsooth, the rustling leaves of the forest could never for once entice from the rustle of the leaves of his law-books did nevertheless transact, during his own first four years of practice, probably less than one half as much business as seems to have been done during a somewhat shorter space of time by our poor, ignorant, indolent, slovenly, client-shunning and forest-haunting Patrick.

But, if Jefferson’s charge of professional indolence and neglect on the part of his early friend fares rather ill when tested by those minute and plodding records of his professional employments which were kept by Patrick Henry, a fate not much more prosperous overtakes Jefferson’s other charge, that of professional incompetence. It is more than intimated by Jefferson that, even had Patrick been disposed to engage in a general law practice, he did not know enough to do so successfully by reason of his ignorance of the most ordinary legal principles and legal forms. But the intellectual embarrassment which one experiences in trying to accept this view of Patrick Henry arises from the simple fact that these incorrigible fee-books show that it was precisely this general law practice that he did engage in, both in court and out of court; a practice only a small portion of which was criminal, the larger part of it consisting of the ordinary suits in country litigation; a practice which certainly involved the drawing of pleadings, and the preparation of many sorts of legal papers; a practice, moreover, which he seems to have acquired with extraordinary rapidity, and to have maintained with increasing success as long as he cared for it. These are items of history which are likely to burden the ordinary reader with no little perplexity, a perplexity the elements of which are thus modestly stated by a living grandson of Patrick Henry: “How he acquired or retained a practice so large and continually increasing, so perfectly unfit for it as Mr. Jefferson represents him, I am at a loss to understand."

As we go further in the study of this man’s life, we shall have before us ample materials for dealing still further and still more definitely with the subject of his professional character, as that character itself became developed and matured. Meantime, however, the evidence already in view seems quite enough to enable us to form a tolerably clear notion of the sort of lawyer he was down to the end of 1763, which may be regarded as the period of his novitiate at the bar. It is perfectly evident that, at the time of his admission to the bar, he knew very little of the law, either in its principles or in its forms: he knew no more than could have been learned by a young man of genius in the course of four weeks in the study of Coke upon Littleton, and of the laws of Virginia. If, now, we are at liberty to suppose that his study of the law then ceased, we may accept the view of his professional incompetence held up by Jefferson; but precisely that is what we are not at liberty to suppose. All the evidence, fairly sifted, warrants the belief that, on his return to Hanover with his license to practice law, he used the next few months in the further study of it; and that thenceforward, just so fast as professional business came to his hands, he tried to qualify himself to do that business, and to do it so well that his clients should be inclined to come to him again in case of need. Patrick Henry’s is not the first case, neither is it the last one, of a man coming to the bar miserably unqualified for its duties, but afterward becoming well qualified. We need not imagine, we do not imagine, that he ever became a man of great learning in the law; but we do find it impossible to believe that he continued to be a man of great ignorance in it. The law, indeed, is the one profession on earth in which such success as he is proved to have had, is impossible to such incompetence as he is said to have had. Moreover, in trying to form a just idea of Patrick Henry, it is never safe to forget that we have to do with a man of genius, and that the ways by which a man of genius reaches his results are necessarily his own, are often invisible, are always somewhat mysterious, to the rest of us. The genius of Patrick Henry was powerful, intuitive, swift; by a glance of the eye he could take in what an ordinary man might spend hours in toiling for; his memory held whatever was once committed to it; all his resources were at instant command; his faculty for debate, his imagination, humor, tact, diction, elocution, were rich and exquisite; he was also a man of human and friendly ways, whom all men loved, and whom all men wanted to help; and it would not have been strange if he actually fitted himself for the successful practice of such law business as was then to be had in Virginia, and actually entered upon its successful practice with a quickness the exact processes of which were unperceived even by his nearest neighbors.