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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Of the American Bar

By Rufus Choate (1799–1859)

From the Address before the Cambridge Law School, 1845

SOMETHING such has, in all the past periods of our history, been one of the functions of the American bar. To vindicate the true interpretation of the charters of the colonies, to advise what forms of polity, what systems of jurisprudence, what degree and what mode of liberty these charters permitted,—to detect and expose that long succession of infringement which grew at last to the Stamp Act and Tea Tax, and compelled us to turn from broken charters to national independence,—to conduct the transcendent controversy which preceded the Revolution, that grand appeal to the reason of civilization,—this was the work of our first generation of lawyers: to construct the American constitutions: the higher praise of the second generation. I claim it in part for the sobriety and learning of the American bar; for the professional instinct towards the past; for the professional appreciation of order, forms, obedience, restraints; for the more than professional, the profound and wide intimacy with the history of all liberty, classical, mediæval, and above all, of English liberty,—I claim it in part for the American bar that, springing into existence by revolution,—revolution, which more than anything and all things lacerates and discomposes the popular mind,—justifying that revolution only on a strong principle of natural right, with not one single element or agent of monarchy or aristocracy on our soil or in our blood,—I claim it for the bar that the constitutions of America so nobly closed the series of our victories! These constitutions owe to the bar more than their terse and exact expression and systematic arrangements: they owe to it in part, too, their elements of permanence; their felicitous reconciliation of universal and intense liberty with forms to enshrine and regulations to restrain it; their Anglo-Saxon sobriety and gravity conveyed in the genuine idiom, suggestive of the grandest civil achievements of that unequaled race. To interpret these constitutions, to administer and maintain them, this is the office of our age of the profession. Herein have we somewhat wherein to glory; hereby we come into the class and share in the dignity of founders of States, of restorers of States, of preservers of States.

I said and I repeat that while lawyers, and because we are lawyers, we are statesmen. We are by profession statesmen. And who may measure the value of this department of public duty? Doubtless in statesmanship there are many mansions, and large variety of conspicuous service. Doubtless to have wisely decided the question of war or peace,—to have adjusted by a skillful negotiation a thousand miles of unsettled boundary-line,—to have laid the corner-stone of some vast policy whereby the currency is corrected, the finances enriched, the measure of industrial fame filled,—are large achievements. And yet I do not know that I can point to one achievement of this department of American statesmanship which can take rank for its consequences of good above that single decision of the Supreme Court which adjudged that an act of legislature contrary to the Constitution is void, and that the judicial department is clothed with the power to ascertain the repugnancy and to pronounce the legal conclusion. That the framers of the Constitution intended this should be so is certain; but to have asserted it against the Congress and the Executive,—to have vindicated it by that easy yet adamantine demonstration than which the reasonings of the mathematics show nothing surer,—to have inscribed this vast truth of conservatism on the public mind, so that no demagogue, not in the last stage of intoxication, denies it,—this is an achievement of statesmanship of which a thousand years may not exhaust or reveal all the good.