Today is Lawyer Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday
I am an avid reader about the FOUNDING FATHERS of our Country. I believe they had vision beyond their time!
Today, on Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday, I dedicate this blog to him!
Thomas Jefferson's life in the law has been generally overlooked, despite the years he devoted to its practice and the impact it had on the American Revolution (1775–1783) and subsequent generations. Admitted to the Virginia bar in 1765 after more than two years of reading law under the tutelage of George Wythe, Jefferson practiced before the General Court in Williamsburg, specializing in land cases. By the time Edmund Randolph took over his practice in 1774, he had handled more than 900 matters, with clients ranging from common farmers and indentured servants to the most powerful and wealthy of the colony's planter elite. In Bolling v. Bolling (1771) and Blair v. Blair (1772) he became involved in the private, often sensational affairs of the gentry, while in Howell v. Netherland (1770) he attempted to win the freedom of a mixed-race man he believed to be illegally bound to servitude. Jefferson was influenced by an English tradition distinguishing between common law—a tradition preserved by courts through precedent—and natural law, or rights ordained by God. In this way, his legal training left its mark on his revolutionary writings, in particular the "Summary View of the Rights of British America" (1774) and the Declaration of Independence (1776). Following the Revolution, he used these principles to campaign for legal reform in Virginia, drafting, among many other bills, the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786).
Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, from 1760 to 1762. After ending his studies, he was back in Williamsburg by 1763, this time to study law. No formal law schools existed at the time; instead, students spent years serving as apprentices or clerks to established attorneys. Jefferson studied under George Wythe, with whom he had formed a close bond while in college. An eminent lawyer with liberal views on religion, slavery, and republicanism, Wythe saw little benefit in the drudgery of traditional legal training and preferred to have his students read law reports and foundational English legal writings, such as those by Sir Edward Coke. (Jefferson later came to strongly dislike the commentaries of Sir William Blackstone, insisting that American law was being degraded by the increasing use of that work, at the expense of Coke, in the training of lawyers.) Wythe paired this academic foundation with the practical training necessary to understand how Virginia landowners managed their own affairs and those of the colony. He accomplished the latter by sending his students to observe cases being argued before the General Court and by supervising moot-court exercises.
These two aspects of Jefferson's legal training—the study of law as political philosophy and as practical grounding for the management of plantation property—served Jefferson's gentry clients well, but they also shaped Jefferson's intellectual and political roles in nation-building. In the decades to come, the law played a critical role in Jefferson's project to create, as he wrote in his Autobiography (1821), a "system by which every fibre would be eradicated of antient or future aristocracy; and a foundation laid for a government truly republican."
Upon being examined late in 1765 by a panel of three men—Wythe, Jefferson's cousin John Randolph, and Robert Carter Nicholas—Jefferson qualified to practice before Virginia's county courts. He chose to practice at the General Court, however, a bar that required another year's wait for admission. He attended his first session in October 1767, and in so doing became the youngest member of an elite group. In his eight years of practice, only ten other lawyers qualified to practice before the General Court.
Building a Practice
With the exception of a few men trained in Britain's Inns of Court and admitted as barristers there, Virginia lawyers were prohibited from practicing in both the county courts and the General Court. This meant that General Court lawyers like Jefferson could specialize in representing clients with business in the capital, where the court convened. Additionally, of those lawyers admitted to practice in Williamsburg, Jefferson, in Albemarle County, resided the farthest west, making him well positioned to serve clients at the forefront of westward migration and investment.
As a result, Jefferson's practice grew rapidly, with his first cases involving the quieting of titles. A procedure by which clients sought to be assured that their land titles were legitimate, quieting required someone to research government records to check that the title had been properly registered and its quitrents paid. The Crown collected a fee called a quitrent on lands patented in its colonies, but in Virginia, it was common practice for buyers, and especially land speculators, to avoid paying the quitrent by taking out a warrant of survey on a piece of land and holding it indefinitely, without a patent. Other owners allowed their patents to lapse without the land-use requirements having been met, leaving titles open to challenge and even grant to another claimant.
Jefferson generally tasked such research to several agents in Williamsburg, but on those occasions when actual title challenges occurred, he dutifully represented his clients before a judge. Still, a large practice built on transactions allowed Jefferson, not a skilled public speaker, to spend less time inside a courtroom than other lawyers, and to instead exploit his meticulous attention to detail and his deep knowledge of English law. Soon becoming an expert in the highly complex world of estate law, Jefferson was especially active in drawing wills and in offering counsel to other attorneys on difficult matters related to wills and trusts.
In order to build his practice, Jefferson acquainted himself with county-court lawyers by regularly traveling to western counties on those days when local attorneys gathered to do their courts' business. Occasionally he had the good fortune to be introduced to the local bar by someone such as John Madison Sr., the clerk of the Augusta County Court, whose son Jefferson had met while a student. As the Virginia colony's westernmost county, Augusta lay over the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley and extended as far west as the Mississippi River. By the end of 1768, his first full year of practice, Jefferson had visited eight other western counties as well as several to the east of Albemarle.
Meanwhile, Jefferson's knowledge of the personnel and workings of legal institutions in Williamsburg became a lucrative source of clients, and he soon was able to build a network of attorneys who brought him business from dozens of counties across the colony. Although it took him five days on horseback, he made the 120-mile trip to Williamsburg three times a year—for the April and October sessions of the General Court and for the June meeting of the governor's Council. His collaborations there with such men as Wythe, Thomson Mason, Edmund Pendleton, John Blair Jr., and John Randolph enhanced his reputation and, moreover, provided contact with the leading attorneys of the county bar, which, in turn, brought him more business. With such an advantage, Jefferson was able to gradually reduce his travel and limit his regular trips beyond Albemarle to Williamsburg and Staunton, the seat of Augusta County.
Ms. Rignanese is the Founding Member and Managing Partner of Rignanese & Associates; she has been practicing law in Winter Haven, Central Florida since 1991. Her practice focuses in estate planning, business, corporate and real property law. In her free time, she is an avid reader and self-educated historian with particular interest in the Founding Fathers and Constitutional Law.
Rignanese & Associates is available to work with clients on their individual legal matters. Please reach out to us at our new headquarters at 203 Avenue A, NW, Suite, 101, Winter Haven, Florida 33881 at 863.294.1114.
© Cynthia Crofoot Rignanese, Esquire