Sunday, February 8, 2009

February 9: Aaron Burr’s Lawyer

Do you know who this is?
-He refused to sign the Constitution because he felt it violated State’s Rights.
-He was known as the “Federal Bull Dog”.
-He played the violin.

He would become a noted lawyer, a delegate to the Constitution Convention, and a promoter for the Bill of Rights.

Luther Martin was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey on February 9, 1748.

Luther would graduate from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) at the head of his class in 1766. After his graduation he moved to Maryland where he began teaching until 1770. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1771, and soon became recognized as one of the ablest lawyers in the United States. He would be the first attorney general of Maryland - from 1778-1805 and again from 1818-1822. Luther was an early advocate of Independence, and he was one of Maryland’s representatives to the Continental Congress in 1784-1785, as well as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. His election to the Continental Congress proved to be honorary, as his public and private duties as a lawyer prevented him from attending. As Maryland’s Attorney General, he was very active in persecuting Loyalists.

At the Constitutional Convention, Luther expressed concern over the secrecy ruling that covered the discussions and decisions made at the Convention, as well as concern over the powers granted to a central government that he felt could threaten the rights and liberties of the individual states, especially the smaller states. He would call the Constitution, which he viewed as robbing individuals of freedom and self determination, “a stab in the back of the goddess of liberty.” He would accuse the convention of violating its mission to revise the Articles of Confederation, and would accuse the delegates of taking it upon themselves to create a new system of government. When George Washington and Benjamin Franklin backed the change of direction, Luther stated that we should not “suffer our eyes to be so far dazzled by the splendor of names, as to run blindfolded into what may be our destruction.” It was during this time he also said: “When the tempest rages, when the thunders roar, and the lightnings blaze around us it is then that the truly brave man stands firm at his post.” Maryland would ignore his concerns, becoming the seventh state to ratify the new Constitution.

While he started out as an Anti-Federalist, Luther would change his views and ally with the Federalists, largely because of his distain for Thomas Jefferson. Luther had married Maria, a daughter of the Captain Michael Cresap, who was unjustly charged by Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia, with the murder of the family of the Indian chief, John Logan. Martin would write a pamphlet in defense of Captain Cresap, and would remember the attack made by Jefferson after Jefferson became President. Jefferson would, in 1807, speak of Luther as the “Federal Bull Dog” because of his ability in the courts to challenge Jefferson’s political aims and legislation.

Luther would focus upon his law practice, becoming one of the most successful attorneys of the day. He was a defense council for two controversial cases that attracted national attention. The first was the impeachment trial of Luther’s close friend Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in 1805, where historian Henry Adams would speak of him as that "most formidable of American advocates." In 1807, Luther was one of the defense lawyers in Aaron Burr’s trial for treason. He won both cases. Between 1801 and 1813, he frequently appeared in the Supreme Court, arguing mainly admiralty, prize, and marine insurance cases and also the great constitutional case of Fletcher v. Peck (1810). As attorney general of Maryland, he unsuccessfully argued Maryland’s position in the landmark 1819 case, McCulloch v. Maryland, arguing against the plaintiff’s lawyers: Daniel Webster, William Pinkney, and William Wirt.

Soon after these cases, his fortunes began to decline. As the 1820s arrived, he found himself to be over seventy years old, drinking excessively, in ill health, suffering from a stroke and paralysis, and suffering bankruptcy. Partially in recognition of his long service as Attorney General, on February 22, 1822 the legislature of Maryland passed a remarkable resolution - the only one of the kind in American history - requiring every lawyer in the state to pay an annual license fee of five dollars, to be handed over to trustees appointed "for the appropriation of the proceeds raised by virtue of this resolution to the use of Luther Martin." This resolution was rescinded on February 6, 1823.

Aaron Burr took Luther in, providing a home and care for his former lawyer. Luther would die on July 8, 1826, at the age of seventy-eight, at Aaron Burr’s home. He was buried St. John’s churchyard in New York City.
Bill Kauffman: Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: the Life of Luther Martin

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