Most know of Jefferson’s capabilities as a statesman, author, scientist, and political philosopher. But, also, listed among his accomplishments could be that as one of the foremost legal scholars of his day. Less is known about this facet of Jefferson because most of his legal work was accomplished in his home state of Virginia, but, its ramifications became of national importance. Jefferson was in the forefront in his rigorous training as a student, as a practitioner of the law, as one of the first court reporters, as a reviser of law, and as the father of American law schools.
Jefferson began his study of the law at the age of nineteen after completing two years at the College of William and Mary. He was already an accomplished scholar, being well read in languages, the sciences, and the classics. Young aspirants to the law, during Colonial times, had two choices for their training; go to Inns of Court in London, or read the law under the guidance of a practicing attorney. Jefferson chose the later, having the great fortune to read under the direction of George Wythe. Wythe was considered to be one of the preeminent lawyers of Virginia and probably it’s best educated.
His study, under Wythe, was most unusual, for it lasted for five years. Most lawyers read for a year or two. Patrick Henry was supposed to have studied for just six weeks. Why did it take the young Jefferson so long? Was he a procrastinator? Or, was he one of those students who never wanted to go out into the real world? A look at his course of study (through a letter written to a student in 1790) might give a hint. It also serves as a model for the rigorous course of study that future attorneys would have to partake.
“All that is necessary for a student is access to a library, and directions in what order the books are to be read. This I will take the liberty of suggesting to you, observing that as other branches of science, and especially history, are necessary to form a lawyer, these must be carried on together. I will arrange the books to be read into three columns, and propose that you should read in the first column till 12. oclock every day; those in the 2d. Form 12. to 2. those in the 3d. after candlelight, leaving all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading: I will rather say more necessary, because health is worth more than learning.”
Coke’s 2d. 3d. & 4th. Institutes
Vaughan’s do Salkeld’s
In 3 vols. Folio com- piled by Kennet.
Kaim’s Principles of Equity
Precedents in Chancery.
Hawkin’s Pleas of The crown.
Dalrymple’s feudal System.
Hale’s history of the Com. Law.
Sayer’s law of costs.
Bacon. Voce Pleas & Pleadings
Cumingham’s law of Bills.
Molley de jure martimo.
Locke on government.
Montesquieu’s Spirit of law.
Smith’s wealth of Nations.
Kaim’s moral essays.
Vattel’s law of nations.
Gilbert on Devises Uses Tenures3d
Mallet’s North anti- quit’.
History of England
Ld. Orrery’s history.
Burke’s George III.
Robertson’s hist. of Scotl’d.
Robertson’s hist. of America.
Other American histories.
Voltaire’s historical work
As if this regime was not enough, Jefferson continued:
“Should there be any little interval in the day not otherwise occupied fill them up by reading Lowthe’s grammar, Blair’s lectures on rhetoric, Mason on poetic & prosaic numbers, Bolingbroke’s works for the sake of the stile, which is declamatory & elegant, the English poets for the sake of style also….I would have you determine beforehand to make yourself a thorough lawyer, & not be contented with a mere smattering. It is superiority of knowledge which can alone lift you above the heads of your competitors, and ensure you success. I think therefore you must calculate on devoting between two & three years to this course of reading, before you think of commencing practice…” (Letter to John Garland Jefferson, New York, June 11, 1790).
To accomplish this task Jefferson arose at five and followed the above schedule. He abstracted all that he read in his commonplace books, striving to attain a style that he declared to be “the most valuable of all talents, that of never using two words where one will do.”
This habit of abstracting was a trait Jefferson would continue throughout his life. Law books were few in the Colonies and even the laws passed in the Virginia Assembly were not published. The results of court cases, and the precedents they set, were also not published. Jefferson’s abstracts of law volumes, legislation and case law could be said to have set the groundwork for the first Court Reporter.
At the age of twenty-four, Jefferson was admitted to the bar. He practiced in the Virginia General Court and rode the circuit among the county courts. His success was immediate, for he was always well prepared, being one of the best schooled attorneys in the Colony. His courtroom aura was said to be cool and unemotional. Madison stated that he “spoke “fluently and well”, relying on facts and logic. He was diametrically opposite his legal contemporary, Patrick Henry, who was all fire and emotion. But as John W. Davis suggested:…”those who wish entertainment will take Henry, but those who want to win their cases will retain Jefferson.”
There must have been a great number of clients who chose Jefferson. His average yearly income from his practice was $3,000.00. This was a goodly amount for the day, made even more lucrative since fees (which were fixed by law) were to be paid in specie and not trade. There is a caveat in reporting Jefferson’s income, though. It was the custom, in Virginia, for clients to drag their heels in compensating their attorney. The $3000.00 number is what was on the books, not what was actually paid. The problem was so bad, that in 1773, Jefferson, along with five other lawyers posted the following ad:
The fees allowed by Law if regularly paid, would barely compensate our incessant Labors, reimburse our expenses and the losses incurred by Neglect of our private Affairs; yet even these Rewards, confessedly moderate, are withheld from us in a great Proportion, by the unworthy Part of our Clients, ….we will not give an Opinion on any Case stated to us but on Payment of the whole Fee, nor prosecute or defend any Suit or Motion unless the Tax and One-half of the Fee be Previously advanced, excepting those Cases only where we choose to act gratis;….
Jefferson ended his career as an attorney in 1774, when the courts of Virginia were closed by the Crown at the beginning of the Revolution. This does not mean that he was through with the law, though. He embarked, in 1776, on his most creative period of legal statesmanship. He, with his mentor George Wythe, and Edmund Pendleton, undertook the complete rewriting of the Virginia legal code. Jefferson did most of the committee’s work, hoping to translate his philosophy of human rights into the legal institutions of his own state. His fundamental purposes, in the revision, were to destroy artificial privilege of every sort, to promote social mobility, and to pave the way for an aristocracy based on natural talent. To accomplish this he drafted 126 bills which abolished primogeniture and entail, proportioned crimes and punishment, granted religious freedom, outlined a free public school system, and taxed by assessments in proportion to property. This revision became the model by which other states rewrote their own legal codes after the Revolution. Jefferson was most proud of the bill for religious freedom and is one of the three accomplishments that he had listed on his gravestone.
Jefferson was afforded another opportunity to benefit his profession in 1779 when he was elected Governor of Virginia. As Chief Executive of the State, he was also a visitor of the College of William and Mary. Even though he was quite busy directing Virginia’s war efforts during the Revolution, he found time to aid in reforming the College’s curriculum and establishing a professorship of law. This gave his alma mater the first law school in the United States. He had his old friend George Wythe appointed its professor.
After 1779, Jefferson would turn his attention to other affairs. But, in that short span of time from 1762 to 1779 he would set precedents as a student, practitioner, court reporter, reviser of laws and the father of American law schools which would have lasting results for his state and the country.
More about Thomas Jefferson:
- Thomas Jefferson: The Education of an Architect
- Thomas Jefferson’s Views Concerning Native Americans
- Thomas Jefferson’s Views on Women
- Thomas Jefferson: Father of Invention
- Thomas Jefferson: Paleontologist
- Jefferson and the West
- Jefferson, Education, and the Franchise
- Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
- Jefferson And His Daughters
- Thomas Jefferson: Agronomist
- Thomas Jefferson’s Remarks Published in “The Rights of Man”
- Thomas Jefferon’s Obituary