The U.S. might have won its independence with soldiers but it might not have even gotten into the fight without lawyers. While it’s easy to see the influence of the modern lawyer on our system of government – it’s worthwhile to point out the influence lifetime students of law had on its origins.
Here are five interesting, if not stubborn, facts about lawyers and the Declaration of Independence:
1. Four of five 5 Declaration of Independence authors were lawyers.
Thomas Jefferson frequently gets (deserved) credit for writing the Declaration of Independence, but there were actually five representatives charged with the duty. The Continental Congress entrusted a “Committee of Five” with developing the document. Four of the five – Roger Sherman, John Adams, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson – were lawyers. Only Benjamin Franklin, who ostensibly had greater interests in invention and printing, was not a lawyer. At the time of debate, he is often credited with having said, “If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately,” which we might argue made him the committee’s law firm pricing strategist.
2. Two authors would go on to be U.S. Presidents.
Of the five members of the authoring committee, two would go on to become President of the United States: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Adams and Jefferson were at times fierce political rivals that would eventually mend fences through letter writing. Amazingly, both men died within hours of each other on July 4th, 1826. To date twenty-six of the 44 U.S. Presidents were lawyers.
3. One author served as defense counsel during the Boston Massacre trial.
The Boston Massacre wasn’t quite the massacre it was made out to be – at least in Adams’ viewpoint. “Facts are stubborn things,” he wrote in a defense argument. The “massacre” was merely a case of professional soldiers defending themselves from an unruly mob. Even in 1770 – six years before the Declaration of Independence was published – Adams took the unpopular position as defense counsel and winning the acquittal of a British officer and six of his men, while also reducing the sentence for two other soldiers. In 2008, the ACLU published a piece quoting from Adams’ diary:
“The part I took in defense of captain Preston and the soldiers, procured me anxiety, and obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country. Judgment of death against those soldiers would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the Quakers or witches, anciently.”
4. More lawyers signed the Declaration than any other profession.
TheNational Archives has published a spreadsheet (PDF) of the representatives who signed the Declaration of Independence. The sheet also lists their occupation and while many occupied more than one parallel profession, 25 of the 56 signers were lawyers.
5. One Declaration signer, a lawyer, recanted his signature.
According to History.com, Richard Stockton was the one signer that would later recant support for the revolution. Stockton was a Princeton-based lawyer and the post says:
On November 30, 1776, the hapless delegate was captured by the British and thrown in jail. After months of harsh treatment and meager rations, Stockton repudiated his signature on the Declaration of Independence and swore his allegiance to King George III. A broken man when he regained his freedom, he took a new oath of loyalty to the state of New Jersey in December 1777.
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In many ways, the Declaration of Independence led to a revolutionary war that lasted the better part of a decade. It ended, eight long years later as General Washington pinned General Cornwallis between his front lines and the French fleet off the coast of Yorktown. Many of the unsung patriots of the Declaration of Independence would now turn their attention to developing the system of government we still abide by today.
Got an interesting fact about lawyers and July 4th? We’d welcome your comments.
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