From A Monograph of the New Baltimore Court House: One of the Greatest Examples of American architecture, and the Foremost Court House of the United States; Including An Historical Sketch of the Early Courts of Maryland (Press of A. Hoen, 1899), pp. 9-28].
By the terms of the charter formulated at Westminster in 1632, Lord Baltimore was empowered to appoint “judges, justices and magistrates, and to do all, and singular, other things, belonging to the completion of Justice, and to courts, protorian judicaturies, and tribunals, judicial forms, and modes of proceeding, although express mention thereof in these presents be not made; and by judges, by them delegated, to award process, hold pleas, and determine in those courts, protorian judicaturies, and tribunals, in all actions, suits, causes, and matters whatsoever, as well criminal as personal, real, and mixed and protorian.” He was also given the right to “erect manors and in every of those manors to have and hold a Court Baron, and all things which to a Court Baron belong.” In 1637 Lord Baltimore commissioned his brother, Leonard Calvert, “Chancellor, Chief Justice and Chief Magistrate” of the Province, “with powers from time to time, to appoint and constitute officers and ministers for the preservation of the peace, administration and execution of Justice.” In the Chancellor’s commission it was specified that he was to be assisted by a board of three councillors. Jerome Hawley, Thomas Cornwallys and John Lewger were appointed members of this body, and as such, constituted, with the Governor, the first Provincial Court of Maryland. They met for the first time December 30, 1637, at Saint Mary’s. Next year a tribunal corresponding to the present Orphan’s Court was established and John Lewger was made judge. A Court of Pypowdry was also brought into being, and early in 1637 the first justice of the peace was appointed. Later Courts Baron and Leet grew quite numerous. They were modelled after the old feudal tribunals of England, and in their records are preserved some curious examples of early justice and ethics.
In 1659 a Court Leet and Baron at Saint Clement’s Hundred found that “about the third of October, 1659, Samuel Harris broke the peace with a stick, and there was bloodshed commited by the said Samuel Harris on the body of John Mansell, for which he is fined 40 L. tob., which is remitted de gratia diu.” October 28, 1672, one Humphrey Willey was fined “for keeping a tippling house and selling his drink within the Manor without a liscence, at unlawful rates.” One Bartholomew Phillips was punished for “not marking and bounding his lands”; one Edward Conray for “permitting his dogges to worry his lordships hogges;” and the Lord of the Manor himself for not providing “a paire of stocks, pillory and ducking stoole.” Among the matters inquired into by the justices of the peace were “all manner of felonyes, witchcrafts, inchantments, sorcerys, magic, arts, trespasses, forestallings, ingrossings and extorcons whatsoever.”
The County Courts were established in 1637. Apparently there was little limit to their jurisdiction and small effort made to separate them distinctly from the other tribunals of the State. Actions of debt and assumpsit, distraints, appraisements, executions, deeds of trust, assignments, bills of sale, cases in equity, criminal cases, trials for offences against the State, such as treason and mutinous speeches, and the issuing of licenses to marry, kill cattle and trade with the Indians all occupied their attention. Questions which arose in the course of the revolution of the mill of Justice were decided on the spot and without loss of time spent in hunting precedents. By Act of the Legislature of 1639 drunkenness was defined as “drinking to excess, to the notable perturbation of any organ of sense or motion.” It was punishable by fine or whipping. Twenty-five years later a Court Leet and Baron decided that one Thomas Gerrard, the Lord of the Manor, though he had plainly “drunk something extraordinary,” was not amenable to punishment “because he was not too drunk to get out of a cart’s way.”
Gradually order came out of chaos and the courts of Maryland began to assume the power and dignity which is theirs today. As the civil divisions of the various counties became strongly marked, it became possible to make greater distinction between the different judicial tribunals, and after the middle of the seventeenth century laws defining the status of the courts were passed almost yearly. Regular judges were appointed, regular court towns were selected, and in some places, court houses were erected. The latter often also served as jails and places of public meeting.
The judges of Baltimore county, which then included parts of Harford, Carroll, Anne Arundel, Howard and Frederick, and all of Baltimore town, held their first meeting July 20, 1661, at the residence of Captain Thomas Howell, the “presiding commissioner.” Later, when the needs of the people became greater and the local government became more fully organized, a court house was built at a spot near the mouth of Bush river. Here, until about 1690, the unpretentious courts of Baltimore dispensed Justice.
From this time until the establishment of the county seat, Joppa, to where the courts were moved, as near as can be ascertained, in 1717, their location has been erroneously stated by historians to have been a village on the Gunpowder river known as “Foster’s Neck.” The following, from a paper read by Judge Albert Ritchie before the Maryland Historical Society on January 8, 1900, entitled “Early County Seats of Baltimore County,” gives the true location of this second Court House and County Seat.
It was shown in the paper read by me at the January meeting of 1896, that the first court house of Baltimore county was on Bush river, in 1683, and that tradition, as well as few facts then mentioned, placed it at or near a small town named Baltimore, then on the East side of that river, the site of which is now in Harford county.
It was also shown that the court house on Bush river had been abandoned and offered for sale, at least as early as 1695, and that I had discovered the fact that the second county seat, which seems to have been called Gunpowder, was, in 1700, on a tract of land known as Sim’s Choice, on the neck of land in the fork of the Gunpowder called Sim’s Point, and that, contrary to general belief, there never was a court house at Foster’s Neck.
The error in regard to a supposed county seat at Foster’s Neck originated, I think, in the address of the Hon. Coleman Yellott at the laying of the corner-stone of the court house at Towson, in 1854, and was the result of his failure to carefully read the Acts of 1706 and 1707. He states that the second court house was built at Foster’s Neck sometime between 1683 and 1707, and that it was deserted in the latter year and then went to Joppa; but, in fact, it was the proposed site for a town that was abandoned in 1707, and not a court house. There was no court house at that place to be deserted. In that year it was at Gunpowder on Sim’s Choice, and had been there at least since 1691.
The account of the early court houses given by Mr. Yellott was imported bodily into “The Chronicles of Baltimore,” and thence with little or no investigation, passed on from one to another, until the vitality of this court house at Foster’s Neck, which never existed, completed the effacement of the one that actually stood for many years in the fork of the Gunpowder.
In the meantime Baltimore town, which had been laid out in 1729, had grown to be a place of far greater size and importance than its unprophetic founders had expected it to become. Its commerce was growing, its population increasing, and though like most colonial towns, it had known its periods of retrogression, it now gave promise of rapid and continual progress along all lines.
As first planned, it consisted of sixty lots of an acre each. From Gay street on the east it extended westward to Liberty street, and from the waterfront on the south to an irregular line near the present position of Lexington and Fayette streets. Long street, which was later renamed Market street, and still later Baltimore street, was the principal thoroughfare. Calvert street extended from the harbor to a hill near the corner of East street (afterward Fayette street), which ended abruptly in a bluff overhanging Jones’ Falls. This hill stretched westward and northward, in a steep incline, to Charles street, reaching its highest point at the site of Old St. Paul’s Church, corner of Charles and Saratoga streets. About its eastern base, the Falls, then a broad and unconfined stream, swept toward the river in a wide horseshoe curve.
By an Act of the Assembly of 1768, Messrs. Andrew Buchanan, John B. Bordley, John Ridgeley, Jr., Robert Adair, John Mottle, Robert Alexander and William Smith were appointed members of a commission authorized to sell the old court house and jail at Joppa and erect new buildings in Baltimore. The location named in their instructions was “the uppermost part of Calvert street, next Jones’ Falls.” These gentlemen, whose sense of duty seemed to lead them to believe that it was essential to obey orders in letter as well as in spirit, chose a spot which, beside being the “uppermost part of Calvert street” reckoned laterally, was also of this description when considered perpendicularly. The place which they selected was a lofty pinnacle of earth near the spot whereon the Battle Monument now stands. It was fifty feet higher at that time than the present level of the street, or about as high as the top of the second story of the postoffice. The building erected was a rectangular brick structure of two and a half stories, with a plain sloping roof and little ornamentation. From the centre of the roof an octagonal tower, or rather spire, rose towards the sky. Because of its high and commanding position the Court House was characterized by a sort of rude, but picturesque beauty, and the easily-satisfied Baltimoreans of the day took in it a proper pride. Whatever may have been its architectural shortcomings, it undeniably possessed one great advantage – it was spacious, well-arranged, and easily accommodated the courts of the city. Though the attorneys of that time, probably, were often constrained to pour maledictions upon the heads of those who had put the home of the Law at the top of a wearying hill, they too must have found recompense for their tired limbs in contemplating the comparative elegance of the building.
With the march of time, however, other more serious objections than those which arose from reluctance to climb hills, made their appearance. In 1784 it was determined to open Calvert street toward the North. To make this decision was easy; to carry it into effect was far from being so. What was to be done with the Court House? It stood directly on the line of the proposed street. Should it be demolished or removed, or should the street be made to curve around it? Opinion was divided on every detail of the question and discussion waxed warm. Finally the problem was solved by cutting away from about the sides of the building the rock and earth which supported its foundations, until no more than was absolutely necessary remained. Though the Court House now presented more the appearance of a monument than a habitable building, it was possible to lengthen Calvert street without deflecting it, to any great extent, from its established line, and widespread, therefore, was the relief in Baltimore town. Later an archway was out through the hill beneath the building, so that the pedestrians coming up and down Calvert street might continue northward and southward unobstructed, as if there were no Court House in the way. Mr. John P. Kennedy, in a lecture before the Maryland Institute in 1851, thus described the appearance of the old building:
This was a famous building, this old Court House, which, to my first cognizance, suggested the idea of a house perched on a great stool. It was a large, dingy, square structure of brick, elevated upon a massive basement of stone, which was perforated by a broad arch. The buttresss, on either side of the arch supplied space for a stairway that led to the halls of Justice above, and straddled over a pillory, whipping post and stocks, which were sheltered under the arch as symbols of the power that was at work above.
After the dawn of freedom and independence there came a new era in the history of Baltimore town. It enjoyed, toward the close of the century, what in later days has come to be known as a “boom.” The boundaries spread outward in every direction, marsh land was reclaimed, hills were cut away and gullies filled, streets were opened – and what is more important, were paved – some attempts at providing a sewerage system were made, the accumulated mire of years was removed from the thoroughfares, alleys were cleaned, an embryo fire department was established, police regulations were enforced, and additional laws were enacted for the welfare, peace and health of the people. Jones Falls, the intractable, was boldly deflected from its natural course along the base of the bluff upon which stood the Court House, and led away, manacled and no longer arbiter of its own destiny, to its present channel further eastward. The bed of West Market street, as a pasture lot, became valueless, and the fishing at Fayette street bridge became highly unsatisfactory to the disciples of Isaak Walton.
Slowly, but surely, the town cast off its old shell of provincialism and eighteenth century conservatism, and grew to be a city. Factories were opened, foreign and domestic trade was looked after more carefully, and public affairs received the attention of all. In 1782 the population, which in 1776 was 5,939, had grown to 8,000; eight years later it had reached 13,500. In the next ten years it more than doubled. As far back as 1772 the town already boasted churches of two denominations. The next year another was added. In 1773 a theatre was built; in 1778 a linen factory, “a bleach yard,” a paper mill, a woolen factory and two nail factories were established; in 1780 the Custom House was opened; in 1782 a line of stages was started between Baltimore and Philadelphia; next year another line began to run to Frederick town and Annapolis; the harbor was surveyed and three market houses were built; in 1784 a sugar refinery commenced operations, and finally, on December 31, 1796, Baltimore town was granted a charter by the Legislature and became a corporation under the name of “the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore City.”
With the beginning of the new century came the realization that in some things, at least, the city was still behind the times. One of the causes of discontent was the Court House, which forty years before, had been the pride of Baltimore. At that time it stood alone, in solemn grandeur upon a hill; now it was an eyesore in the midst of beauty. The city’s wealthy merchants, in the preceding decade, had built their homes along Calvert street, in the vicinity of Fayette and Lexington. On the east side was a row of elegant mansions, a block, altogether, in length, and on the west side were half as many more. At the south-west corner of Lexington and Calvert streets, and extending back to Saint Paul’s lane, (now Saint Paul street) was a vacant common – a sort of primitive public park.
Slowly the agitation looking toward the erection of a new court house gained in strength, until in 1805, it was sufficiently widespread to cause the enactment of a resolution by the Legislature authorizing the appointment of a commission to tear down the old building and build a new one. With little delay the common at Calvert and Lexington streets was fixed upon as the site of the new structure and in a short while work upon it was begun. The plans, which were drawn by George Milliman, provided for a building of the colonial style, two lofty stories in height, fronting 145 feet on Lexington street (then called Church street), with a depth of 65 feet. It was to be raised upon an elevation of about 20 feet above the present grade of Calvert street, so as to minimize the difficulties of the steep hill, and was to be surmonnted by a graceful cupola. These plans were carried out in every important detail. Baltimore-made bricks were used in the construction of the building, and in conception and execution it was a good example of the simple, dignified architecture of the early part of the century. Col. James Mosher was the builder. The stone work was done by William Stewart.
Here, for a generation, the courts of Baltimore found ample quarters. The court-rooms were spacious, well-lighted and handsomely furnished, and Baltimoreans had good reason to be proud of the beautiful building which they had dedicated to the Law.
In 1834 a fire occurred in the Court House which came near destroying the city land records. The scare caused by this accident resulted in the erection of a fire-proof building for their safe-keeping. This was called the Record Office, and like the Court House, was a well-designed and graceful, though rather small structure. It fronted 54 feet on St. Paul street, at the corner of Lexington, with a depth of 68 feet, and was three stories in height. It was built of large dressed granite blocks and was vaulted, so as to be absolutely fire-proof. The corner-stone was laid June 29, 1836, by Solomon Etting, the venerable Samuel Smith, then Mayor of the city, and other prominent Baltimoreans, Chief Justice Taney and the Judges of the various City and State courts being present. In 1822 the United States courts had secured a home in the Masonic Temple, on Saint Paul street, near Lexington. The corner-stone of this building was laid May 16, 1814, by Governor Levin Winder. The architect was Maximilian Godefroy, a Frenchman, who also designed the Battle Monument. The structure, though smaller than either the Court House or the Record Office, excelled them both in architectural beauty. The lower floor was used by the courts. The Masons had quarters above. This joint tenancy continued until 1867, when the new Masonic Temple, on Charles street, and the new, (now old) United States Court House, on North street at the corner of Fayette, were completed.
Soon after, the growing needs of the courts made it necessary to again seek additional quarters, and the old Masonic Temple was once more put to use – this time as the home of the City and Circuit courts. Here they remained until the Fall of 1895, when all of the buildings in the block bounded by Calvert, Saint Paul, Fayette and Lexington streets were demolished, in order to make way for the erection of the present Court House. A temporary building – to accommodate the courts until the completion of the latter – was erected at North and Lexington streets.
* * * * *
Maryland, from early colonial days, has furnished more than her share of the great men of America. It is true that no Marylander has ever become chief magistrate of the Republic, but it is equally true that many of her sons have attained an eminence in affairs of state, second in fact, if not in name, to the positions of none. In all walks of life men born upon her soil have made their marks. Some of the nation’s greatest soldiers, orators and public men have owed their allegiance to her. In the list of the leaders in every science and art, their names are to be found near the top. But chiefest, perhaps, among Maryland’s greatest sons are the men of the Law. Select the dozen most famous advocates at the bar at any time in the history of the Republic and aniong them will always be found a goodly number of distinguished Marylanders. Beginning with Samuel Chase, Gabriel Duval, Charles Carroll “the Barrister,” Daniel Dulany and Luther Martin, whose eloquence and intellect were the wonders of the revolutionary period, a long series of commanding figures stretch downward through all the history of the United States. In time of tumult aud in time of peace alike, they have been to the fore, and the entire country has acknowledged their leadership. Baltimore’s old Court House on the hill was the scene of numberless desperately fought forensic battles. Here hosts of the lesser lights of the law came to learn from the examples of the greater; here Martin joked and Dulany thundered; here the intellect of the city foregathered and contested.
Among the leaders of those early days, Martin stood alone. He was a great paradox, and his life a huge jest. A reading of his biography shows him, as a man, to have been much that was unworthy of imitation, and as a lawyer, the personification of all that was worthy.
He was admitted to the bar in 1771 and soon after began the practice of the law in Somerset county. In a short while he attracted the attention of his seniors, and by 1778, when he was appointed Attorney General of the State, he had become one of the recognized leaders of his profession. He hold the office of Attorney-General for 27 years, and later, eight years after his resignation, was induced to accept it again. He was a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but refused to sign the instrument. For awhile he strongly opposed its adoption, but later became an ardent Federalist. It was as practicing attorney, however, more than as a public officer or judge that he was best known to the people of the country. In the records of the first and second great State trials in America, he stands forth boldly – an impressive and picturesque figure. When, in 1804, the Senate of the United States – the president of which at that time was Aaron Burr – considered the charges against Judge Chase, Martin appeared as leading counsel for the defense. Arrayed against him was John Randolph, of Roanoke. It was a battle of the giants, – and Martin won.
His eccentricities, which would have been handicaps to an ordinary man, seemed to have been sources of his strength. He often appeared in court intoxicated; he wore garments of old-fashioned and ludicrous cut, and his manner of speaking was at times ridiculous. Undaunted he attacked the mighty Virginian, and with weapons despised by the latter, he fought his way to victory. Henry Adams, in his life of Randolph, gives a quaint picture of the great battle.
“Most formidable of all American advocates,” he says, “was the rollicking, witty, audacious Attorney General of Maryland, boon companion of Chase and of the whole bar; drunken, generous, slovenly, grand; bull-dog of Federalism, as Mr. Jefferson called him; shouting with a school boy’s fun at the idea of tearing Randolph’s indictment to piece�s and teaching theVirginia Democrats some law--the notorious, reprobate genius, Luther Martin * * * * Nothing could be finer than Martin’s famous speech. Its rugged and sustained force; its strong humor, audacity and dexterity; its even flow and simple choice of language; free from rhetoric and affectation; its close and compulsive grip of the law; its good-natured contempt for the obstacles put in its way; all these signs of elemental vigor were like the forces of nature; simple, direct; fresh as winds and ocean.”
Again as the defender of Aaron Burr in his trial for high treason at Richmond, in 1807, Martin’s name was upon the lips of every American. Here, as in the Chase trial, he succeeded in spite of self-imposed hindrances. Intemperate, extravagant and imprudent careless in dress and speech, he still held his place as the leading lawyer of the Republic. Though he was always in debt, he gave away the major portion of his large income, and in 1820, when he suffered a stroke of paralysis and could labor no longer, he found difficulty in procuring the ordinary necessities of life. Such was his popularity that in 1822 the Legislature of Maryland passed a joint resolution requiring every lawyer in the State to pay five dollars annually toward Martin’s support. Despite the fact that this law was plainly unconstitutional and almost ridiculous, no one refused to comply with its provisions. Soon after Aaron Burr gave his helpless defender a place in his home in New York, and there he died, in 1826.
As Martin’s star set, that of another great Marylander rose in the ascendant. William Pinkney, the very antithesis of the rollicking old tippler in manner and mode of thought, was his worthy successor. Born at Annapolis in 1704, he was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty. Successively member of the Legislature, member of the Executive Council, special commissioner to England to negotiate the treaty of 1796, Minister Extraordinary to the Court of Saint James, Senator, Attorney General of the United States, Major in the Volunteer Army, Minister to Russia and Special Envoy to Naples, he remained in the public eye from his twenty-second year until his death in 1822. While a member of the Senate, in 1820, he made his famous speech on the Missouri Compromise, which has taken its place among the classics of the American bar. As a lawyer he had few equals and no superiors. Polished, rhetorical and infinitely subtle, his arguments were unassailable; impassioned, cunningly phrased, and fortified by his wonderful mastery of the English language, his pleas moved even such stern old jurists as Taney and Marshall. Though his entire manner and mode of speaking were artificial, he threw about his laboriously devised periods an air of earnestness which made them effective. Of him Taney said:
When William Pinkney returned from England and resumed the practice of the law, the reign of Luther Martin was at an end. He was a perfect contrast to Martin. He was very attentive to his dress, indeed more so than was thought suitable for his age and station. It approached to dandyism, if it did not reach it. He was always dressed in the extreme of the newest fashion, and for some time after his return, took notes at the bar and spoke with gloves on nice enough to wear in a ball room. I have heard almost all the great advocates of the United States, both of the past and present generations, but I have seen none equal to Pinkney. He was a profound lawyer in every department of the science, as well as a powerful and eloquent debater.
Samuel Chase, lawyer, politician, patriot and jurist, was the senior, after a manner, of both Martin and Pinkney, and the events of his life, it is probable, exerted a great influence upon their careers. Born in 1741, in Somerset County, he received a good education under the tuition of his father, Rev. Thomas Chase, afterwards rector of Old Saint Paul’s Church. He studied law in the offices of John Hammond and John Hall, of Annapolis, where he was admitted to the bar. From 1774 to 1778 he was a member of the Continental Congress. During these years of fierce contest and national peril he was known as the “Demosthenes of Maryland” because of his earnest, whole-souled, uncompromising patriotism. Before the Declaration of Independence was thonght of, he startled his colleagues in Congress, it is said, by declaring that “by the God of Heaven, he owed no allegiance to the King of Great Britain.” In 1786 he removed to Baltimore. Two years later he became Chief Judge of the Criminal Court of the Baltimore county district, in 1791 Chief Justice of Maryland, and in 1796 a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The latter high office he held for fifteen years. In 1804, through the efforts of John Randolph, his political enemy, he was impeached, but in March, 1805, the Senate acquitted him. Among his defenders was Luther Martin, whose eloquent and successful plea has been mentioned above. Judge Chase died in 1811.
The chief contemporaries of Pinkney and Martin were Robert Smith, Attorney-General of the United States, Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of the United States; Robert Goodloe Harper; John Kilty; Theodrick Bland, Chancellor of Maryland; John Purviance; Jonathan Meredith; David Hoffman; William Wirt and William Winder. Wirt was perhaps the greatest orator among these, and Meredith the ablest lawyer. Wirt, as one of the counsel for the prosecution in the trial of Burr, attained wide prominence. Besides being a leader at the bar, he was a successful author, a well-read Latin scholar and a recognized authority upon English literature. Meredith, though an ardent admirer of Shakespeare and the poets, allowed no other interest to interfere with his study of the law. He thoroughly mastered the science of jurisprudence and gave much attention to the difficult and, at that time, new questions relating to large financial and commercial undertakings. With truth, perhaps, he may be called the prototype of the modern corporation lawyer. Winder and Hoffman were lesser lights. The former, at one time, however, was said to have enjoyed the most extensive practice of any attorney in the State. During the War of 1812 he rose to the rank of Brigadier-General.
Roger Brooke Taney, the most conspiciously eminent of all Maryland lawyers, attained a position in the affairs of the nation which has caused his services to his native State to be almost lost from view. He began the practice of the law at Frederick, but removed to Baltimore in 1823. Immediately he attained a high place, and by 1827 was recognized as one of the leaders of the Maryland bar. In this year he became Attorney-General of the State. Four years later he was appointed Attorney-General of the United States, and in 1883 was made Secretary of the Treasury by President Jackson. His nomination as Secretary was subsequently rejected by the Senate, and he returned to Baltimore. This was in 1834. Two years after he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and from that time forward, for twenty-eight years, until his death in 1864, he stood alone on a lofty pinnacle as the greatest of American jurists. To attempt to briefly review his career would be futile. The stirring events of his life can only be dealt with at length – they were inseperably bound up with the history of the Republic.
John Van Lear MacMahon, Taney’s greatest contemporary, when viewed with the perspective of years, presents a remarkable picture. Admittedly the ablest orator and greatest swayer of multitudes in his generation, he refused, in those days when eminence at the bar almost invariably meant eminence in the State, to accept public office, He declined a Cabinet position, he spurned the chance to obtain a United States Senatorship, he refused many places on the bench, and under no circumstances would he ever consent to make a speech outside of his native State. He was reserved and cold in manner, dignified and austere. It was the current opinion during his life that he had never lost a case. Toward the latter years of his life he became more and more a recluse, and was seldom seen upon the streets. He died in 1871.
To sketch the careers of all of the other great Maryland lawyers of the middle of the century would be to retell the history of the State. John Pendleton Kennedy, Secretary of the Navy; George A. Hanson; James L. Bartol, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals; Reverdy Johnson; Henry Winter Davis; John H. B. Latrobe, Attorney of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; Robert Brent, Attorney-General of Maryland; Charles Pitts; Charles F. Mayer; John Mason Campbell, son-in-law of Taney; Thomas Alexander; John Glenn, Judge of the United States District Court; Levin Gale, “the lawyer’s lawyer;” John Nelson, Attorney-General of the United States; William Schley; John C. Le Grand; Thomas Donaldson, and George P. Richardson, Attorney-General of Maryland, all come to mind easily.
Reverdy Johnson, diplomat, wit, raconteur and student of human nature, was a man among men. From the date of his admission to the bar until his death he was numbered among the great sons of Maryland. In the State Senate, in the United States Senate, as Attorney-General of the United States, again as Senator, as Minister to England and negotiator of the Alabama Settlement, he served his State and his country almost continuously. That his service was valuable and valued is attested by the honor which is today attached to his name. Few men equalled him in moral courage. When he thought himself in the right he went ahead, regardless of criticisms and set-backs. His keen sense of humor enabled him to disregard opposition which would have discouraged another man, and his profound mind and great industry enabled him to conquer where others failed. For twenty years he was famous as an undefeated hero of the forum and the bar.
Henry Winter Davis was born at Annapolis in 1817. After graduating from the University of Virginia, he began the practice of the law in Alexandria. In 1850 he came to Baltimore, where he resided until his death in 1864. He was a member of the Thirty-fourth, Thirty-fifth, Thirty-sixth and Thirty-eighth Congresses. As a virile writer, an eloquent orator and an unswerving patriot Mr. Davis is remembered by his fellow Marylanders. His early death cut short a career which promised a future of great distinction. John H. B. Latrobe, the friend of Johnson and Davis, was one of those indefatigable men who seem to love all work for work’s sake. As artist, engineer, lawyer, philanthropist, historian and poet, he led a busy life for severity years. He knew the law as few men of his time – which was rich in able lawyers – knew it, and by his brother attorneys he was as much feared as an opponent at the bar as he was loved and respected as a friend. Always interested in public affairs, he was unceasing in his efforts to promote the interests of Baltimore and Maryland. Every project looking toward the advancement of the city or the State met his erithusiastic approval and assistance.
Contemporaneous, in a manner, with the above mentioned men, were John L. Thomas, Jr., George W. Dobbin and Thomas Yates Walsh. The first named, though born in Baltimore, began the study of the law in Cumberland, under the direction of Gen. Thomas J. McKaig. In 1856 he was admitted to the bar and immediately became City Counsellor of Cumberland. Later in the same year he removed to Baltimore, where, with his usual industry and perseverance, he mounted the ladder of his chosen calling and laid the foundation for that eminent public career which was destined to be his in the future. As one of the prosecutors in the famous Clagett murder trial, he had arrayed against him Severn Teakle Wallis and Henry Winter Davis. The young lawyer’s victory made him the hero of the hour, and on many subsequent occasions he strengthened the good opinion then formed of him by his fellow-citizens. Successively he was a member of Congress, City Councellor, State’s Attorney, member of the State Constitutional Convention and Collector of Customs. Always a strong Union man, during the war he endangered his life often by his outspoken utterances. He was of a kindly and gentle disposition, with a sense of humor which in the latter years of his life made him much in demand as a post-prandial orator.
George Washington Dobbin, a gentlemen of the old school, was born in 1809. From the time of his admission to the bar, in 1830, until his elevation to the bench 37 years later, he was a lawyer of the first rank in his native city. Except as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the Constitutional Convention of 1867 he held no other public office, but as a director of many philanthropic and educational institutions and societies, he labored long and earnestly for the betterment of his fellow-men. He was President of the Board of Trustees of the Johns Hopkins University for many years, and took a leading part in the development of that institution. As dean of the Law School of the University of Maryland he wielded an influence which is plainly visible in its results today. Most of the present leaders of the Baltimore Bar were at some time numbered among his pupils.
Thomas Yates Walsh studied law under Robert Goodloe Harper. When a member of Congress he pronounced a eulogy of Henry Clay, a few days after the great statesman’s death, which attracted the attention of the entire country. But it was not as an orator that he is remembered in his native city. Rather it is as a lawyer with whom wit was a weapon wielded in a manner seldom known before or since. He knew the law, however, as well as he knew how to make a joke, and the men who profited by his guidance are today a living monument to his learning.
In the period since the war two names of eminent lawyers who have recently passed away are particularly conspicuous. I. Nevitt Steele and Severn Teakle Wallis represent, in the annals of the present generation that old majesty of unquestioned leadership which characterized Maryland’s legal lights of other days. Their memory, by the many living men who were their friends and disciples, is cherished with far more than ordinary affection. They were great lawyers and noble men.
Except for four years, Mr. Steele, who was born in Cambridge in 1809, devoted his entire life to the law. During the period mentioned he was Charge d’ Affaires of the United States in Venezuela. When a young man he became Deputy Attorney-General, and in many famous criminal cases conducted the prosecution. As a lawyer he was noted for his remarkable power of marshalling facts, his no less remarkable learning and his quiet, convincing oratory. In his day he was the ideal and idol of the younger members of the bar.
Mr. Wallis studied law under the guidance of William Wirt, and the close relationship which their relative positions as master and student brought about, caused the young lawyer to see and admire and imitate the greatness of the elder. Mr. Wallis’ death has been too recent to have allowed even the general public to have forgotten the chief incidents of his career. As statesman, wit, scholar and attorney at the bar he was before his countrymen for forty years, and in all of that time no act of his shed ought but honor upon his name. In an address before the Maryland Historical Society at the time of Mr. Wallis’ death, Judge Charles E. Phelps said:
The death of Mr. Steele placed Mr. Wallis, by universal consent, at the head of the Maryland Bar. With what conscientious labor, both in general and spseial preparation, he rose to that proud eminence; with what luminous and logical method he unfolded his store of learning; with what consummate skill he extorted the truth from the lips of an unwilling witness or marshalled facts in the order of demonstration; with what mastery of the weapons of invective he riddled and crushed falsehood and fraud; and with what graceful and commanding eloquence he captivated courts and jures; all this and much more has been the theme of unstinted eulogy from his surviving professional brethren. But no point has been more unanimously emphasized than his delicate sense of professional and personal honor. So far as mortal vision may penetrate, a cleaner conscience never sought the presence of its maker.
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This, then is a brief record of the past heroes of the Maryland Bar. In times of national calamity, during the revolution, the foreign wars, and the deep laid train of internecine disturbances which culminated in the Civil War, their voices were heard in the councils of the nation and to the extent of their might they lent aid to the cause which met their idea of the right. When their country needed men, they stepped forward, and in the halls of legislation and courts of justice complimented the services of those other Marylanders who gave up their blood and their lives upon the field of battle. In time of peace, likewise, they were leaders, and throughout the history of the United States it is not difficult to trace their handiwork.
What name is more synonymous with integrity than Pinkney’s? What more with unflinching firmness than Taney’s? What more with unfailing patriotism than Chase’s? What more with leadership than Martin’s? Would it not seem strange beyond measure to see or hear the name of Wallis coupled with anything but encomium? Martin, Harper, Chase, Pinkney, Wirt, Taney, Marshall, Meredith, MacMahon, Johnson, Davis, Wallis, Steele, Thomas, Hinkley, and the scores of lesser fame, are the pride today, as they were when they lived, of the nation as well as the State.