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What do John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, F.D.R., Richard Nixon and Barack Obama all have in common? That is, besides being Presidents of the United States? Answer: they were all attorneys by profession before taking office. In fact, more U.S. Presidents have been attorneys by trade than any other profession. In all, 25 of the 44 men to hold the office of President have been lawyers.
Before taking office, many other presidents previously served as soldiers, farmers, businessmen or teachers. However, the large number of presidents who were able to leverage prior legal experience into public service is telling. Having a familiarity with the Constitution and the law would certainly be beneficial for any would-be president, given the preponderance of legislation that crosses the president’s desk. Other important skills they may have acquired as lawyers would likely include public speaking, verbal composition, debating, inductive reasoning, and working in high-stress situations.
JOHN ADAMS AND THE BOSTON MASSACRE CASE
John Adams was able to leverage the prestige garnered y his legal practice into a career in public service. In 1770, he famously defended the British soldiers who had been involved in the Boston Massacre, a controversial incident where panicked soldiers had fired into the crowd while being attacked by an angry mob.
Despite his dislike of many policies enacted in the Colonies by the British government, Adams felt that it would be unfair for the soldiers to be convicted solely on anti-British sentiment. He believed the soldiers had acted in self-defense and defended them passionately. He and his legal practice gained great exposure when the majority of his clients were acquitted, especially given the highly-charged political climate of the time. He would later go on to serve as a prominent member of the Continental Congress, Vice President under President Washington, and eventually as the 2nd President of the United States.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE MISSING MURDER VICTIM
Abraham Lincoln was another future president with extensive legal experience. Prior to serving as the 16th President, Lincoln practiced law in Springfield, Illinois, where he represented a variety of different clients. In 1841, he served as a defense attorney in the bizarre Trailor brothers’ murder trial.
Three brothers, William, Henry, and Archibald Trailor, stood accused of the murder of their friend, a Mr. Fisher, who had gone missing after travelling in company with the brothers. It was assumed that one or more of them must have had a hand in his disappearance and, presumably, his demise. Efforts had been made to track down the missing man, but no one had been able to locate him, either dead or alive. The brothers were arrested and interrogated, but continued to protest their innocence.
At last, Henry Trailor broke under the pressure and confessed that his two brothers had murdered Mr. Fisher without his knowledge, and then compelled him to act as their lookout while they buried the corpse in the woods. Henry Trailor continued to reaffirm his story, even after vigorous cross-examination by Lincoln and other attorneys, as well as opposing testimony from a doctor who claimed he had seen Mr. Fisher in good health sometime after the brothers were arrested.
Investigators were able to trace the tracks of the Trailor brothers’ horse and buggy to the woods, but were unable to recover the body. Eventually, the case reached an uproarious climax when Mr. Fisher was brought to the courtroom alive and well. The doctor had indeed seen Mr. Fisher – he had apparently just wandered off on his own, not realizing that he would be presumed to have died. The charges against the three brothers were summarily dismissed, but no one could explain Henry Trailor’s detailed testimony against his brothers.
President Lincoln would later recall, “thus ended this strange affair; and while it is readily conceived that a writer of novels could bring a story to a more perfect climax, it may well be doubted whether a stranger affair ever really occurred. Much of the matter remains in mystery to this day… It is not the object of the writer of this to enter into the many curious speculations that might be indulged upon the facts of this narrative; yet he can scarcely forbear a remark upon what would, almost certainly have been the fate of William and Archibald, had Fisher not been found alive.”
The manifold experiences of Adams, Lincoln, and other future presidents in the legal profession certainly had a profound impact on their lives, and may have helped to shape them into the eminent statesmen that they became. They gained valuable experience in public service that prepared them to later serve their country. Celebrate Presidents Day on February 19th with a greater understanding of the kind of experiences it took to prepare these remarkable men for public office.
(If you like, you can also treat yourself to a nice piece of cake to celebrate the birthdays of four presidents this month: Ronald Reagan’s is on the 6th, William Henry Harrison’s is the 9th, Lincoln’s is the 12th and George Washington’s is the 22nd. Just don’t blame them for making you break your New Year’s Resolution quite so soon.)
The attorneys at Gillespie, Shields, Goldfarb & Taylor are experts in family, business and employment law. They are a fixture of the community and serve the Phoenix and Mesa areas.
In case you were wondering, here is the full list of presidents who were lawyers: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.