Due respect to our founders & to ourselves

Paying due respect to John Adams, Esq. , the founder now coming to life in a teleseries, Adam rues the absence today of more than a “lucky few” capable of “deep political, philosophical, and legal argument.”  An HBO subscription’s outside my monthly budget; nonetheless, I’ve listened to the David McCullough book on which the series is based, to the Ron Chernow work on Alexander Hamilton that Adam also cites, to a work on Thomas Jefferson, on whom Orin chimes in , and to a number of other founders’ biographies.  Thus I add to their thoughts my own “modest contribution.”

It’s an understatement to say that the achievements of these fellows were awe-some, in the deep meaning of that word.  In so doing, however, we ought not to discount our generation of attorneys.  Many of us came to law school broadly schooled in the arts and sciences of human endeavors like politics, literature, logic, biology.  Perhaps it is only a lucky few of us who’ve studied Latin, as the founders typically did.  (I thank my father for my own good luck in that regard.)  But many of us have far more than a passing acquaintance with still-spoken languages other than English – and that is more, McCullough’s book revealed, than Tout Paris would’ve said of John Adams or, for that matter, of Ben Franklin.

So why the dearth of depth in legal argument and practice?

Surely some blame may be cast on contemporary legal culture.  1st, there’s the way that we learn and practice.  Endeavoring to extract precise “holdings,” law today tends not to privilege deep thoughts that may lie in the text, subtext, or context of prolix judgments.  That, in turn, tends to give little cause for consulting any dog-eared schoolbook we might’ve carted with us from one move to another.  2d, as Adam notes, there’s the time that we’re expected to devote to this narrower-scoped legal practice.  Electronic gadgets have made our work truly 24/7.  It’s hard to keep up on Aeschylus – check out Robert F. Kennedy’s off-the-cuff quote of that ancient Greek the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed – when the BlackBerry’s beeping.

But let’s not forget some important caveats.  1st, Adams, Hamilton et al. were the “lucky few” of their times; far more early Americans lived out lives of far less achievement.  2d, many of these men owed to others their leisure to think as well as act, to pen prose even as they practiced law.  John Adams owed much to Abigail Adams , who, McCullough wrote, well managed the farm and household in Braintree in order that her husband might focus his energies elsewhere; in turn, all the Adamses owed much to domestic servants.  Abigail’s father kept slaves, and of course slaves were forced laborers on the lands of many other founders.  Theirs was an economic arrangement this country did well to abandon.

Even as we hold our founders’ achievements in awe, then, we must remember their full, complex, and not always laudable stories.  And we should not sell ourselves short.  Sure, we should make more use of our own breadth and depth of knowledge.  At the same time, we should take much comfort in the rich diversity, in class, sex, age, ancestry, and experience, of all of us who today think about, write on, and practice the law.