The Overlooked Legal Career of Thomas Jefferson

Although many know of Thomas Jefferson’s illustrious career as a founding father and politician in early American life, not many people know of his legal career. Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary, from 1760 to 1762 but he didn’t study law until he was back in Williamsburg in 1763. However, no formal law schools existed at the time. The way to become a lawyer was to apprentice under an established attorney for many years before establishing your own practice. So, Thomas Jefferson studied under George Wythe, a lawyer with whom he become friends with while in college.

After years of apprenticeship, Jefferson’s practice grew rapidly, with his first cases involving the quieting of titles. The quieting of titles was a procedure by which clients assured that their land titles were legitimate, This required Jefferson to research government records to check that the title had been paid for and properly registered. These cases were important because if land had not been properly paid for under Britain’s laws, it would become available for another person to purchase. Jefferson generally assigned this research to others but when actual title challenges occurred, it would be Jefferson himself representing his clients in court. But Jefferson did not consider himself a skilled orator, and preferred to work outside of the courtroom and instead drawn on his strengths as a researcher.

During this time, he became interested in the new frontier opening up in America. For Jefferson, the frontier was essential to his idea of a new republic because it provided men with land to work for themselves and better the nation. In handling land cases, Jefferson witnessed the tension between the interests of wealthy landowners and small landholders. As Jefferson himself moved into the upper echelons of society and politics, he often had to strike a delicate balance between the people he was representing and his own status.

However, he did not become a lawyer for the elites. He became deeply interested in the role of slavery in English law and began to work to reform it. He introduced legislation which allowed masters to take control over the emancipation of slaves, taking this power away from the royal Governor and General Court. He also persuaded his cousin, Richard Bland, to help the legislation’s passage, but overall reaction was negative. He also began to take on cases for freedom-seeking slaves and even waived his fee for one client, who claimed that he should be freed before the statutory age of thirty-one required for emancipation in cases with inter-racial grandparents. He invoked Natural Law to argue, “everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person and using it at his own will … this is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because it is necessary for his own sustenance”. Even though the judge ruled against him, this idea stuck with Jefferson, and would someday become the basis of his argument for the Declaration of Independence.

As the years went on, Jefferson became more and more involved with the politics of the dawning American Revolution and eventually moved into that world completely. His law career left an important mark on his beliefs and later actions. Thus, it should be remembered as important part of his legacy. If not for his days arguing in the courtroom for land rights, slavery reform, and unalienable human rights, we may have never seen the man we know as President of the United States, founding father, and writer of the Declaration of Independence.

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