Category Archives: 19th Century NC lawyers

Bill before Congress now to make lynchings a federal crime started in Tarboro 120 years ago

George Henry White

There’s a bill before Congress now that would, for the first time in American history, make lynching a federal hate-crime. The bill has passed the House by a vote of 410 to 4. In the Senate, ninety-nine senators favor it, but a senator from Kentucky is blocking unanimous consent for immediate enactment. It’s an emotional issue at the center of national affairs in a time of crisis. 

If the bill is enacted, it would be the first federal anti-lynching law. But it is not the first anti-lynching bill. 

The first anti-lynching bill was introduced in Congress on January 20,1900, by Representative George Henry White of Tarboro, North Carolina. 

White’s home is just a few blocks off Main Street at about St. Patrick and Granville Streets. You could say that’s where today’s anti-lynching legislation began.

You could say it started on Granville Street.

 

The Mystery of Albion Tourgée and Bennett College

Albion Tourgée

Multiple biographies and profiles recite that Albion Tourgée was a founder of Bennett College. That’s the tradition. Wikipedia says it’s so.

He lived almost next door.

BUT nobody can cite a primary source and he is not named in the original charter issued by the General Assembly. (Wait, is Wikipedia a primary source?)

I bet that the first one to find a primary source will get a free Bennett T-shirt or cap. Shoot, I’ll get you one.

 

On the road with Albion Tourgée and George Henry White at Bennett College

MidLaw spoke to the East Greensboro Rotary Club this morning. They convene at 7:30 AM in Jones Hall on the campus of Bennett College (they have one handsome dining hall in there but they do gather at an early hour).

Compared and contrasted the careers of Albion Tourgée and George Henry White. That is a very cool topic, but you gotta be a member of the East Greensboro Rotary Club to know why.

(Tourgée was a founder of Bennett College, draftsman of the Education Clause in NC’s 1868 Constitution among many other things. For comparison’s sake, White secured the charter of Livingston College. But that’s not what the talk was about.)

Bright long-term future of the right lawyers and mid-sized firms affirmed by tech guru

Kai-fu Lee, leading artificial intelligence exponent, makes the following observation about lawyers and artificial intelligence. He’s in line with MidLaw’s dogged confidence in the prospects of lawyers who focus on core (indeed, 19th Century) lawyer skills and MidLaw’s confidence in the mid-sized law firms that provide the best setting left for cultivating those skills. 

Top lawyers will have nothing to worry about when it comes to job displacement. Reasoning across domains, winning the trust of clients, applying years of experience in the courtroom, and having the ability to persuade a jury are all examples of the cognitive complexities, strategies, and modes of human interaction that are beyond the capabilities of AI. However, a lot of paralegal and preparatory work like document review, analysis, creating contracts, handling small cases, packing cases, and coming up with recommendations can be done much better and more efficiently with AI. The costs of law make it worthwhile for AI companies to go after AI paralegals and AI junior lawyers, but not top lawyers.

10 Jobs That Are Safe in an AI World

MidLaw has been saying so:

On the demise of checks and checking, and a “pleasantly remunerative” law practice

More than half of the branches of the largest banks in Sweden don’t keep cash and won’t take cash or checks anymore. Churches, charities, and even homeless street vendors prefer swipe cards or cell phone payments to cash. So do the major retailers worldwide. In Africa and India, most commercial payments move by cell phone. Cash and checks are too expensive, too risky, and too much trouble.

The point when cash and checks will be finished is in sight.

So this is a moment for MidLaw.

There was a time when MidLaw made a tidy practice in negotiable instruments law as an attorney and also as an expert witness. It was a nice practice – just narrow enough to require a quasi-specialist but nonetheless broad enough to keep a steady stream of legal questions and controversies coming in. And it entailed enough money both to keep rogues looking for new angles and also to justify paying lawyers to sort things out.

But the rogue community these days seems to be moving on to email, telephone scams, and the like. Those check scams that are left seem to focus on fake checks and counterfeits, and they just don’t seem to require lawyers so much anymore.

Well, the good old law of paper payments has a long and colorful history and MidLaw hates to see it go. It occupies not one, but two, articles (chapters) in the Uniform Commercial Code. There’s an extensive criminal law of worthless checks, forgeries, counterfeits, and kiting. Can a negotiable order to pay be written on the back of a cow? Can you serve as an intermediary to help the late royal family of Nigeria negotiate a certified instrument? (They said they were royal, anyway.) There’s a well-developed body of precedents about these things. In short — and I am serious: the law of negotiable instruments is a monumental and elegant achievement of Anglo-American jurisprudence.

But now as payments in cash and checks decline and fewer matters arise, MidLaw is mindful of the thoughts of that long-ago lawyer in Bartleby, the Scrivener, who had a practice as a Master in Chancery on Wall Street in the early 19thCentury. He said,

The good old office, now extinct in the State of New York, of a Master in Chancery, had been conferred upon me. It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative. I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages; but I must be permitted to be rash here and declare, that I consider the sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution, as a premature act inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease of the profits, whereas I only received those of a few short years.

Similarly, modern-day negotiable instruments lawyers can hardly indulge in indignation at the substitution of electronic payments for paper instruments, and they can hardly label it an outrage, but they might be excused a certain regret in noting the passing of this once pleasantly remunerative area of practice.

Blockchain, Bartleby, and real property lawyers

Bartleby, The Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street, by Herman Melville.

It was published in 1835, but it is uncannily contemporary. Uncanny: Bartleby is a direct comment on the application of blockchain to the practice of law in the 21st Century – coming from a guy otherwise best known for his study of albino whales and certain broader aspects of the whaling industry in the 18th Century.

The book is an almost perfect thing for a holiday weekend. It is free. Published in 1835, you can download it at no charge. It is short. And it is written in an engaging style. It is funny.

Withal, you can still feel a sense of accomplishment from reading it. It’s said to be “the most noted of American short stories.” It’s among the most interpreted, commented upon, and alluded to stories ever. The Economist magazine maintains a blog named Bartleby. Bartleby.com is a major Internet repository of classic texts. The character, Bartleby, is a stereotype, a trope even. So, it’s good to know what’s behind all that.

Bartleby has become a mental model, a way of understanding the world.

And – 200 years down the road – it has become impossible to conclude that, with Bartleby, Melville was not commenting on the application of artificial intelligence to law practice – with precision and humor.

The story is told by a Wall Street real property lawyer, who describes himself as:

a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man.

The lawyer’s snug retreat has been threatened by changes in the marketplace and profession, and by accompanying changes in the law and legal system:

The good old office, now extinct in the State of New York, of a Master in Chancery, had been conferred upon me. It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative. I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages; but I must be permitted to be rash here and declare, that I consider the sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution, as a—premature act;inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease of the profits, whereas I only received those of a few short years.

But, for the moment, the lawyer is experiencing an upswing in his business, and he needs to hire a fourth “legal copyist” or scrivener. Scriveners were 19th Century word processors. (Note for younger readers: until the late-Twentieth Century, word processors were human beings.)

So the lawyer hires a scrivener, Bartleby, who had lost his job as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office of the postal system due to a change in administration. Thereby hangs Melville’s tale of a man who copied legal documents, word-by-word and by hand, for his living.

Today, in the 21st Century, scriveners have been entirely replaced by small machines. Lawyers today – at least those in search of a snug retreat – are now the ones being re-ordered, if not largely eliminated, by changes in the law and by the advance of blockchain, artificial intelligence, and their supporting technologies, also delivered by small machines.

It’s hard to see how Bartley is not commenting on all that – although as Bartleby says, “I’d prefer not to.”

Possibly, the story is also a comment on contemporary politics. That’s for others to say. I’d prefer not.

An odd bit of verse with an odd provenance about notable NC lawyers in the 19th Century

An odd little book found recently in a used bookstore (The Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville), recites the following odd verse, which is attributed to Tarboro’s John L. Bridgers (see below). It features three leading lawyers of 19th Century North Carolina: Bartholomew F. Moore, Judge Robert Strange, Jr., and William A. Wright. All three are figures worth knowing about (see below), but this piece of doggerel about them is its own reward:

Messieurs Moore, Strange and Wright

Met to drink and good cheer to exchange

Said Moore, ‘of us three

The whole town will agree

There’s only one knave, and that’s Strange.”

Said Strange, rather sore,

‘I’m sure there’s one Moore –

A terrible knave and a bite,

Who cheated his mother,

His sister and brother.’

‘Oh, yes,” replied Moore, ‘that’s Wright.’

The book from which this comes is Law Tales for Laymen, written by Joseph Lacy Seawell and published in 1925. Seawell was the Clerk of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Seawell attributes the verse to “John L. Bridgers”. (He says Bridgers “tells” it, not that he “wrote” it.) There were two John L. Bridgers (John and John Jr.).  Both were prominent lawyers, farmers, and businessmen from Tarboro. The elder Bridgers died in 1884. He had commanded the Edgecombe Guards and Fort Macon in the Civil War. His son, John L. Bridgers, Jr., was a local judge and an author of The History of Edgecombe County. He died in 1932. Jr. seems the more likely source of the verse.

Bartholomew Moore was one of that extraordinary line of lawyers who emerged along the Edgecombe-Nash County line. He was among the most distinguished North Carolina lawyers in the 19th Century. Famously, he represented Will in State v. Will, a landmark judicial opinion which arose from Edgecombe County and was a major step forward in establishing the legal rights of enslaved people. Moore strenuously opposed the Civil War and refused to appear in Confederate courts, which required an oath of allegiance. Even so, he remained a prominent and highly respected member of the North Carolina Bar throughout the War and afterward.

Robert Strange, Jr., from Fayetteville, was a lawyer, a superior court judge and a United States senator. He wrote Eoneguski, or the Cherokee Chief, which is said to be the first novel set in North Carolina.

About William A. Wright, a superficial Internet search finds no references, which is Strange, but which permits MidLaw to say nothing Moore, and that’s alWright.

 

“Blast the prejudice that puts women down as only fit to be men’s playthings!”

We are at a cultural moment.

Sexual boundaries seem to be the “acutest issue” of the moment.

These are not new questions to North Carolina. This moment is not the first.

In Greensboro in 1878, Quaker editor David Swaim thundered in Greensboro’s leading newspaper: “Blast the prejudice that puts women down as only fit to be men’s playthings!”

His conservative counterpart, former Supreme Court Justice and founder of the UNC Law School, William Horn Battle rejoined: “No Southern lady should be permitted to sully her sweetness by breathing the pestiferous air of the courtroom.”

They were arguing about whether women should be permitted to practice law.

The issue was joined in Greensboro and taken to Raleigh. Leading North Carolina legal figures of the day took up the question: Albion Tourgée, William Horn Battle, Richmond Mumford Pearson.

It is the story of Jamestown native Tabitha Holton who became the first woman lawyer in the South.

A circular published when Holton died proclaimed:

The power of thy genius has broken the iron bands of brutality which had been rivited [sic] for ages upon thy sex. No more can the barbed shaft of prejudice and envy reach thee in thy eternal repose.

First in all the Sunny South to claim, and obtain, the full rights of womanhood

Tabitha Holton’s story is fabulized here. Her victory, which upset the custom and practice of centuries, was, in the end, based on merit. Opposition based on her status as a woman failed to stand against her unquestioned merit as a lawyer.

 

Hot new book from crackerjack Guilford College novelist

Greensboro author and ace Guilford College professor, Mylène Dressler, who is the Director of Guilford’s Sherwood Anderson Creative Writing Scholarship Progam, has a new book out. The Last to See Me. It’s a good one, a ghost story.

Ghosts, one of her characters says, are

[l]ike those waves out there hitting on the beach. Again and again and again. Unsettled souls are like that. They don’t release emotion the way that we do. If they did, we’d have to say they were still living. We can try to imagine what they’re feeling, but we can’t really do it. Because they are what they are, and we are what we are. The charge isn’t life. The charge is all that’s left.

Professor Dressler says that her book is about “work, class, and justice, and what it means to be visible or invisible in history.”

The story is set on the West Coast and it is indeed about justice and class, and unreleased emotion, and invisibility in history. But those are themes that are not limited to the West Coast. They come up in almost every place where there’s a past. In M. Dressler’s telling though, there’s also this woman whose face is gone from being underground.

It pops at the end. (The story, not the face.)

I got me a copy of The Last to See Me. You should too.

Landmark court opinion defining rights of enslaved people arose in Edgecombe County

In 1834, on a plantation in Edgecombe County, a slave named Will refused to share a hoe he had made with his own hands, an act of defiance that got him shot in the back by his white overseer. As he lay wounded, Will reached up and fatally slashed his attacker on the hip and the arm, earning himself a trip to the gallows.

Josh Shaffer, The News & Observer, June 8, 2017

The upshot was a landmark decision of the North Carolina Supreme Court that was a major step forward in the ongoing definition of the status and rights of enslaved people.

Will was sentenced to death in the Edgecombe County Superior Court, Judge Donnell presiding, but plantation owner James S. Battle became convinced that Will had acted in self-defense and so he hired Bartholomew F. Moore to represent Will on appeal. In an opinion written by Justice William Gaston, the Supreme Court reversed Will’s conviction — holding that, if a free man was entitled to the defense of self-defense or to a lesser charge of manslaughter, then the same analysis should apply to an enslaved person. This was a step forward. It moved away from Justice Thomas Ruffin‘s earlier opinion in State v. Mann, in which Ruffin seated his reasoning on the nature of slavery, while Justice Gaston, four years later, focused on Will’s humanity, not his legal status as property.

Will’s case is recognized as a landmark. And so, on June 10, 2017, a historical marker is erected where his case began, at 275 New Hope Church Road in Battleboro, North Carolina.