Author: David T. Konig

professor of history and professor of law at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is co-editor of The Legal Commonplace Book of Thomas Jefferson, forthcoming in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, second series.

Jefferson, Thomas and the Practice of Law

Thomas Jefferson‘s life in the law has been generally overlooked, despite the years he devoted to its practice and the impact it had on the American Revolution (1775–1783) and subsequent generations. Admitted to the Virginia bar in 1765 after more than two years of reading law under the tutelage of George Wythe, Jefferson practiced before the General Court in Williamsburg, specializing in land cases. By the time Edmund Randolph took over his practice in 1774, he had handled more than 900 matters, with clients ranging from common farmers and indentured servants to the most powerful and wealthy of the colony‘s planter elite. In Bolling v. Bolling (1771) and Blair v. Blair (1772) he became involved in the private, often sensational affairs of the gentry, while in Howell v. Netherland (1770) he attempted to win the freedom of a mixed-race man he believed to be illegally bound to servitude. Jefferson was influenced by an English tradition distinguishing between common law—a tradition preserved by courts through precedent—and natural law, or rights ordained by God. In this way, his legal training left its mark on his revolutionary writings, in particular the “Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774) and the Declaration of Independence (1776). Following the Revolution, he used these principles to campaign for legal reform in Virginia, drafting, among many other bills, the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786).