2.4.5. The Mid-Atlantic States (1865-1900): Key Lawyers and Judges

George Sharswood (Pennsylvania Supreme Court, 1867-1887)

  • Sharswood was born in Philadelphia in 1810.  Throughout his life he was a leader of what was perhaps the most distinguished municipal bar in the United States, one that gave rise to the half-derisive, half-admiring term “Philadelphia lawyer.” 
  • After service as a legislator and a lower-court judge, Sharswood was elected to the Pennsylvania supreme court in 1867 and served there for twenty years.  That period was a relatively quiet one in Pennsylvania’s legal history, and as a result Sharswood had few opportunities to issue opinions of note. 
  • Sharswood’s importance as an educator and treatise writer perhaps exceeded his importance as a judge.  As a young lawyer, he helped found a law academy in Philadelphia in 1836 and he built up the University of Pennsylvania’s law school starting in 1850.  Temperamentally a conservative (for example, he frequently dissented from the court’s decisions liberally applying the state’s civil rights laws), Sharswood published a series of reports of English cases with American notes in order to preserve traditional common law in the United States as much as possible. 
  • In 1859, Sharswood published an edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England, one of the leading treatises used in America during the early 19th century, that ensured  Blackstone’s continuing importance to American law during the last half of the 19th century.  He also authored an Essay on Professional Ethics (1854) which became the foundation for the code of ethics for lawyers that now prevails throughout the United States.  He died in 1887.

Rufus Peckham (New York Court of Appeals, 1886-1896)

  • Peckham was a visible symbol of New York’s growing national influence in the late 19th century.  He was born into a prominent legal family in 1838 and came of age just as new social and political alignments were forming in the state:  rivalries between liberal and conservative Jacksonian Democrats were being replaced by rivalries between Republicans, whose base of power was upstate new York, and Tammany and anti-Tammany Democrats, both based in New York City.  Peckham affiliated with the latter faction and became friends with a like-minded Buffalo lawyer, Grover Cleveland. 
  • Peckham won election to New York’s highest court just as it was beginning to wrestle with legal issues created by New York City’s rise as a great city, including the extent to which it could operate independent of state government and how far it could go in reforming slum housing conditions and other problems of modern urban life.  In 1896 Cleveland, now president of the United States, appointed Peckham to the U.S. Supreme Court where he served until his death in 1909.  
  • Peckham is often stereotyped as an opponent of Progressive-era reforms because he wrote the Supreme Court’s decision in Lochner v. New York (1904) striking down a New York law regulating bakers’ working hours.  Lochner is often cited unfavorably by legal commentators as an example of conservative judges’ willingness to strike down reform laws.  In reality, Peckham’s attitude toward reform was more nuanced.  While on the New York Court of Appeals he wrote the court’s 1895 Trinity Church decision (see section ____), upholding a law requiring tenement owners to provide adequate water

James B. Dill (New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals, 1905-1910)

  • Dill played a central role in making New Jersey a post-Civil War haven for corporations.  His influence was such that he may fairly be labeled the principal founder father of modern American corporation law.
  • Dill was born in 1854.  After completing his legal training, Dill founded a corporate law firm in New York City; he also joined the New Jersey bar and did much of his legal work in that state.  By the mid-1880s, New Jersey officials realized that they could no longer fund state government solely through railroads and they must find new ways to attract corporations to the state.  At the same time, many of Dill’s major corporate clients were complaining that state laws unduly restricted them from consolidating with each other; they believed consolidation was necessary to maximize their efficiency and profits. 
  • Dill recognized the opportunity this confluence of events presented, and he made the most of it.  He authored a series of model corporate laws that made it easy for corporations to consolidate and that encouraged stock swaps, issuance of new debt and other devices to make consolidation financially attractive for investors. 
  • Dill persuaded New Jersey’s governor and legislature to adopt his proposals in a series of laws enacted between 1888 and 1896.  As a result, New Jersey became the home of a number of national corporate trusts, including Dill’s client Standard Oil.  Dill went on to advise many other states interested in making similar changes to their law.  Dill was regarded with suspicion by many in the legal profession, but he viewed his work as a genuine reform measure:  later in his career, he opposed competition among states to cater to corporations and unsuccessfully advocated a national incorporation law.  Dill served briefly on the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals at the end of his life, but his enduring contributions to American law were made as a lawyer.         

George Sharswood (Pennsylvania) - courtesy Wikipedia

Rufus Peckham (New York) - courtesy New York Public Library