Updated: Nov 10
“Give me a sturdy lad from Vermont or New Hampshire, who has tried it all,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1841 essay on resilience, “who teams it, farms it, peddles it, preaches, keeps a school, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township in that order, and always like a cat falls on his feet.”
“This lad” Emerson said, “is worth a hundred of these city dolls,who want quick enterprise right out of school.This hearty lad walks abreast in his days, no shame for not studying a profession which only postpones life.”
Today, Emerson would be hard pressed to find a person in the US Congress who fits his bill of a resilient person.
Currently, in the 118th Congress there are 131 members of the House and 51 senators who are lawyers. Many eyed a political career fresh from graduation.
Medical doctors, of which there are 17 in Congress, conversely practiced their craft before waving the righteous flag of “elect me.”
This notion of the lawyer turned legislator is steeped in our history. While the Father of our country, George Washington, was a surveyor, seven of his immediate successors were lawyers. A google search shows 27 of our presidents have been lawyers.
Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the 1835 book, Democracy in America, observed that of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 25 were lawyers. And 31 of 55 men in the Continental Congress were lawyers. No other country, he said, has drawn on the legal profession as much as America.
There were 1.3 million lawyers in the U.S.,in 2020, one for every 253 persons.
Is lawyering and higher office particular to one party?
For anyone who does a recent assessment of persons seeking the highest job in the land, there has not been a non-lawyer on the democratic presidential ticket in decades. Jimmy Carter in 1980 was a non-lawyer; Gore, the 2000 presidential candidate, whose father was a lawyer, tried law school but dropped out.
According to Wikipedia, President Joe Biden, now 80, has been in political office since he was 28; a few short years after graduating from law school.
Vice President Kamala Harris, 58, was 30 when she became an elective servant. Chuck Schumer, 72, was 25. President Barack Obama, 62, was 35. Former President Bill Clinton, 77, was 30. And the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt was 29. All lawyers.
The vis vires lawyer to legislator isn’t just a Democratic phenomenon.
Five of the 8 Republican candidates on the debate stage August 23, 2023, Desantis, Hutchinson, Christie, Pence and Ramaswamy were lawyers. All embarked on a political career soon after law school, after a short stop doing this or that.
Other prominent Republican lawyers include Mitch McConnel, now 81, entered politics at 35; Josh Hawley, 45 at 38 and Eric Schmitt, 48 at 34. Tom Cotton,46, the Arkansas senator was in his 30’s.
Richard Nixon, the 37th US President was 33. And Gerald Ford, the 38th US President, was in his 30s. He was the last US Republican president who was a lawyer.
From both sides of the political fence the history books point to the same story, lawyer to legislator. And waste no time doing it.
So why the beef?
If one makes an argument against something, first understand an argument for it. Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, called this perspective taking.
Shouldn’t someone get started early on in a career? One Google search about careers of congresspersons lists politician,and public servant along with lawyer, as the most common work done prior to entering Congress.
Law school offers training in critical thinking skills and an orientation into our adversarial legal system. Since legislators talk, write, and debate, what better training than law?
Like counting jelly beans in a mason jar, it is hard to know for sure how many federal statutes are on the books. Law training though, apprentices one in the construction of law making.
But, an Aristotle passage enlightens as to why the beef against lawyering as an early path to power and prestige. “If one wants to rule, first they must experience being ruled,” he said.
The lawyer who sets out on a political career without much venture into other worlds wishes not to be led but to lead. A kind of hubris occurs with this person. An arrogance that says, I am above being told what to do. I am the teller. The arduous study of law allows me a right to call the shots.
Many lawyers, however, who find their way early to Congress don’t want to leave, even after their hair whitens and they wonder what day it is. They never intended to practice law.
Is an adversarial way of thinking the best training to run a country? Does it teach how to balance a budget or how to form alliances? Does it train one in an accurate world view, or how to listen? Does it teach humility?
In our current state of affairs, we are polarized. Beliefs are strongly held, rarely changed. Each party ostracizes the other. There appears to be no attempt to come together. It seems, the adversarial way promotes separation and a winner takes all mindset.
In 1841 Emerson had an aha moment when he wrote his essay on resilience. Then we were run by a patronage class, little different than today. Emerson was a clergyman and a writer and professor. He understood a good path to leadership is found in the richness of diverse experiences.
Wishful thinking only hopes his essay will find its way into the reading list for anyone who wants to hurry off to be a political careerist.