[Two Letters by Continental Congressman and Federal Judge Richard Peters concerning the U.S. Supreme Court, the early Career of English Law Reformer and Lord Chief Justice William Murray, and General Lafayette, and with news of Industrial Development in Philadelphia].
1820s Letters by Richard Peters of Philadelphia, Continental Congressman & U. S. District Court Judge, on Jurist William Murray and the U. S. Supreme Court.
Two letters concerning law and the judiciary by Founding Father Richard Peters (1744–1828) of Philadelphia, lawyer, Continental Congressman, and U. S. District Court Judge. Richard Peters here illumines the career of a distinguished 18th century jurist and offers his views on the Justices of the United States Supreme Court.
The first letter, an 1823 letter to a newspaper editor by Richard Peters, recounts in detail how his father, William Peters (1702–1786), was the first person “...who enabled Mr. Murray [later Lord Chief Justice William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield] signally to develop his astonishing powers at the British Bar.” In the 18th century, William Murray rose to fame as an important reformer of English law and the judiciary.
Before emigrating to Philadelphia prior to 1739, William Peters practiced law in Lancashire, England. He was instrumental in helping a widow to secure legal representation by the young Murray. Richard Peters describes to the newspaper editor, Mr. R. Walsh, the case that helped propel William Murray to a stellar legal career:
Mr. Editor, In one of your papers, there is a sketch of the character & biography of the celebrated Lord Mansfield. Most undoubtedly he was conspicuously preeminent in professional talents at the Bar; & judicial qualifications on the Bench. He was a Star of the first magnitude, in the british juridical firmament. His early appearance at the british bar, was accelerated by a merely accidental circumstance.
... My father was the first person, as he always understood and believed, who enabled Mr. Murray signally to develop his astonishing powers, at the british bar. My father was placed by my Grandfather, (who was a Barrister practicing in the courts of Lancashire,) under the tuition of an eminent Attorney. A Widow was sued, in one of the courts, & the cause came on to tryal [sic], at a time when several courts were sitting; by an Attorney; for the amount of an extravagant & oppressive bill of costs. The Law of Costs is dry & intricate; insomuch that it is not generally studied, or correctly understood, even by old & eminent Counsel. The cause of the widow was peremptorily ordered on by the Judge, (whose name I forget,) who was one of high legal character. My father was left, by the Attorney, in charge of the suit; & was greatly embarrassed by the absence of her counsel, who was engaged in a trial in another court. He had seen, several times, a trim & well dressed Barrister coursing the Lobbies of the Courts of the Duchy [of Lancaster], unemployed. It struck him, as a kind of forlorn hope, that he had better take any counsel to assist the widow, than leave her entirely inops concilii [inops consilii], at the mercy of her oppressors. He took the brief in his hand, hastily & accosted the peripatetic Barrister; stating to him the urgency of the occasion. A fee, much under one required by known & eminent counsel, was accepted: and the fortuitously engaged advocate turned out to be Mr. Murray. He went within the Bar; & was indulged with a short time to read the Brief. Nothing was expected from him but some common-place observations. But he soon attracted the rivetted [sic] attention, & fixed the silent admiration, of the audience. He excited the utter surprise of the old Judge; who leaned on the cushion before him, in rapturous astonishment. His acquaintance with the law of costs, was most unexpectedly & learnedly accurate. But the theme for elocution;— a poor widow—oppressed by a legal Harpy;—gave so ample of scope to the pathetic display of his oratorical powers; & the subject of his refined, but stinging, sarcasms, was so completely dissected; that court—bar—& audience, were lost in undescribable admiration. He was successful in his cause; & told my father he would have given twice the amount of the fee had delicacy permitted, to be retained in that or any other cause; especially in one affording him the opportunity of defeating injustice & oppression. I think the fee was returned to the widow. He never again came down to that Circuit; having been promptly thereafter fully engaged in the courts in Westminster Hall [London].
I do not recollect all the circumstances. For much more than half a century has passed away, since I heard my father relate the occurrence. It always affected him so forcibly, that I have been amused with his irresistibly renewing the sensations he felt on the memorable occasion. ... Being, perhaps, the only person now living, acquainted with the Anecdote; I have deemed it of curious import, to relate my recollections of the account of it, given by one of the parties concerned in the transaction.
It appears that this letter to the editor by Richard Peters was not published in his lifetime. On the back it is docketed by Peters “March 1823. Intended letter to Mr. Walsh.—giving an Acct of my father having first employed Murray—L[ord] Mansfield.” Below this, however, in pencil, is the inscription “Now[?] published R Peters Mar 27, 1829.”
The second letter, an 1825 letter by U. S. District Court Judge Richard Peters to Congressman Samuel Breck (1771–1862), discusses proposed changes to the federal judiciary affecting the practices of the Justices of the U. S. Supreme Court. Peters, himself U. S. District Court judge, asks Congressman Breck about several bills before Congress:
I perceive you have in progress some judiciary arrangements. What they exactly are, I know not. One I understand is to alter the Circuit Courts, so as to relieve the Supreme Court Judges from that part of their present duty, by placing District Judges in the Circuit Court alone to perform services to which all of them (myself included) are not competent; even if their remuneration adequate. — a circumstance, in the present economical times, not likely to occur. If this bill should be passed, as that for the division of this district [Pennsylvania] had been, at the close of a session; it will be much to be deplored. A new court like that in Mr. Adam’s administration will not I presume be palatable; & one with none but district Judges in our commercial States, will be oppressive on those Judges, & lamentably inefficient. The Supreme Court Judges visiting every part of the Union, has a wonderful tendency to reconcile the people to their decisions, & to them personally. They gain a knowledge of all local customs & laws and practices of States, which they carry into their ultimate tribunal; & are the better fitted to oppose prejudices or to heal misunderstandings. Remove them entirely from the view of the different sections of our country, & let them sit only at Washington, & they will be considered a sort of Divan [an Islamic governmental body] unknown to & unseen by those on whom their decisions are to operate. If however any measure is resolved upon all reasoning about it by me is vain. I should be much obliged by a copy of the Bill, that I may prepare myself accordingly.
There is also another Bill relating to monies in Courts, & in the hands of Clerks, Marshals &c. of which I should like to be furnished with a copy. On my taking on me my present office, I entered a rule which has never been departed from, that all monies brought into the custody of the court should be deposited Bank, & no check drawn, but one ordered judicially and entered on the Docket. ... In Mr. Walcott’s [U. S. Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr.] time he would have the Marshal pay the monies of the U. S. immediately to the Treasury,—to save a small fee to the Clark. By this penny wise arrangement 40 or 50,000 $ were lost to the U. S., by an opposition to my salutary rule; of which repentance came to the Lords of the Treasury too late. I am certain that no monies have ever been lost with the rules had been complied with.
Further, Peters also writes about a tribute to General Lafayette, the engraving of diplomas for Philadelphia’s Blockley and Merion Society, and news of industrial development at Philadelphia’s waterworks on the Schuylkill River:
Our Philadelphia Agricultural Society have directed me to transmit an Address to our friend Lafayette; which I drew up currente calamo [without reflection]; on a subject worn threadbare. His various & uncommon merits, however, rife in our estimation even by repetition; & the more they are contemplated the more highly they are appreciated. I did not know how more appropriately it could be conveyed to him, than thro’ you as one of our members, & the son of his old & early friend [Samuel Breck (Sr.)] Get him to send some civil & kind answer; (& of such he is perfectly master,) as it will be grateful to our superannuated society; which is now overwhelmed by modern associations, too numerous & brilliant to be outshone I believe, however, that it is the first time he has been addressed as a Farmer, in any formal stile [sic]. I chose to have it done at an annual meeting, which generally consists of the greatest numbers; and I followed the old adage “better late than never.” I hope it may not appear like the story which occurred at a british review. The firing in line was disgraced by an awkward soldier, who generally fired his piece after the whole (himself excepted) had neatly performed the duty. The Major of his regiment was distressed & enraged. He apologized to the reviewing General, & threatened vengeance on the delinquent; informing the General, that the Fellow had been a Parish Clerk; & habitually pursued his old practices, whereby he disgraced the regiment with his d—‘d Amen Shots.
... Our region is infected with the rabies opificiendi et navigandi. Monstrous enterprizes at Norristown [Pennsylvania], & at the [Philadelphia] Waterworks, are talked of. At the latter place, there is too big a second Waltham [Massachusetts] erected by a Boston Company;—if the water power can be procured. A tow path along the west bank of the Schuylkill [River] is resolved on: to the no small annoyance of Mr. Breck & his neighbor Rundle. My son Richard is bitten by this Tarantula. He wishes me to buy out lots on the shore of my Belmont Farm, as well as at the Mantua Village plat, just at the entrance of the Canal. But, except that our Church would be in demand for a Storehouse, I have had no [indistinct] prospects on this subject. Having lived a long & variegated life, it is too late in the day for me to be overwhelmingly zealous. ... Last evening I attended our Blockley & Merion Society [of which Peters was President]. The members have become desirous of having diplomas. They have thrown the procuring them on me. I expected to find two or three of my foreign complimentary diplomas, which I left with our Librarian for your choice of some simple ornaments. He says you have them. Could you direct Mrs. B. where to find them? I must be at the [U. S.] Mint in a few days to perform my annual duty; & I wish to consult our Engraver how soon & how cheap we can accomplish this long protracted object.
Two excellent letters by Founding Father and federal jurist Richard Peters concerning the law and offering a unique insight into legal history; one with his very scarce free frank.
Description: [Two Letters by Continental Congressman and Federal Judge Richard Peters concerning the U.S. Supreme Court, the early Career of English Law Reformer and Lord Chief Justice William Murray, and General Lafayette, and with news of Industrial Development in Philadelphia].
Belmont [Philadelphia], March 1823 and 30th January 1825. pp. in all. Two Autograph Letters Signed. 9¾ x 7¾ inches. Bifoliums with integral address leaves; one with postal cancellation and free frank; one with a strip of paper mounted along the folding edge, possibly a binding stub. Folds; one letter with loss at wax seal not affecting text; very good.
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