Throughout early U.S. history, legal practitioners were the subject of ambivalence on the part of the general public. The attitude against lawyers reached its peak after the Revolutionary War and remained hostile until the beginning of the nineteenth century.
During the early days of the colonies, the system for the administration of justice was based on arbitration and religious principles, and lawyers specially educated and skilled in the law were presumably not needed and were often restricted or prohibited from practicing. Judges were ordinary men who used unpolished methods of questioning to determine the facts of each case; defendants were their own lawyers. This system remained successful as long as the population of each community remained small and manageable, and the people were clear about their rights and obligations to their neighbors and the community.
By the end of the seventeenth century, the colonies experienced a period of growth, and the original judicial system became unsatisfactory. Formal pleading and skilled lawyers began to replace the primitive methods of earlier colonial times.
After the Revolutionary War, Americans sought a new form of jurisprudence to interact with their newly gained freedoms. Laws were less confining, due to the belief that moral fiber was more important to satisfactory conduct than legislation.
During this period, the antilawyer movement gained momentum. Historians speculate that it evolved as a result of former prejudices and conflicts toward the legal profession. Although lawyers in the past had not been viewed favorably, they achieved prominence and esteem as strong proponents of freedom from England during the Revolutionary War. After the war, lawyers were once again an important part of the legal system but were used primarily by the wealthy. As a result, they were often in conflict with those who were poor and could not pay their debts, which led to a resurrection of the old negative attitudes against them.
Lawyers were regarded with suspicion. They were accused of initiating unnecessary lawsuits, impeding the justice system, and prolonging trials to secure additional fees from unsuspecting clients. They were also criticized for the use of legal jargon, causing simple matters to seem complicated.
Despite these attacks, lawyers managed to attain political power. They were regarded as conspirators, however, for people could not accept the idea that lawyers who served as politicians made the laws by which they secured a living as legal practitioners. It was also feared that lawyers, judges, and legislators would band together to control society, depriving the common people of some of their hard-won freedoms. Although the fears were exaggerated, they were true to some degree, for lawyers did earn a living from the ramifications that legislation had upon the general public.
Two remedies were recommended to reconcile the proponents of the antilawyer sentiment and lawyers. The first suggestion was an updated version of the early colonial justice system, which prohibited lawyers from practicing. A judge representing the interests of the community would preside over the court and instruct the jury. Judges were educated aristocrats who could be impeached if their conduct so warranted. If a legal representative was deemed necessary, a friend of the defendant could participate in the arbitration.
The second suggestion provided for a small group of professional lawyers to practice as public servants. Their salaries and actions would be controlled by the state, and their chief function would be to clarify legal principles of each case for the jury.
The conflicting feelings toward lawyers culminated in several incidents, the most noteworthy of which was known as shays's rebellion. The rebellion began in 1786 when Massachusetts voters elected a majority of nonlawyers to the General Court. This action led to a riot, and hostile agrarian mobs overran the courthouses, closing them down. The governor dispatched the state army, which successfully quelled the agitators.
Shays's Rebellion did not stop the people of Massachusetts from electing lawyers to political positions. The very tactics they feared in the courtroom were highly desirable in politics to control government officials; in spite of their conflicting feelings, voters were still attracted to legal skills.
The new methods of justice proved to be inefficient. Arbitration was fruitless, and laymen were fallible as lawyers. By 1790, most cases were again tried by lawyers, and the antilawyer movement began to wane.