Martin, Luther (1748-1826)
Luther Martin (1748-1826)
Lawyer and public official
Early Years. Luther Martin was one of nine children of Benjamin and Hannah Martin. The date of his birth is generally believed to be 20 February 1748. Luther worked on his father’s farm in New Jersey until 1760, when he was sent away to attend the grammar school at Princeton in preparation for his attendance at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Luther set out for Maryland when he graduated in 1766 and began a brief career as a schoolteacher. In April 1767 he was appointed schoolmaster of Queen Anne’s County Free School, with an annual salary of twenty pounds.
Law Student. Martin began to study the law while he was teaching school, reading most evenings in the library of a benefactor and neighbor, Solomon Wright. In 1770 Martin left his position as schoolmaster to study law full-time as an apprentice to Samuel Wilson at Back Creek, Maryland. After only a few weeks of work under Wilson’s tutelage Martin was approached to take on the responsibilities of superintendent of a grammar school in Accomack County, Virginia. He accepted this assignment but continued his legal studies. In September 1771, when he considered his studies complete, Martin presented himself in Williamsburg, Virginia, for oral examination for admission to the bar. His examiners were the esteemed lawyers George Wythe and John Randolph. Martin passed his examination and was admitted to the practice of law.
Attorney General. Martin began his practice on the Virginia frontier in partnership with another young lawyer, Thomas Mason. He soon returned east and in November 1772 set up his practice of law in Maryland. Martin befriended Samuel Chase, a leader of the local Sons of Liberty and an original member of the Maryland Committee on Correspondence. Martin participated in the Revolution as a member of the Baltimore Corps of Light Dragoons. With Chase’s help Martin was appointed Attorney General of Maryland on 11 February 1778. As attorney general he traveled throughout the state pressing claims for property on behalf of the state, prosecuting Loyalists, and handling criminal cases. He quickly became known as a tireless worker with a reputation for diligence and honesty. On Christmas Day in 1783 Martin married Maria Cresap, daughter of the famous frontiersman Capt. Michael Cresap.
Constitution. Martin was an active participant in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He was an especially strong proponent of proportional representation in Congress and fought to prohibit the further importation of slaves. The slave trade, wrote Martin, was “a solemn mockery of and insult to God.” Slavery itself was “inconsistent with the genius of republicanism … as it lessens the sense of the equal rights of mankind and habituates us to tyranny and oppression.” He would later become honorary counselor of the Maryland Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. Ultimately, Martin opposed ratification of the Constitution and became a prominent Anti-Federalist in Maryland. He authored four open letters to the citizens of Maryland in which he addressed his concern that a strong federal government was bound to expand in size and scope and thereby threaten the liberties of all. His voice was a part of the larger national chorus that supported the Constitution as long as it came with a bill of rights.
Jefferson. Martin devoted himself to his legal work as attorney general of Maryland and as a prominent lawyer and was much in demand to argue cases before the Supreme Court. He skirmished with Thomas Jefferson who, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), accused Martin’s father-in-law of atrocities against Native Americans. Martin sought to have Jefferson admit that the accusations were based on rumor and demanded that the Virginian “either justify your publication, or acknowledge your error.” When Jefferson did not reply, Martin complained that Jefferson had “preserved obstinate, stubborn silence.” This would not be the first time that Martin found himself defending the honor of a man against accusations made by Jefferson and his allies.
Chase. When in 1805 Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase found himself impeached by the House of Representatives and on trial in the United States Senate, he turned to his old friend Luther Martin to be part of his defense team. Chase was targeted for removal by Republicans eager to punish a prominent Federalist and regain control over the judiciary. Chase was indeed an intemperate man, given to partisan outbursts from the bench. Whether his conduct rose to the level of an impeachable offense under the Constitution (which required a demonstration of “high crimes and misdemeanors”) was the question presented to the Senate. Martin gave the closing argument on Chase’s behalf. He rose on Saturday, 23 February 1805, and spoke for five hours, challenging Chase’s opponents to demonstrate a single impeachable offense on the justice’s part and arguing that the use of impeachment proceedings against Chase was contrary to the essential American idea of liberty. When Martin completed his argument on the following Monday, he focused on the need to preserve the independence of the judiciary. Martin asked: “Would you really wish your judges, instead of acting from principle, to court only the applause of their auditors? Would you wish them to be the most contemptible of all characters, popular judges, …who look forward to the applause of the rabble?” Martin argued that the independence of the judiciary was an essential component of the preservation of liberty, an important check upon the executive and legislative branches. At the close of the trial the anti-Chase forces could not muster a sufficient number of votes to remove Chase, and Martin could take some satisfaction in helping an old friend and frustrating an old foe.
Burr. Luther Martin referred to the trial of Aaron Burr in 1807 as “a peculiar case.” Even today there is uncertainty over the exact nature of the alleged Burr conspiracy: while some speculate that he was simply on a mission to liberate Mexico, others maintain that Burr plotted to make war upon the United States with the goal of splitting off southern and western states into a new empire under his control. President Thomas Jefferson had no doubt that Burr’s conduct was treasonous, and so informed the Congress. Burr was brought to trial before Chief Justice Marshall in Richmond, Virginia, and the first encounter between the opposing lawyers raised the significant issue of executive privilege. Burr’s defense team wanted certain papers in the possession of the president in order to present their case. Jefferson refused to cooperate, and the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether Jefferson could claim executive privilege and withhold the documents. Martin’s observation of the situation was powerful and poignant: “Would this president of the United States, who has raised all this absurd clamor, pretend to keep back the papers which are wanted for his trial, where life itself is at stake?” Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that Jefferson must produce the requested documents. The long-standing animosity between Martin and Jefferson now broke out in full force. The president suggested that Martin also be tried for “misprision of treason at least” and referred to the Maryland lawyer as an “unprincipled and impudent federal bull dog.” Martin ignored the attack and moved ahead with his defense of Burr. The trial then came to the main question of whether treason could be proved against Aaron Burr. Martin helped present the central question to Marshall: were the charges against Burr sufficient to meet the literal and specific words of the Constitution defining treason? Marshall ruled that they did not, since not one witness was presented by the government to support the claim that Burr participated in a conspiracy to overthrow the government by force of arms.
Final Years. Martin continued to enjoy a busy legal practice and presented many cases before the Supreme Court. While his professional career never lagged, his personal life suffered. His wife Maria died in 1796, and Martin had several children to look after. He was also, for most of his adult life, addicted to alcohol. Stories of Martin’s prodigious drinking habits abound, and the habit took its toll on his health. In 1819 he suffered a severe stroke which left him incapacitated; he never practiced law again. Never a wealthy man, Martin was now virtually impoverished. The Maryland General Assembly enacted a law requiring each lawyer in the state to contribute five dollars annually to a fund for Martin’s use. When Aaron Burr heard of Martin’s condition, he brought him to live with him in New York City. Martin lived with Burr for three years and died on 10 July 1826.
Paul S. Clarkson and R. Samuel Jett, Luther Martin of Maryland (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1970).
Luther Martin was a distinguished lawyer and statesman who played an influential role in U.S. law and politics during the early years of the republic. During most of his legal career, he served as Maryland's attorney general.
Most sources cite Martin's birth as being on February 9, 1748, near New Brunswick, New Jersey. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University) in 1766 and then taught school in Maryland for three years. In 1770, he began studying law and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1771. He established a successful law practice in Maryland and Virginia and became known for his superior legal talents.
"… in a federal government, the parties to the compact are not the people, as individuals, but the States, as States; and … [it is] by the States as States, … that the system of government ought to be ratified, and not by the people, as individuals."
In 1774, Martin entered politics as a member of the Annapolis Convention, which was convened to formulate a list of grievances against the British government. In 1778, he was appointed to be Maryland's first attorney general, a position he would retain for most of the next 40 years. He attended the continental congress in 1785 and the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Martin opposed the idea of a strong federal government, preferring that power reside in the states. Unhappy with the final version of the Constitution, he opposed its ratification.
As an attorney, Martin achieved a prestigious reputation and argued several landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In fletcher v. peck, 10 U.S. (6 Cranch) 87, 3 L. Ed. 162 (1810), the Court for the first time invalidated a state law as contrary to the U.S. Constitution. The Georgia legislature had revoked a land grant that originally had been permitted by a contract. The Court ruled that public grants were contractual obligations and that they could not be abrogated without fair compensation. Chief Justice john marshall based the decision on the Contract Clause of the Constitution (Art. I, Sec. 10, Cl. 1), which provides that no state shall impair the obligations of contract.
Martin also appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court in mcculloch v. maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 4 L. Ed. 579 (1819), where he argued that Maryland had the right to impose a tax on a federally chartered bank. Chief Justice Marshall ruled against Maryland, finding that the state had no authority under the Constitution to tax any agency that has been authorized by the federal government. In Marshall's words, "the power to tax is the power to destroy." Such a power did not comport with the allocation of powers under the Constitution.
Martin also served as counsel in two politically charged cases. In 1804, he successfully
helped to defend U.S. Supreme Court Justice samuel chase against impeachment. Chase, a Federalist judge who had outraged Democrats with several decisions that appeared to be based as much on politics as on law, was acquitted at his Senate trial after Martin convinced senators that the impeachment itself was politically motivated.
In 1807, Martin represented aaron burr, who was accused of treason. Martin argued that the charge was baseless and that it was motivated by President Thomas Jefferson's personal and political dislike of Burr. His indictment of the Jefferson administration helped to convince the jury to acquit Burr.
Martin suffered a stroke in 1820, shortly after arguing McCulloch v. Maryland. Despite his stature and his successful law practice, Martin was insolvent. The Maryland legislature levied a $5 license fee on every attorney to help support Martin. In 1823, Aaron Burr took Martin into his home, where Martin lived for three years. Martin died on July 10, 1826, in New York City.
Hall, Kermit L. 1989. The Magic Mirror. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Luther Martin (1748-1826) was an American lawyer, Revolutionary War patriot, and member of the Constitutional Convention.
Luther Martin was born in Metuchen, N. J., on Feb. 9, 1748. He attended the grammar school of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) and the college itself, graduating in 1766. Moving to Maryland, he taught school and studied law. Admitted to the Virginia bar in 1771 and to the Maryland bar the next year, he practiced in both colonies. Despite his land ownership and lucrative law practice, Martin mismanaged his financial affairs, and was sued for debt as early as 1770.
Martin's personal life was a succession of tragedies. The deaths of two wives left him with three daughters. One daughter became insane and died. Another married against her father's wishes and died a few years later; her son died in early manhood. Martin himself became infatuated with Aaron Burr's daughter, who was already married.
Martin lent his legal talent to the Revolutionary cause. He published defenses of the patriot position and, as Maryland's attorney general during the war, vigorously prosecuted Tories. As a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention, he made prolix, ungrammatical, and often disorganized speeches, that commanded attention and made him a leading spokesman of the states'-rights interests. He insisted on equal representation of the states in Congress, sought to limit the powers of both Congress and the president, and insisted that the Constitution be submitted to the state legislatures for ratification. He refused to sign the finished document and led opposition to its ratification in Maryland.
Martin's political career became a peculiar combination of adherence to the Federalist party and continued defense of states' rights. His federalism stemmed in part from his intense, personal anti-Jeffersonianism, which exploded in public attacks. His hostility to Jefferson was exacerbated by the 1805 impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, Martin's lifelong friend. Martin's arguments helped bring about Chase's acquittal. In 1807 Martin again opposed Jefferson in the famous treason trial of Aaron Burr; Martin's skillful defense aided in getting Burr acquitted.
In two other important cases, Fletcher v. Peck (1810) and McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), Martin argued for states' rights. However, Chief Justice John Marshall's nationalism proved to be more compelling in both instances and, in the process, produced historic Supreme Court decisions enlarging the scope of national jurisdiction.
Though Martin became increasingly intemperate in later years, his popular reputation was attested by the extraordinary action of the Maryland Legislature in levying a license tax on attorneys to create a trust fund for its now destitute former attorney general. Martin died in New York City on July 10, 1826. Universally acknowledged as a distinguished orator and a legal genius in his day, Martin contributed to the nation's legal development.
The only full-length biography is Paul Clarkson and R. Samuel Jett, Luther Martin of Maryland (1970). It is as definitive as the absence of any significant body of Martin papers allows. Martin's legal career is treated briefly in Charles Warren, History of the American Bar (1911; repr. 1966), and his participation in the Chase and Burr trials more fully in Albert J. Beveridge, Life of John Marshall (4 vols., 1916-1919). Martin's role in the Constitution struggle may be traced in Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (4 vols., 1911-1937; rev. ed. 1966). □