Field, David Dudley (1805-1894) and Stephen Johnson Field (1816-1899)

views updated May 14 2018

David Dudley Field (1805-1894) and Stephen Johnson Field (1816-1899)


Brothers of bar and bench

Family of Achievers. The eight sons and two daughters of Congregationalist minister David Dudley Field and Submit Dickinson Field constituted one of the most remarkable families of the mid nineteenth century. Cyrus Field became an entrepreneur best remembered for successfully promoting the Atlantic telegraph cable; Henry Martyn Field became a popular author of travel books; Jonathan Edwards Field served several terms as president of the Massachusetts state senate; Emilia Fields was the mother of David J. Brewer, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The first child in this extraordinary group, named for his father, was born in Haddam, Connecticut, in 1805; his brother Stephen followed eleven years later, shortly before the family moved from Haddam to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Both attended Williams College, one of the academic centers of New England religious orthodoxy.

Politics and Legal Codification. David Dudley Field entered the practice of law in New York in 1828. He aspired to a political career as a Jacksonian Democrat, but his personality did not lend itself to working within a party or appealing to voters. Field would eventually join the Free Soil movement and later the Republican Party, strongly supporting Lincolns 1860 campaign for the presidential nomination against the New Yorker William H. Seward. By that time, however, he had won fame as the foremost proponent of the codification of law. The codification movement argued that judge-made common law was not consistent with American principles and should be replaced by legislatively enacted codes of law. A code, Field maintained, was the necessary complement of a written constitution for a free people. In 1847 the New York State Assembly appointed him to a commission to study the reform of courtroom procedures. Field took charge of the committee and produced the Field Code for procedure in civil cases, which New York adopted in 1848 and twenty-four states and territories had imitated by 1873. He also proposed a code for procedure in criminal cases in 1848, and although the New York legislature did not enact it, eleven states did in the next twenty-five years.

A Western Road. Stephen J. Field followed the professional and political lead of his brother, completing his training for the bar in the office of President Martin Van Burens son John, known in New York politics as the Prince. Stephen then became his brothers partner for seven years, although by the end of that period David Dudley Field was devoting much of his time to the codification movement. Stephen struck out in a different direction, joining the California Gold Rush of 1849. He soon focused not on mining but on real estate speculation, law practice, and the government offices that he helped to set up. He was elected to the California state legislature in 1850 and to the state supreme court in 1857. His climb along the rough-and-tumble western path to prominence made for one of the most colorful backgrounds in the history of the American bench. He was disbarred twice; he accepted two challenges to duels (from which his adversaries retreated); and his bodyguard shot to death a judge who seemed likely to make good on a threat to kill Field. A strong Democrat, he met the federal need for a judge with expertise in the specialized legal field of mining claims. When Congress created a federal judicial circuit in California and added a seat on the Supreme Court in 1863, Lincoln appointed Field to the positions.

Reconstruction. During his first few years on the Supreme Court, one of the advocates whom Justice Stephen Field often saw in the most important political cases was his brother. Reverting to his Democratic allegiances when the Republican Congress began to take energetic measures to transform the South, David Dudley Field joined a distinguished legal team that attacked the constitutionality of Radical Reconstruction. Other lawyers contributing to this effort included former attorney general Reverdy Johnson; former postmaster general Montgomery Blair; and Jeremiah S. Black, who had served as chief justice of Pennsylvania, U.S. attorney general, and secretary of state. Field appeared in several major Reconstruction cases. In Ex Parte Milligan (1866) his group successfully argued that the Constitution prohibited trials by military commissions in areas outside of an active war zone. In Cummings v. Missouri (1867) they secured invalidation of a provision in the Missouri constitution that barred former Confederates from public life. Ex Parte McCardle (1869) was a broad attack on the Reconstruction Act of 1867 based on the denial of a writ of habeas corpus for a Mississippi advocate of resistance to Reconstruction. After the Supreme Court heard arguments but before it announced a decision, Congress forestalled the case by requiring all pending and future appeals from denial of the writ of habeas corpus to work their way through the lower federal courts before reaching the Supreme Court. Field made another major constitutional argument in United States v. Cruikshank (1876), representing one of three white Louisianans convicted under the Civil Rights Enforcement Act of 1870 after the Colfax Massacre of 13 April 1873, in which more than one hundred blacks were killed. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction, concluding that murder was a matter for state authoritieseven if it was mass murder with racial and political motives. In United States v. Reese (1876) the Supreme Court found for another of Fields clients on similar grounds, invalidating two sections of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act in a decision which foreshadowed the conclusion that the civil rights laws could only regulate state action, not private conduct.

Wall Street Wars. Field was the central attorney in another of the great legal dramas of the mid nineteenth century, the financial battles between his clients Jay Gould and Jim Fisk and rival railroad promoter Cornelius Vanderbilt. This flurry of business made Field one of the most highly paid lawyers in the country during the late 1860s and early 1870s, earning about $75,000 per year. The cases also put him at the center of controversy within the New York legal community over professional ethics, a struggle for identity that led to the 1870 formation of the Bar Association of the City of New York. Field blocked repeated efforts within the Bar Association to censure or expel him, defending his own conduct and pointing out that almost every prominent lawyer in New York had at some point represented Fisk, Gould, or their financial adversaries. He did not enhance his ethical stature within the bar by serving as chief counsel to William Marcy Boss Tweed in the criminal and civil cases that lasted from 1872 to 1876, culminating in conviction of Tweed on more than two hundred counts of graft and corruption. After these cases David Dudley Field represented one of the key prosecution witnesses whom he had vigorously cross-examined in the Tweed cases, Gov. Samuel Tilden of New York, in the proceedings organized to resolve the 1876 presidential election.

Constitutional Orthodoxy. The judicial opinions of Stephen J. Field similarly helped to define the constitutional meaning of liberty and property. In Cummings v. Missouri (1866) and Ex Parte Garland (1867) his opinions for the slim majorities invalidated the use of loyalty oaths to bar former Confederates from the practice of a profession, declaring that the right to pursue a trade was a vital property interest. He broadened this point in his famous dissent in the Slaughterhouse cases (1873), arguing for protection of New Orleans butchers from legislation that would eliminate their business by creating a meat-processing monopoly. In Munn v. Illinois (1877) Justice Field denounced legislative price setting as a deprivation of property. As his dissenting opinions became constitutional orthodoxy, the judiciary increasingly claimed, in Fields words, a negative power, the power of resistance. Judicial exercise of this power would set the tone for American constitutional law in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Stephen J. Field died in 1899, five years after the death of his brother David.


Daun van Ee, David Dudley Field and the Reconstruction of the Law (New York: Garland, 1986);

Paul Kens, Justice Stephen Field: Shaping Liberty from the Gold Rush to the Gilded Age (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997);

Carl B. Swisher, Stephen J. Field: Craftsman of the Law (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1930).

Field, David Dudley

views updated May 23 2018


David Dudley Field secured a place in the nineteenth century as a commanding legal reformer. The primary achievement of the New York lawyer was his codification of the common laws of the United States. In addition, Field was among the most successful commercial and constitutional lawyers in New York. The cases he took on often anticipated those of the modern, made-for-hire corporate lawyer. Field also made contributions to the national political scene. In different capacities, both before and after the Civil War, he managed to represent the constitutional interests of both the Democratic and Republican Parties. As a Northern opponent of slavery, still sympathetic to the rights of Southerners, he pursued a fight for justice for the common person on legal and moral grounds. At the same time, his somewhat radical belief in the need to streamline law incited considerable resistance. During and after his lifetime, lawyers and others remembered him as a champion for the progress of procedural law throughout the United States. His lifelong goal of extending justice to the common person left a lasting impression on the U.S. legal system and, to some degree, on the rest of the world.

Field was born February 13, 1805, in Haddam, Connecticut, into a remarkable, aristocratic family. Nearly all the Fields of that era achieved a degree of success. Field's grandfather Captain Timothy Field, of Guilford, Connecticut, set the standard by fighting in the Revolutionary War. Field's father, the Reverend Dr. David Dudley Field, was educated at Yale College, became a minister, and received his doctorate at the prestigious Williams College. Field's three brothers also obtained influence; in particular, stephen j. field became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Field followed his father's lead by also studying at Williams. He left the school in 1825 and began the study of law in the office of Hermanus Bleecker of Albany, New York. In 1828, he was admitted to the bar as an attorney, and in 1830, he was appointed a counselor. He went on to practice law with his former teachers from Williams, Henry Sedgwick and Robert Sedgwick.

The tasks Field took on as a lawyer indicated a daring side. jeremy bentham, an English economic and legal philosopher and contemporary of Field's, characterized the legal system of the

day when he quipped, Do you know how judges make the common law?—Just as a man makes laws for his dog. Before Field's initiatives, the only way for persons to know the state of the law was to look through collections of court opinions. Field, Bentham, and others found this recourse unsatisfactory.

With his goal "to bring justice within the reach of all men," Field set out to put the rules of law into a single book, through which persons could determine their rights. His proposals for procedural codes rested on four basic principles: One, pleadings are meant to state facts truthfully and to then prove those facts by trial. Two, equitable defenses and counterclaims are available in all trial proceedings. Three, the court holds the power (formerly held by the chancellor) to compel parties to testify and to produce evidence. Four, evidence at the trial that varies from the pleading is a ground for the dismissal of the action. The development of these principles introduced a new set of procedural standards that he hoped the legal system would follow.

In 1839, Field drafted a collection of codes intended for adoption into state constitutions. The codes comprised 371 sections, filling fewer than 70 pages. The groupings of legal principles under a code of procedure, a political code, a civil code, a code of criminal procedure, and a penal code treated law in the essential terms of civil rights and due remedies.

Ironically, Field's codes faced their strongest resistance in New York. Lawyers throughout the East feared that the codes would interfere with the progress of law as they knew it. Nevertheless, New York enacted Field's code of procedure in 1848. In 1881, the state also passed his penal code. The rest of Field's codes, although passed by both houses of the New York Legislature, were never signed into law. The codes did better elsewhere, particularly in the West. There and throughout the United States, 24 states enacted them. California enacted the civil code in 1872, aided by the lobbying efforts of Field's brother Stephen, then a practicing lawyer in the state.

Meanwhile, Field did even more to establish his reputation as a controversial figure. He had been a Democrat through much of his early life. Starting in the 1840s, however, he broke sharply with party lines over the annexation of Texas. Democrats sought to expand slavery by permitting it in that state. Field objected and instead supported antislavery Republicans. In fact, some politicians credited Field with contributing a key influence in the nomination of abraham lincoln as the Republican presidential candidate in 1860.

However, labels could not stick to Field. Even as an opponent of slavery, he defended the rights of Southerners after the Civil War by challenging certain Republican Reconstruction laws. In ex parte milligan, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 2, 18 L. Ed. 281 (1866), Field argued successfully that a Reconstruction military commission could not constitutionally convict a Southern civilian, Lamdin B. Milligan, of previous actions as a Confederate. And in Cummings v. Missouri, 71U.S. (4 Wall.) 277, 18 L. Ed. 356 (1867), he successfully argued against a Missouri Constitution provision that would have prevented former Confederates from holding office.

"Never is it safe to entrust any man or set of men with the absolute government of other men."
—David Dudley Field

In addition to legal reform, Field established himself as a representative of other unpopular causes. He continued in this role while representing James Fisk and Jay Gould. His clients faced accusations of manipulating the Erie Railroad system for illegal profit. The case drew considerable attention in the late 1860s from Field's critics around the nation. Fisk and Gould had already become notorious from charges of corruption thrown at them. Field's record of serving in heated cases added to his detractors' ire. In successfully defending the two, he faced criticisms of implementing his own legal codes for personal gain. Newspapers charged him with unethical abuse of the legal system. A group of lawyers even threatened Field with punitive action. However, only the formation of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York ensued. The association, the first of its kind, sought to raise the professional standards of lawyers because the founding members believed Field had demeaned the profession.

In 1873, Field began representation of William M. "Boss" Tweed, one of New York City's notorious city bosses. Tweed served as a member of Congress, a New York State Senator, an alderman, and in several other roles. He also became the "boss" of the democratic party of the city and state of New York, developing a political machine known as tammany hall. The organization controlled most of the New York government by the late 1860s, yielding an estimated $200 million of criminal funds through a variety of corrupt practices. Field represented Tweed when the latter was brought to trial for corruption. After the first trial resulted in a hung jury, Tweed was convicted after a second trial and sentenced to 12 years in prison, though he died in 1878.

Field's influence extended beyond the United States. Traveling extensively throughout his life, Field also created a code of international law, first drafted in 1872. Great Britain received the code with the most welcome. The country adopted substantial aspects of Field's American Code of Procedure. Other sets of codes went on to influence countries throughout Europe and the rest of the world. In fact, Field was surprised to discover, during a trip to Asia in 1874, that the Indian legal system had implemented his procedural doctrine.

Field served briefly as a member of Congress in 1877, filling out the unexpired term of Smith Ely, who had been elected as mayor of New York City. Field continued to give speeches and draft papers through the 1880s. He died in New York City, at the age of 89, on April 3, 1894.

further readings

David Dudley Field and His Family of Haddam, Connecticut, and Stockbridge, Massachusetts: Manuscripts and Books in the Chapin Library, Williams College. Available online at <> (accessed June 26, 2003).

Field, Henry M. 1898. The Life of David Dudley Field. New York: Scribner.

Hicks, Frederick C. 1929. High Finance in the Sixties. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.

Reppy, Allison, ed. 2000. David Dudley Field: Centenary Essays: Celebrating One Hundred Years of Legal Reform. Buffalo, N.Y.: W. S. Hein & Co.


Code Pleading; Field Code of New York; "What Shall Be Done With the Practice of the Courts?" (Appendix, Primary Documents).

David Dudley Field

views updated May 14 2018

David Dudley Field

David Dudley Field (1805-1894), controversial American jurist, was a vigorous champion of legal reform.

David Dudley Field was born on Feb. 13, 1805, at Haddam, Conn. His brother Cyrus laid the first Atlantic cable, and another brother, Stephen, became an influential Supreme Court justice. He attended the Stockbridge Academy and Williams College but withdrew before graduating. Field studied law in Albany and New York City, was admitted to the bar in 1828, and became a partner in a New York firm. By 1840 his reported worth was $100,000, this affluence coming partly from his practice and partly from his marriage to a wealthy widow. Throughout his career he was known for his rigidity and single-mindedness, qualities that both helped and hindered him.

In 1839 Field had begun his long fight for legal reform through codification. New York's distinction between equity and common-law courts seemed chaotic to him. He believed that the laws ought to be systematized, contradictions eliminated, bad laws removed, and all placed in one book available to lawyer, magistrate, and client alike. But codification was considered a radical change in the legal system, and only one of his five codes, the penal, was adopted by New York (1881) due to opposition by the legal profession.

In other states Field's codes were better received. The civil procedure code was adopted in part by 24 American states and several foreign countries. The criminal procedure code had a similar reception outside New York. Partly through the efforts of Stephen Field, California adopted all five codes.

When his work on the domestic codes was completed in 1865, Field turned to international codification. He was largely responsible for the Draft Outline of an International Code (1872), which considered the peace-time relations of nations; a second edition (1876) had an added section on war.

Field split from the Democratic party over its territorial expansion and slavery policies. He became active in the Free Soil party, then in the new Republican party, and was an early supporter of Abraham Lincoln. He may have influenced Lincoln's appointment of his brother Stephen to the Supreme Court in 1863. In 1864, however, he was part of a move to oust Lincoln from the ticket. He finally returned to the Democratic party. He skillfully but unsuccessfully argued the case of Democrat Samuel Tilden in the disputed Hayes-Tilden presidential election of 1876. In the Reconstruction era he argued a number of important constitutional cases before the Supreme Court. In general his arguments helped protect civil liberties of white citizens but were detrimental to the civil rights of black freedmen.

Before the Civil War, Field had crusaded against lawyers' arguing cases in which they knew their client was wrong. But after the war his choice of clients, like robber barons Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, and some questionable tactics led to a report critical of his conduct by the Bar Association of New York City. He died on April 13, 1894, in New York City.

Further Reading

There is no modern biography of Field. The best source is Speeches, Arguments and Miscellaneous Papers of David Dudley Field, edited by A. P. Sprague (3 vols., 1884-1890). Background studies are Albert Wormser, The Law: The Story of Lawmakers and the Law We Have Lived By from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1949), and William Seal Carpenter, Foundations of Modern Jurisprudence (1958).

Additional Sources

Field, Henry M. (Henry Martyn), The life of David Dudley Field, Littleton, Colo.: F.B. Rothman, 1995.

Van Ee, Daun, David Dudley Field and the reconstruction of the law, New York: Garland, 1986. □

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