Martin, Luther (1748–1826)

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MARTIN, LUTHER (1748–1826)

Luther Martin represented Maryland in the continental congress and signed the declaration of independence. He was attorney general of Maryland from 1778 to 1805 and one of the early leaders of the American bar. Martin also represented Maryland at the constitutional convention of 1787, where he was a leader of the small-state faction. Although he favored the Convention's purpose, he consistently advocated positions that would have prevented the establishment of a strong central government. Fearing tyranny, he endorsed a one-term presidency and opposed james madison's plan to allow a congressional veto of state or local laws.

The question of congressional representation seemed to him one of the most vexing problems. He favored a unicameral legislature and spoke fervently against proportionate representation at the house of representatives, both in the Convention and afterward. His opposition in Philadelphia helped produce the deadlock that nearly wrecked the convention, but he served on the committee that framed the great compromise and supported its recommendation. Martin favored judicial review but opposed authorizing Congress to create federal courts on the ground that state courts would suffice; they were bound by federal law and their decisions could be appealed to the Supreme Court. Martin also thought that the clause prohibiting interference with the obligation ofcontracts was unwise; he warned of the inevitability of "great public calamities and distress" when such intervention would become essential—an argument vindicated in home building & loan v. blaisdell (1934). As the summer progressed, Martin grew increasingly restive. He opposed allowing suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and he strongly favored granting Congress power to tax or completely prohibit the slave trade. An opponent of slavery, he labeled its recognition in the Constitution "absurd and disgraceful to the last degree." Martin also concluded that later changes rendered the supremacy clause, which he originally had proposed, "worse than useless." For these reasons, and because the Constitution contained no bill of rights, he opposed its ratification. In his influential tract of 1788 against ratification of the constitution, a major anti-Federalist statement, Martin presented the fullest argument of the time in favor of equal representation of the states in Congress. Despite his opposition to the Constitution, Martin later switched his party allegiance and became known as the "Federalist bulldog."

A brilliant lawyer despite his later alcoholism, Martin appeared frequently in the Supreme Court and in state trials; he defended his old friend Justice samuel chase at the latter's impeachment trial in 1804 and represented aaron burr against a treason charge three years later, winning both cases. (See ex parte bollman and swartwout.) Among dozens of Court appearances, his most famous cases were fletcher v. peck (1810) and mcculloch v. maryland (1819). In McCulloch, he eloquently defended Maryland's right to tax the federally chartered Bank of the United States, arguing for the application of the Tenth Amendment. Shortly after losing McCulloch, Martin suffered a severe stroke. After living as a penniless derelict for some time, he was eventually taken in by Burr. He died in 1826.

David Gordon


Clarkson, Paul S. and Jett, R. Samuel 1970 Luther Martin of Maryland. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.