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26 June, 2013
Life of William Jennings Bryan
A Lawyer
by Bryan, Mary Baird


On July 4, 1883, Mr. Bryan began the practice of his profession in Jacksonville, Illinois. Desk room was obtained in the office of Brown & Kirby, one of the leading firms in the city, and the struggle encountered by all young professional men began. The first six months were rather trying to his patience, and he was compelled to supplement his earnings by a small draft upon his father's estate. Toward the close of the year, he entered into correspondence with his former law school classmate, Henry Trumbull, then located at Albuquerque, New Mexico, and discussed with him the advisability of removing to that territory. After the 1st of January, however, clients became more numerous, and he felt encouraged to make Jacksonville his permanent home. The following spring he took charge of the collection department of Brown & Kirby's office, and in a little more than a year his income seemed large enough to support two. During the summer of 1884, a modest home was planned and built, and on October 1, 1884, we were married.

During the next three years we lived comfortably, though economically, and laid by a small amount. Politics lost none of its charms, and each campaign found Mr. Bryan speaking, usually in our own county.

Three years after graduation, he attended the commencement at Illinois College, delivered the Master's oration, and received his degree. His subject on that occasion was "American Citizenship".

In the summer of 1887, legal business called him to Kansas and Iowa, and a Sabbath was spent in Lincoln, Nebraska, with a law school classmate, Mr. A. R. Talbot. Mr. Bryan was greatly impressed with the beauty and business enterprise of Lincoln, and with the advantages which a growing capital furnishes for a young lawyer. He returned to Illinois full of enthusiasm for the West, and perfected plans for our removal thither. No political ambitions entered into this change of residence, as the city, county and state were strongly Republican. He arrived in Lincoln, October 1, 1887, and a partnership was formed with Mr. Talbot. As Mr. Bryan did not share in the salary which Mr. Talbot received as a railroad attorney, he had to begin again at the bottom of the ladder. During this winter Ruth and I remained in Jacksonville, and in the spring following a second house was built—the one we now occupy—and the family was reunited in its Western home. The practice again became sufficient for our needs, and during the three years which followed we were again able to add to our reserve fund. I might here suggest an answer to a hostile criticism, namely, that Mr. Bryan did not distinguish himself as a lawyer. Those who thus complain should consider that he entered the practice at twenty-three and left it at thirty, and during that period began twice, and twice became more than self-supporting. At the time of his election to Congress his practice was in a thriving condition, and fully equal to that of any man of his age in the city. Mr. Bryan often met such demands as are commonly made upon lawyers in the way of short addresses, toasts, etc. Some of this post-prandial oratory discussed questions of public importance. The following was a toast upon "The Law and the Gospel", delivered at a banquet given by the St. Paul Methodist church of Lincoln, in honor of some distinguished visitors:

At a banquet held by the St. Paul Methodist Church of Lincoln

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is rather by accident than by design that this sentiment has fallen to me. Had not my law partner been called unexpectedly from the State he would have responded with more propriety and more ability to "The Law and the Gospel".

These are important words; each covers a wide field by itself and together they include all government. There is not between them, as some suppose, a wide gulf fixed. Many have commenced with us only to be called to a higher sphere, and a few ministers have come to us when they were convinced that they had answered to another's call.

In the earlier days the prophet was also the lawgiver. He who wore the priestly robe held in his hands the scales of justice. But times are changed. For the good of the State and for the welfare of the church, the moral and the civil law have been separated. Today we owe a doubIe allegiance, and "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." Their governments are concentric circles and can never interfere. Between what religion commands and what the law compels there is, and ever must be, a wide margin, as there is also between what religion forbids and what the law prohibits. In many things we are left to obey or disobey the instructions of the Divine Ruler, answerable to Him only for our conduct. The gospel deals with the secret purposes of the heart as well as with the outward life, while the civil law must content itself with restraining the arm outstretched for another's hurt or with punishing the actor after the injury is done.

Next to the ministry I know of no more noble profession than the law. The object aimed at is justice, equal and exact, and if it does not reach that end at once it is because the stream is diverted by selfishness or checked by ignorance. Its principles ennoble and its practice elevates. If you point to the pettifogger, I will answer that he is as much out of place in the temple of justice as is the hypocrite in the house of God. You will find the "book on tricks" in the library of the legal bankrupt—nowhere else. In no business in life honesty, truthfulness and uprightness of conduct pay a larger dividend upon the investment than in the law. He is not only blind to his highest welfare and to his greatest good, but also treading upon dangerous ground, who fancies that mendacity, loquacity and pertinacity are the only accomplishments of a successful lawyer.

You cannot judge a man's life by the success of a moment, by the victory of an hour, or even by the results of a year. You must view his life as a whole. You must stand where you can see the man as he treads the entire path that leads from the cradle to the grave—now crossing the plain, now climbing the steeps, now passing through pleasant fields, now wending his way with difficulty between rugged rocks—tempted, tried, tested, triumphant. The completed life of every lawyer, either by its success or failure, emphasizes the words of Solomon—"The path of the just is as a shining light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day."

By practicing upon the highest plane the lawyer may not win the greatest wealth, but he wins that which wealth cannot purchase and is content to know and feel that "a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches; and loving favor rather than silver and gold."

There are pioneers of the gospel whose names you speak with reverence, Calvin, Knox, the Wesleys and Asbury, besides many still living, and you love them not without cause. There are those in our profession whom we delight to honor. Justinian and Coke, Blackstone and Jay, Marshall and Kent, Story and Lincoln, men who have stood in the thickest of the fight, have met every temptation peculiar to our profession, and yet maintained their integrity.

It is a fact to which we point with no little pride, that with a history of an hundred years no member of the Supreme Court of the United States has ever been charged with corrupt action, although untold millions have been involved in the litigation before the court. Nor do I now recall any member of the supreme court of any State who has been convicted of misusing his office.

"The Law and the Gospel." Great in their honored names, great in their history, great in their influence. To a certain extent they supplement each other. The law asks of the gospel counsel, not commands. The gospel goes far beyond the reach of law, for while the law must cease to operate when its subject dies, the gospel crosses the dark river of death and lightens up the world which lies beyond the tomb. The law is negative, the gospel positive; the law says "do not unto others that which you would not have others do unto you," while the gospel declares that we should "do to others that which we would that others should do unto us."

"The Law and the Gospel." They form an exception to the rule that in union there is strength, for each is strongest when alone. And I believe that the greatest prosperity of the State and greatest growth of the church will be found when the law and the gospel walk, not hand in hand, but side by side.


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