Luther Martin

Luther Martin in the United States

Martin, Luther (1748-1826)


According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, 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 body.

Life and Work

American lawyer, was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on the 9th of February 1748. He graduated at the college of New Jersey (now Princeton University) at the head of a class of thirty-five in 1766, and immediately afterwards removed to Maryland, teaching at Queenstown in that colony until 1770, and being admitted to the bar in 1771. He practised law for a short time in Virginia, then returned to Maryland, and became recognized as the leader of the Maryland bar and as one of the ablest lawyers in the United States. From 1778 to 1805 he was attorney-general of Maryland; in 1814-1816 he was chief judge of the court of Oyer and Terminer for the city of Baltimore; and in 1818-1822 he was attorney-general of Maryland. He was one of Maryland’s representatives in the Continental Congress in 1784-1785 and in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 at Philadelphia, but opposed the constitution and refused to affix his signature.

He subsequently allied himself with the Federalists, and was an opponent of Thomas Jefferson, who in 1807 spoke of him as the “Federal Bull-Dog.” His ability was shown in his famous defence of Judge Samuel Chase (q.v.) in the impeachment trial before the United States Senate in 1804-1805, and in his defence of Aaron 795 Burr (q.v.) against the charge of treason in 1807. He has been described by the historian Henry Adams, writing of the Chase trial, as at that time the “most formidable of American advocates.”

Though he received a large income, he was so improvident that he was frequently in want, and on the 22nd of February 1822 the legislature of Maryland passed a remarkable resolution—the only one of the kind in American history—requiring every lawyer in the state to pay an annual licence fee of five dollars, to be handed over to trustees appointed “for the appropriation of the proceeds raised by virtue of this resolution to the use of Luther Martin.” This resolution was rescinded on the 6th of February 1823. Martin died at the home of Aaron Burr in New York on the 10th of July 1826. In 1783 he had married a daughter of the Captain Michael Cresap (1742-1775), who was unjustly charged by Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia, with the murder of the family of the Indian chief, John Logan, and whom Martin defended in a pamphlet long out of print. (1)

Aaron Burr Treason Trial


No lawyer in the (Aaron) Burr trial had a more distinguished record than defense attorney Luther Martin, called by Thomas Jefferson “the Bulldog of Federalism.” Martin graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) in 1766, then moved to Maryland, where he would become an early advocated of independence. Martin became Maryland’s attorney general in 1778.

In 1787, Martin represented Maryland at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. He quickly established himself as one of the most influential delegates. He fought against slavery, for guaranteed civil rights and the rights of small states, and against a too-powerful federal government. Although his speeches were sometimes rambling, sarcastic, and dogmatic, out of session Martin had a reputation as being hearty, friendly, and jovial. After the Convention, Martin joined the unsuccessful fight against ratification.

Martin’s legal practice grew to be as large as any in the young nation. In 1805, Martin was defense lawyer for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in his Senate impeachment trial (presided over by Vice President Burr).

Martin played perhaps the leading role in Burr’s defense in his 1807 treason trial at Richmond. He examined and cross-examined witnesses, and delivered the final defense argument in favor of the defense motion to arrest the prosecution’s evidence. His arguments, as can be seen in the excerpt below, were delivered in florid style:

“When the sun mildly shines upon us, when the gentle zephyrs play around us, we can easily proceed forward in the straight path of our duty; but when bleak clouds enshroud the sky with darkness, when the tempest rages, the winds howl, and the waves break over us — when the thunders awfully roar over our heads and the lightnings of heaven blaze around us — it is then that all the energies of the human soul are called into action. It is then that the truly brave man stands firm at his post. It is then that, by an unshaken performance of his duty, man approaches the nearest possible to the Divinity. Nor is there any object in the creation on which the Supreme Being can look down with more delight and approbation than on a human being in such a situation and thus acting. May that God who now looks upon us, who has in his infinite wisdom called you into existence and placed you in that seat to dispense justice to your fellow citizens, to preserve and protect innocence against persecution — may that God so illuminate your understandings that you may know what is rights; and may he heave your souls with firmness and fortitude to act according to that knowledge.”

After the Burr trial, Martin was reappointed Attorney General in Maryland and argued before the U. S. Supreme Court Maryland’s position in the landmark case of McCulloch v Maryland. Martin died in 1826, at the age of 78, in the New York City home of Aaron Burr.


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)

See Also

Further Reading

See the biographical sketch by Henry P. Goddard, Luther Martin, the Federal Bull-Dog (Baltimore, 1887), No. 24 of the “Peabody Fund Publications,” of the Maryland Historical Society.

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