[Charles Lane, guest-blogging, April 4, 2008 at 9:59pm] Trackbacks
Can a Lawyer be a Hero?

You have probably never heard of the hero of my book, The Day Freedom Died. His name is James Roswell Beckwith, and he prosecuted the Colfax Massacre alone (not by himself with a couple of clerks — alone), defying death threats in majority-white-supremacist New Orleans, back-channel obstructionism from Washington and the sheer physical difficulty of conducting two complex jury trials within four months in a malarial subtropical port city. If I accomplish nothing else with this book, I want to restore J.R. Beckwith to his rightful place in American history.

The oldest son of a farm couple, he was born in Cazenovia, New York, 20 miles south of Syracuse, on December 23, 1832. Cazenovia was antislavery country: Frederick Douglas frequently spoke at Cazenovia's Free Church, as did Gerrit Smith. In late August 1850, as Congress debated the Fugitive Slave Act, Douglass, Smith and other abolitionist leaders assembled in a Cazenovia orchard. This "Cazenovia Convention" drew more than 2,000 people — roughly half of Cazenovia's population. I imagine that James Beckwith, then 17 years old, joined the crowd, if only out of curiosity.

A few weeks after the Cazenovia Convention, Beckwith enrolled as a 17-year-old at the Methodist-run Oneida Conference Seminary, whose teachers drilled their students in anti-slavery doctrine. But, after a year there, he asked his parents for permission to go to New York City and read law. He aspired to be a "real, thorough" lawyer — "the noblest work of science," as he put it. In 1854, he joined the New York bar. After finishing his legal training, Beckwith headed west, first to Michigan, where he served as a district attorney. He married Sarah Catherine Watrous in 1860. Catherine, as she liked to be called, came from Ashtabula County, Ohio, which was also anti-slavery territory. Catherine was a feminist novelist; her nom de plume, "Mrs. J.R. Beckwith," mocked the prevailing subordination of wives to husbands.

On the eve of the Civil War, the Beckwiths moved to New Orleans, a mecca for lawyers because of its active commerce. As Northern Unionists, their existence was precarious until Union forces reoccupied the city in 1862. But they stayed. By 1868, Beckwith was known professionally, was an accomplished member of the bar with a deep voice and distinctive looks--high forehead, strong cleft chin and bristling walrus moustache.

Though he disdained politics and the "tricksters" who used it "for themselves and their emoluments," something from Cazenovia still motivated him. His wife Catherine recognized it. In her novel, The Winthrops, she modeled the fictional lawyer Fred Houghton on her husband, depicting him as an "ardent champion for all the varieties of the oppressed, and [an] earnest rectifier of injustice."

He joined post-Civil War Republican-led efforts to govern his adopted city and state. In 1870, Beckwith served as city attorney under Mayor Benjamin Franklin Flanders, a veteran Republican originally from New Hampshire. In late 1870, the United States Attorney for Louisiana, Alanson B. Long, was found dead in his office, blood seeping from a self-inflicted gash in his throat. New Orleans Republican leaders urged President Grant to replace Long with Beckwith, with one cabling the president that Beckwith was "a good lawyer, perfectly honest, conversant with the business of the office, [a] good Republican and worthy of the appointment." By January 1871, Beckwith was at work, having first removed the carpet soaked with his predecessor's blood.

Beckwith's powerful summation to the jury in the Colfax Massacre trial rings down through the ages: "I am not so constructed that I can look with calmness on such horrors as we have listened to. . . . I would rather be that poor wretch burned to a cinder in the ruins of the courthouse than stand as the apologist for the crime that caused it. I would rather go to the bar of God with the chances of the souls of the sixty-four or sixty-five human beings so inhumanly butchered than carry to God a soul so debased as to defend such a crime."

Beckwith's ability, incorruptibility and moral fire made him dangerous to the white supremacists who hoped to rule Louisiana after Reconstruction. In the final days of February 1877, they demanded his firing as one of their conditions for accepting Rutherford B. Hayes as President. Their emissaries in Washington—including Beckwith's former courtroom adversary, E. John Ellis--told the Republicans that "no peace could exist" in Louisiana as long as the Colfax Massacre prosecutor remained as U.S. Attorney. Beckwith was fired — almost two years before his term was supposed to end.

Beckwith remained in New Orleans, making a distinguished career as an appellate advocate with frequent appearances before the US Supreme Court. But he and Catherine were never blessed with children. She predeceased him. And when he died in August, 1912, at the age of 79, he was living in genteel poverty, alone except for an African American valet who stayed with him until the end. His estate was valued at a mere $973.72, all of which went to creditors, lawyers and notaries, except for $50 paid to his valet "for attendance during last illness."

The only substantial historical commentary on Beckwith came in 1987, when Charles Fairman published the second volume of his history of the Supreme Court during Reconstruction. Fairman, who died in 1991, was a distinguished member of the Harvard and Stanford law faculties, a confidant of Justices Felix Frankfurter and Robert H. Jackson, and a teacher of William Rehnquist. As a scholar, Fairman was best known for arguing — as Beckwith's legal adversaries had argued in the 1870s — that the framers of the 14th Amendment did not intend it to "incorporate" the Bill of Rights. Fairman defended the Supreme Court's reasoning in Slaughterhouse and Cruikshank, though he conceded their baleful impact.

Fairman derided Beckwith as "not a quick learner," and asserted that "the prosecution in Cruikshank failed because the United States Attorney did not have enough understanding to frame his indictment to charge conspiracy."

This was terribly unfair, both legally and morally. I hope that, after my book, the record will stand corrected.

J. R. Beckwith believed that the United States could not truly call itself a nation of laws as long as the men who spilled a sea of blood in Colfax, Louisiana on April 13, 1873 went "unwhipped of justice." And he was right.

A special moment during my recent book tour to Louisiana came when I visited Beckwith's tomb in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans. It is well-tended, but incomplete. Owing to his poverty at death, and to the fact that he had no survivors, no one ever took the time to inscribe the year of his death on the tomb, as should have been done. Perhaps with the cooperation of some New Orleans lawyers, I can get that done, as an overdue tribute to a great man.