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Democracy's Lawyer

Felix Grundy of the Old Southwest

J. Roderick Heller III

Publication Year: 2010

A central political figure in the first post-Revolutionary generation, Felix Grundy (1775–1840) epitomized the “American democrat” who so famously fascinated Alexis de Tocqueville. Born and reared on the isolated frontier, Grundy rose largely by his own ability to become the Old Southwest’s greatest criminal lawyer and one of the first radical political reformers in the fledgling United States. In Democracy’s Lawyer, the first comprehensive biography of Grundy since 1940, J. Roderick Heller reveals how Grundy’s life typifies the archetypal, post–founding fathers generation that forged America’s culture and institutions. After his birth in Virginia, Grundy moved west at age five to the region that would become Kentucky, where he lost three brothers in Indian wars. He earned a law degree, joined the legislature, and quickly became Henry Clay’s main rival. At age thirty-one, after rising to become chief justice of Kentucky, Grundy moved to Tennessee, where voters soon elected him to Congress. In Washington, Grundy proved so voracious a proponent of the War of 1812 that a popular slogan of the day blamed the war on “Madison, Grundy, and the Devil.” A pivotal U.S. senator during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, Grundy also served as Martin Van Buren’s attorney general and developed a close association with his law student and political protégé James K. Polk. Grundy championed the ideals of the American West, and as Heller demonstrates, his dominating belief—equality in access to power—motivated many of his political battles. Aristocratic federalism threatened the principles of the Revolution, Grundy asserted, and he opposed fetters on freedom of opportunity, whether from government or entrenched economic elites. Although widely known as a politician, Grundy achieved even greater fame as a criminal lawyer. Of the purported 185 murder defendants that he represented, only one was hanged. At a time when criminal trials served as popular entertainment, Grundy’s mere appearance in a courtroom drew spectators from miles around, and his legal reputation soon spread nationwide. One nineteenth-century Nashvillian declared that Grundy “could stand on a street corner and talk the cobblestones into life.” Shifting seamlessly within the worlds of law, entrepreneurship, and politics, Felix Grundy exemplified the questing, mobile society of early nineteenth-century America. With Democracy’s Lawyer, Heller firmly establishes Grundy as a powerful player and personality in early American law and politics.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Biography Series

Title Page, Copyright, Frontispiece

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pp. xi-xii

This book had its genesis more than forty years ago in a conversation with Professor Charles Sellers at Princeton University. Sellers, well on his way to eminence, was affable and gracious to a college sophomore intrigued by the historian’s craft. When I mentioned that my family owned several letters written by Felix Grundy...

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pp. 1-4

Felix Grundy “could stand on a street corner and talk the cobblestones into life.” These words from a nineteenth-century Nashvillian echoed contemporaneous assessments of the Old Southwest’s greatest criminal lawyer. A well-known Tennessee historian and judge declared that he had listened to Henry Clay and other splendid...

Part I: Frontier Roots

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1. The Great Road

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pp. 7-12

Felix Grundy was born on September 11, 1775, in Berkeley County, Virginia. Grundy’s birth near the Great Road, to enterprising parents ever questing westward, and five months after the outbreak of the Revolution, almost perfectly symbolized the enterprise and mobility of this “New American” of the post-Revolutionary...

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2. The Dark and Bloody Ground

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pp. 13-21

Despite his designation as a justice by the Commonwealth of Virginia, there is no evidence that George Grundy performed any services as such. By June 1778 the Grundys, with young Felix in tow, had moved to Augusta County, Virginia, where George Grundy purchased a four-hundred-acre farm at Simpson’s Creek, near present-day...

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3. Education on the Frontier

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pp. 22-30

The earliest evidence of Felix’s education dates from 1785, when John Moore provided to the Grundys, for 8 pounds, 8 shillings, three-quarters of a year’s schooling for seven children. Since by this time Elizabeth Grundy’s oldest sons were no longer minors, the seven children may have included two or more neighbor children, along with...

Part II: Kentucky

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4. Felix Grundy, Esquire

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pp. 33-39

Felix Grundy completed his legal studies in the spring of 1795. There being no minimum age for the practice of law, he began his career at age nineteen. On August 6, 1795, the judges of the court of quarter sessions in Washington County admitted to practice Grundy, John Rowan, and John Allen. Grundy received similar...

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5. Political Beginnings

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pp. 40-47

Felix Grundy achieved wealth and recognition in his first decade of legal practice. But in early Kentucky, success generally meant politics, and it was in the political realm that Grundy first received statewide notice. In May 1799 Grundy was elected to the second Kentucky constitutional convention, participating in the convention...

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6. Circuit Court Reform

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pp. 48-55

Grundy’s participation in the constitutional convention of 1799 led to service in the Kentucky legislature. He was elected to the house of representatives in May 1800, after his brother John stepped down in 1799. Reelected for the two succeeding sessions, Grundy became one of the most powerful Kentucky legislators. He led the...

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7. Grundy and Clay

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pp. 56-71

After his legislative success in 1802, Grundy did not stand for reelection to the Kentucky General Assembly. Instead he moved to Bardstown in early 1803. His legal—and political—base increasingly centered in the burgeoning Green River country. Bardstown, more conveniently located, featured a larger legal and social community...

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8. Chief Justice

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pp. 72-75

The Kentucky insurance fight enhanced the careers of both Felix Grundy and Henry Clay. Grundy, who was reelected to the house in August 1806, continued to serve on major committees and direct affairs. He also considered the U.S. Senate. John Adair had been elected in 1805 to complete Breckinridge’s term, but in 1806 the legislature...

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9. Greenville Springs

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pp. 76-79

The frontier fostered an entrepreneurial culture of opportunity and risk. Fortunes could be quickly won and quickly lost. Both of Grundy’s parents displayed ambition and drive, and their youngest son inherited a heady dose of the same spirit. Much of the entrepreneurial economy originated in land, either in outright speculation or in the more...

Part III: Tennessee

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10. Tennessee and Congress

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pp. 83-90

On January 7, 1808, the Impartial Review and Cumberland Repository, a weekly newspaper in Nashville, announced: “FELIX GRUNDY has settled in Nashville, and will practice law in the following Courts (to wit:) the Superior Courts of West Tennessee, the Federal Courts holden in Nashville, the County Courts of Davidson, Sumner...

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11. War Hawk

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pp. 91-104

The historic Twelfth Congress opened in Washington on November 4, 1811. The 152 members, with 63 newcomers, included the group thereafter known as the War Hawks, the most prominent of whom were Henry Clay, of Kentucky; William Lowndes, Langdon Cheves, and John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina; Peter B. Porter, of...

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12. Congress at War

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pp. 105-113

Tennesseans enthusiastically supported the war, and Grundy threw himself behind its prosecution. By 1813 Grundy had overcome his earlier skepticism regarding Madison, becoming the de facto leader of the administration in the House. His defense of the war effort aroused intense hostility, however, and contributed to his defeat when he ran...

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13. Return to Nashville

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pp. 114-120

Grundy spent the five years from 1814 to 1819 in private pursuits in Nashville; it was the longest period in his adult life without significant political activity. As he continued to build his legal reputation and engaged in real-estate development, he also constructed Grundy Place, a splendid downtown home symbolizing the stature and...

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14. Criminal Lawyer

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pp. 121-130

Criminal trials have always attracted great attention, and in early-nineteenth-century America they offered wonderful spectacles. With few diversions from the labor and routine of rural life, farmers and townspeople alike flocked to county courthouses for the drama and excitement of a murder trial. In an age when huge crowds listened...

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15. The Panic of 1819

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pp. 131-139

The postwar Era of Good Feelings came to an abrupt end with the Panic of 1819. Economic distress led to a dizzying series of initiatives to minimize financial distress. Grundy, at the forefront of the political awakening in 1819, dominated the Tennessee state legislature until the end of his term in 1825. Grundy’s mastery gave him a reputation...

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16. Legislative Leadership

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pp. 140-151

The Panic of 1819 brought economic distress that engulfed the nation over the next several years. Baltimore’s leading commercial house, Smith & Buchanan, collapsed and took down more than one hundred merchants. The leader of the Republican Party in Virginia, George Nicholas’s brother Wilson Cary, also failed, exacerbating the...

Part IV: Jacksonian

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17. Andrew Jackson for President

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pp. 155-164

Presidential politics preoccupied Tennessee politicians from 1822 to 1825, the last years in which Grundy served in the general assembly. In 1822 John Quincy Adams, President Monroe’s secretary of state, appeared to be the leading candidate for the 1824 presidential race, but he faced a talented field of challengers that included...

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18. Election to the Senate

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pp. 165-180

After stepping down from the legislature, Grundy devoted the next several years to private pursuits. He chose not to run for Congress in 1825, to Sam Houston’s relief, but did run in 1827 with Andrew Jackson’s support, unexpectedly losing to John Bell. When he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1829, Grundy began a tenure of service...

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19. Jacksonian Senator

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pp. 181-188

In December 1829 Washington looked much the same as when Grundy had left it fifteen years earlier. The population of the District of Columbia had grown to eighteen thousand, but the city had the same raw, unfinished look. The White House and other buildings burned by the British had been rebuilt or largely replaced, but the...

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20. Nullification

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pp. 189-207

When Grundy entered the Senate he could have had little inkling that the issue of nullification would loom so large, fixing the nationalistic character of the Jackson administration, heavily influencing the political fortunes of various presidential contenders, and jeopardizing his own tenure as a U.S. senator. Grundy’s close...

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21. Reelection

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pp. 208-214

Grundy’s reelection bid for the Senate became inextricably caught up in the continuing clash of competing factions in Tennessee. His ultimate success in 1833 came only after a deadlocked legislature in 1832 and intensive management by Grundy and his allies. The victory would cement the leadership of the state Democratic Party by...

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22. Land and Slavery

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pp. 215-225

In 1830 Grundy described himself as one of a group of elderly gentlemen, even though he was not yet fifty-five. In that period early death was not unusual, and many of Grundy’s grandchildren died young. Yet Grundy sustained a major shock on August 8, 1832, when his daughter Margaret Ann Camron Rawlings passed away in Mississippi at...

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23. Battles with the Whigs

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pp. 226-241

The Twenty-third Congress convened on December 2, 1833. Grundy’s reelection gave him more independence, enhancing his political stature in Washington and his leadership role in Tennessee. Unlike John Bell and Ephraim Foster, however, who had also endured electoral slights from the president, Grundy continued to display his loyalty to...

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24. Attorney General

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pp. 242-250

Van Buren’s choice of Grundy as attorney general followed the president’s acceptance of the resignation of Benjamin F. Butler on April 11, 1838. The capable Butler, a former law student and partner of Van Buren’s, had been attorney general since 1834 and had agreed to stay on during Van Buren’s presidency largely to help deal with the Panic of...

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25. Twilight

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pp. 251-260

It appears fitting that Grundy characterized his reelection to the Senate as the happiest day of his life. His political life spanned over forty years, from 1799 to 1840, and for much of that period he exuberantly engaged in political battle. Even if more renowned as a criminal lawyer, Grundy defined himself early by his political ambition, and his...

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pp. 261-265

Grundy’s funeral took place on Sunday, December 20, 1840, in the afternoon. It was followed by a series of memorial services in Nashville and Washington. His body initially was interred at the City Cemetery, in Nashville, but in 1890 was moved, along with the remains of Ann Phillips Rodgers Grundy and Grundy’s friend...

Image Plates

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pp. 267-320

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 321-337


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pp. 339-357

E-ISBN-13: 9780807137420
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807137420

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Southern Biography Series