The Therapy Of Distance


In America, then, legal specialties dissolved and there were citizen lawyers. When the young John Adams in 1758 sought the advice of a leading Boston lawyer on the requirements for the practice, he was advised that “a lawyer in this country must study common law, and civil law, and natural law, and admiralty law; and must do the duty of a counsellor [barrister], a lawyer, an attorney, a solicitor, and even of a scrivener.” As the standard of technical competence was lower than in England, even the distinction between lawyer and layman was blurred. Of the nine chief justices of Massachusetts between 1692 and the Revolution, only three had specialized legal training. American businessmen were more inclined to be their own lawyers. Land, which in England was an heirloom and the most metaphysical of legal subjects, in America became a commodity. When land ownership was widely diffused, its mysteries seemed less arcane.

Few expressed the American suspicion of professional monopolists better than Samuel Livermore, who was chief justice of the New Hampshire supreme court in the late eighteenth century. He lacked legal learning himself, and, as a contemporary reported, he “did not like to be pestered with it in his courts.” “When [counsel] attempted to read law books in a law argument, the Chief Justice asked him why he read them; ‘if he thought that he and his brethren did not know as much as those musty old worm-eaten books?’” One of Livermore’s brethren on the bench (himself a farmer and a trader by occupation) charged a jury “to do justice between the parties not by any quirks of the law out of Coke or Blackstone—books that I never read and never will—but by common sense as between man and man.”

We must keep all this in mind when we recall that of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence twenty-five were self-styled lawyers, and of the fifty-five members of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia thirty-one were lawyers. These facts were not so much evidence of the peculiar importance of legal learning as they were symptoms of the decline of monopolies in America. “In no country perhaps in the world,” Edmund Burke observed in his Speech on Conciliation, “is the law so general a study … all who read, and most do read, endeavor to obtain some smattering in that science.” The multiplying American legislatures, enough to provide a seat for nearly any citizen who was so inclined, helped bring into being the citizen lawyer.

A similar American catharsis occurred in the medical professions. The eighteenth-century English patient suffered from the doctors’ many submonopolies. At the top of the social scale, corresponding to the barrister, was the doctor of physick, who enjoyed the privileges of the Royal College of Physicians, which Henry vin had chartered back in 1518. But his professional ethics, rooted in the university’s clerical tradition, forbade him to shed blood or handle the human body. The barber-surgeons, who had been organized in 1540, were later split by the distinction between the barbers, who had a monopoly on cutting hair, shaving beards, and extracting teeth, and the surgeons, who performed other operations. Besides, there were the apothecaries, who until 1617 had been members of the grocers’ guild but thereafter had a monopoly on selling drugs. And in addition, there were the midwives, who had to be licensed by their bishop.

In colonial America, where distances were great and specialists scarce, all such monopolists gave way to the general practitioner. “I make use of the English word doctor,” wrote the observant Marquis de Chastellux, who traveled the colonies in 1781, “because the distinction of physician is as little known in the army of Washington as in that of Agamemnon. We read in Homer, that the physician Macaonhimselfdressedthewounds.… The Americans conform to the ancient custom and it answers very well.”

The therapy of distance worked in countless other ways. Distinctions of social classes, which in Europe had been reinforced by all these other distinctions, did not survive intact in the New World. Since the witty drawing rooms, learned libraries, genteel academies, and grand council chambers of the Old World were an ocean away, Americans could not escape some provincial crudity and naivete. But the ocean also separated them from the irrelevancies of a filigreed society, from Old World pomposity and pride and priggishness, from traditional conceits and familial arrogance. Americans would discover for themselves the wisdom in Jonathan Swift’s ironic Irish view: “If a man makes me keep my distance, the comfort is, he keeps his at the same time.” And American experience would show the world what a purging could do for ancient institutions.