The Tennessee Bar's Renaissance Man

In September 1978, I found myself going through 1-L orientation at the University of Tennessee College of Law. Our group was harangued by the late Durward Jones, who presented himself to his wide-eyed audience of prospective lawyers as a sort of wild man, which he actually was. The one thing I remember most about this earliest of law school experiences was Professor Jones's comment that lawyers were truly special as we were the only "thinkers" in our society " doctors were mere plumbers, and other professions bean counters, or regurgitators, or whatever. Perhaps with a bit too much pride in our profession, I have always found Professor Jones's comment to have a great element of truth to it, and it has proven to be true of a number of lawyers I have known.

It was certainly true of Joshua W. Caldwell, a member of the Knoxville Bar, historian and man of letters who is very likely familiar to a number of the modern members of the bar even more than 100 years after his death. Caldwell wrote one of the great books on the early years of the legal profession in Tennessee, Sketches of the Bench and Bar of Tennessee (1898). An admirer wrote that Sketches, and another book, titled Studies in the Constitutional History of Tennessee (1895/1899), "have upon them the stamp of the trained student and sincere lover of his native State's institutions and her great lawyers." Indeed, if Caldwell had not labored so mightily more than 100 years ago, we might be without essential information concerning the early lawyers and judges of our state.

Reading Caldwell's work and other early Tennessee history, one gets the sense that, incredible as it may seem, lawyers were disliked in pioneer times. A North Carolina statute passed a few years before Tennessee became a state stated that "because frequent abuses of attorneys have occasioned distress to many of the good people of this state," litigants were prohibited from hiring more than one attorney to speak in court. One historian has speculated that early Tennesseans' dislike may have come from the anti-lawyer viewpoints of North Carolina, or "the frontier lawyer, of little capacity and fortune, may have excited resentment by favoring and fomenting litigation." A proposed constitution for the State of Franklin made lawyers, doctors and preachers ineligible to serve in the legislature. An enactment of the legislature in 1796 seemed to make the maximum attorney's fee $12.50. Fortunately, in Newnan v. Washington, 8 Tenn. 86 (1827), the court ruled such was not the case in a suit for a $315 fee. Caldwell noted that the defendant invoked an old English doctrine that "the profession of the law is of an honorable character, and services rendered by its professors are gratuitious." Justice Henry Crabb observed that such was indeed the law in England, as to both attorneys and physicians, "[b]ut the doctrine has not prevailed in this State in regard to either." Caldwell wryly observed, "[T]he two professions are much indebted to Judge Crabb."

To the extent that our profession has recovered from the public's early disdain, it is doubtless due in part to the fact that lawyers have been a civilizing influence in our society both as a profession and, as in Caldwell's case, as outstanding individuals. Caldwell's love of learning was punctuated by his service to various educational and literary endeavors. He served two intervals as President of the Alumni Association of his alma mater, the University of Tennessee, as well as a trustee of that institution. He also held the position of trustee of the Tyson-McGhee Library and of the Tennessee Deaf and Dumb Asylum, and turned down a nomination as the State Superintendent of Education and of President of the University of Tennessee. Caldwell founded Knoxville's Irving Club in 1886. The club's membership was limited to 24 men, who met every Monday between September and June to discuss literature and current events.

Caldwell practiced law for thirty years, serving as a referee in bankruptcy, and representing private clients in chancery court and the City of Knoxville in general. An early foray into criminal law ended when his client suggested (to no avail) that zealous representation would involve Caldwell and another lawyer exchanging clothing with the client so he could walk out past the Sheriff in disguise. It is also appropriate to note that Caldwell joined the Tennessee Bar Association in 1891, and read papers on "Constitution Making in Tennessee" and Andrew Jackson's opponent Hugh Lawson White at the 1894 and 1895 annual conventions. He also served on two Tennessee Bar committees relating to constitutional and legal reform.

Caldwell's admirers regretted that his early death at age 53 kept him from writing a definitive history of the state. His compatriots in the Irving Club observed:

He took a just pride in the achievements of the great sons of Tennessee, whether upon the national arena or in State councils. He felt a supreme interest in the encouragement of investigations and studies that would bring to light larger information touching Tennesseans who had played prominent parts in the State's history and had contributed to her welfare and glory. The impulses he started and his own accomplishments make his fame and name imperishable.

Here's to the thinkers of the Tennessee Bar, past and present, who, like Joshua Caldwell and Durward Jones, have made contributions to the community at large that transcended their endeavors in the legal profession.