The Volokh Conspiracy

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Lyman Trumbull: The anti-slavery and pro-Second Amendment Senator and lawyer


Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull is not well-known today, but he is one of the "Founding Sons" who transformed the nation and the Constitution before, during, and after the Civil War. He wrote the Thirteenth Amendment, the first Freedmen's Bureau Bill, and the Civil Rights Act. He sponsored the first federal statutes which actually freed slaves. As Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and later as a civil rights attorney, he did more to protect Second Amendment rights-including taking a test case to the U.S. Supreme Court (Presser v. Illinois)-than did any other lawyer or legislator in the century after Jefferson and Madison.

Trumbull has been the subject of three biographies, the last of which was published four decades ago, but he has never been the subject of a legal biography. So in a new article (just submitted to law reviews), I provide the first legal biography of Lyman Trumbull. Like Jonathan Bingham, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and Salmon P. Chase, Trumbull led the legal fight against slavery and the incidents of slavery, such as disarmament and arbitrary captivity. These Founding Sons transformed and improved the American constitutional order created by the Founding Fathers.

Lyman Trumbull's role as a Second Amendment champion was somewhat accidental, for he was not a "gun guy"; he didn't carry a gun for protection, even when traveling, and his preferred sports were sailing and croquet. The reason that he ended up doing so much for Second Amendment was that during public career of 1840-96 he was always an ardent champion of the working man. In congressional statutes and in court cases, he defended Second Amendment rights because those rights were necessary for the working man to resist oppression by the wealthy-for the freedmen in the Reconstructed South to protect themselves from de facto re-enslavement, and for the immigrant laborers of the industrial North to defend their rights to organize and protest.

Some people thought that Trumbull was inconsistent; he changed political parties five times. (Democrat, Anti-Nebraska Democrat, Republican, Liberal Republican, Democrat, Populist.) He cast his first presidential vote for Democrat Martin Van Buren in 1836 because Trumbull and Van Buren were both against "big government." At the end of Trumbull's career, in the 1890s, he was allied with socialists; he wrote the platform for the People's Party ("Populists"), and he joined with Clarence Darrow to bring to the U.S. Supreme Court a habeas corpus petition on behalf of the labor leader Eugene Debs-after Debs had been sent to prison for violating a federal court injunction by leading a national railroad strike.

To Trumbull, there was no contradiction. The fight in the Debs case was for the right of workers to withhold their labor-the same cause for which Trumbull had fought as a young attorney Illinois, where he became the state's leading anti-slavery lawyer. Although Illinois had banned slave imports, there was still slavery for the descendants of the slaves who were held by descendants of the French settlers who had lived in Illinois at the time when Illinois was acquired by the United States. Trumbull ended "the old French slavery" by winning the 1845 case Jarrot v. Jarrot in the Illinois Supreme Court.

In the words of Clarence Darrow (Trumbull's co-counsel in the Debs case) Trumbull devoted his life to to creating "a fair chance" for "the poor who toil for a living in this world." Lyman Trumbull was an outstanding lawyer, a superb legislator, and a great American. He inspires me, and I hope that he may do the same for you.