Throwback Thursday by Matson Insurance: Jefferson County Lawyers Enter Political Arena in 1830

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(Punxsutawney attorney Charles J. Margiotti achieved national prominence and was appointed State Attorney General under Governors Earle-D and Duff-R.)

BELLY UP TO THE BAR!

In part two of King Henry The Sixth, Shakespeare wrote the line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” You can find it inscribed on coffee mugs, posters, and other gift items. In fact, there are entire websites devoted to it! But what would our democracy be without this profession? The county seat of Brookville has seen a long list of lawyers come and go over its more than two centuries of existence as a governmental entity.

Today’s lawyers go to law school after earning an undergraduate degree. That was different for much of the 19th century. Like doctors-to-be who “read” medicine by shadowing a practicing physician, lawyers become members of the bar by “reading law” or clerking under the supervision of a practicing attorney. Then, after passing an examination and taking an oath, they could hang out their shingle.

Between 1804 and 1830 the court matters of the people who lived here were handled in Westmoreland and then Indiana County because Brookville was not named the county seat until 1830. Shortly before the first courthouse was completed eight lawyers were admitted to the bar by the Commonwealth for the December term of 1830.

Lawyers often enter the political arena or rise to judgeships. Some do both. In Jefferson County, William P. Jenks was the first judge native to the county to preside at court. President judge from 1872 to 1882, he grew up in a household of professional and law-minded men. His father was a physician and his mother was the daughter of a clergyman. Two older brothers, David Barkley and Phineas were both lawyers, as was the youngest brother, George. McKnight says George was considered “one of the brainiest lawyers of his generation.”

William served one term in the Pennsylvania legislature (1866-1867) and George served in the United States Congress (1875-1877), before becoming solicitor general during Cleveland’s first administration. Their sister, Mary Jenks, married Isaac G. Gordon, a lawyer from another county family with multiple lawyers. He started life in Union County as a moulder, but a disabling accident caused him to turn to law. He represented Clearfield, Elk, Jefferson, and McKean Counties in the state legislature in 1860 and 1861, then was appointed president judge of Mercer and Venango Counties. In 1873 he was elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and became chief justice in 1887. Cadmus, the fourth child of Isaac and Mary Gordon, also became a lawyer.

Lawyers are examined and admitted to practice by the Commonwealth. They voluntarily join the county bar associations. Kate M. Scott lists 39 lawyers admitted to the bar and practicing in Jefferson County in 1888 or roughly about one lawyer for every 700 people. Today, 120 years later, there are 44 lawyers who are members of the Jefferson County Bar Association, or about one lawyer for every thousand people.

As for that quote from Shakespeare, there is debate in legal circles as to its meaning. Some would claim it is actually intended as praise of the lawyer’s role. Others view it clearly as a “lawyer-bashing” joke, along with other of Shakespeare’s references to lawyers found in Romeo and Juliet and King Lear. A person’s point of view might depend upon his or her day in court, don’t you suppose?

[email protected] County Historical Society, Inc.

Throwback Thursday is brought to you by Matson Insurance in Brookville.

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Submitted by the Jefferson County History Center.


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