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Story Archives: In 1822, John Quitman advised to serve poor when powerful oppress
|In 1822, John Quitman advised to serve poor when powerful oppress|
(Fourth in a Series)
In July 1822 one of Natchez' leading lawyers left town for a trip down the Mississippi River and then by ocean to the east coast. He left his busy office in the hands of a 23-year-old New York native who just months earlier had earned his law license.
John Quitman came to Natchez, which was a region of great opportunity, to make his fortune. His father, a Lutheran minister in New York State, and an Ohio lawyer had been his mentors. In Natchez, attorney William B. Griffith, a New Jersey native, took over the role.
Lawyers had immigrated to Natchez by the dozens since it became an American territory in 1798. In the 1820s, the region's economy was surging at an historic pace and offered a young attorney great prospects. Natchez Under-the-Hill was a trade center, the riverbank lined with flatboats and steamers filled with cargoes of goods and people, while warehouses and taverns lined the riverbank. On the interior, both in Adams County and Concordia Parish, cotton fields were fueling a massive slave trade and planters were getting rich, some emerging debt free after three crops.
All this commerce required lawyers to write contracts, handle land transactions and to represent clients, both in civil and criminal cases. The bustle of a growing town resulted in a high crime rate which meant steady work for the lawyer in criminal court.
Just nine months after arriving in town, Quitman wrote his father: "Mr. Griffith, who has been like a brother to me, left for New Jersey last month by sea, and has promised to pay you a visit. The more I know him, the higher I esteem him. He is a noble fellow, and, as an orator and lawyer, is head of the Mississippi bar. He has left the business of his office entirely in my hands, and on his return will most probably offer me a partnership, especially since his recent appointment of United States District Attorney."
Nineteenth Century historian John F.H. Claiborne, who wrote a book on Quitman and published his correspondence, said Quitman's experience running Griffith's office during his absence "brought him (Quitman), every hour of the day, in contact with the prominent business men of the community and influential clients from all parts of the state, whose confidence that distinguished lawyer (Griffith) enjoyed." Quitman took advantage of the opportunity, said Claiborne, and "cast his path, and exerted what he himself considered a sort of magnetic faculty of attraction."
Men who knew Quitman said he was highly intelligent but that his mind may not have been the most brilliant, his oratorical skills second to many. But among men, they said Quitman had no rivals. He was a marksman with a rifle, often finished first in foot races and strength contests at fairs and seemed to quickly command the respect of any man he ever looked in the eye.
William H. Sparks knew Quitman and in a book he wrote about Natchez recalled: "Regardless of overwhelming competition, his open, frank manners soon made him friends, and the stern honesty of his character won the confidence of every one." In fact, Sparks said Quitman was so easy to approach, kind, courteous and warm that "soon he was the most popular man in the county."
Not long after William Griffith left Natchez on a trip to his native state of New Jersey, he wrote his young protege back home with some advice: "I am afraid you have already had -- and will have -- some difficulty in managing my business, arising from the hurry of my departure, and want of time to prepare the necessary instructions and explanation. I have, however, the fullest confidence in your abilities and industry; and my regret at giving you so much trouble, when it might perhaps have been avoided, is lessened by the reflection, that the greater the difficulties are, the greater will be the eventual advantage you will gain in surmounting them. You must extend your acquaintance with the people, and, without losing your dignity or descending to too much familiarity, acquire popularity and the esteem of the profanum vulgus (rabble)."
But how much should Quitman charge for his services and how should he treat his clients? Griffith offered advice:
"In relations to charges, when they are discretionary, and not fixed by the general consent of the bar, be moderate. You may, perhaps, smile to hear 'me' say so. There are some persons who would not esteem the service if they were not required to pay heavily for it. There are many such about Natchez, whose whole idea is wealth and its importance. There are others who really can not afford heavy fees, though highly respectable men. These must be indulged. My rule has generally been, never to disagree with a respectable man on that score."
When Griffith returned to Natchez, said Claiborne, "he found not only that his business had been conducted with admirable tact and discretion, but the young attorney had become one of the most popular men in the community."
And young John Quitman also seemed to take seriously Griffith's advice on how an attorney should treat those in need.
William Griffith told Quitman: "The poor, I need scarcely say, must be served freely, and with all our heart, when oppressed by the proud and powerful. This is the glory and consolation of our profession."
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