The early years of the American Bar Association, 1878-1928

Matzko, John Austin, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Harbaugh, William, Department of History, University of Virginia
McCurdy, Charles W., Department of History, University of Virginia

The American Bar Association was founded by Simeon Baldwin and other members of the legal elite who wished to revitalize their profession. During its however, the ABA functioned less as organization than as a genteel social annually at fashionable Saratoga Springs. earliest years, a professional club which met Only when the Association was challenged by the National Bar Association (1888-1891), an anemic rival organized along representative lines, did the ABA respond by convening in larger cities. Yet even after the Association began to so1icit members during the second decade of the twentieth century, it retained certain characteristics of a private club, such as de facto governance by an inner circle, leisurely policymaking, and refusal to admit blacks.

For much of its early history the American Bar Association supported conservative reform as a means of restoring the influence of the legal elite to American life. ABA leaders viewed the growth of corporate power with almost as much trepidation as labor violence, and they did not oppose legal evolution so long as it was directed by the judiciary and not by state or federal legislatures. Emulating the medical profession--though with considerably less success--the Association attempted to "raise standards" by gaining control of professional education, entrance examinations, and ethical codes.

During the second decade of the twentieth century, the mood of the Association grew noticeably more pessimistic as it became clear that the legal elite would be unable to guide progressive tendencies. Dismayed by attempts to institute the recall of judges and judicial decisions, the ABA allowed a reactionary firebrand to direct its successful campaign against the proposals. Association leaders had hoped that World War I would purge the nation's soul of unAmerican accretions, but they ruefully discovered that war only accelerated the spread of revolutionary socialism and the growth of the federal government. To counter these trends, the ABA launched a frenzied but ineffective crusade to promote "Americanization" and the veneration of the Constitution. Thus even before the appearance of the New Deal, the American Bar Association had become a conservative political pressure

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
American Bar Association -- History

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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