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Peter Stephen Du Ponceau: A Man of Letters

by Gerard J. St. John

Fall 2002, Vol. 65, No. 3

"Nobody knows the trouble I've seen." It is the opening line of a well-known spiritual. This statement might also apply to lawyers, who are bound to maintain the confidentiality of their clients' affairs and, accordingly, cannot share many of their troubles with colleagues or friends. Perhaps that is why almost all of the entertaining books about lawyers are works of fiction, for example, Anatomy of a Murder, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Philadelphian. The dearth of interesting biographies, particularly autobiographies, about lawyers might also be because lawyers are used to writing about or on behalf of others; we somehow feel uneasy when it comes to writing about ourselves. And the inevitable result is that many outstanding lawyers are soon forgotten. Such is the case with Peter Stephen Du Ponceau.

In 1802, Du Ponceau was one of the seventy-one lawyers who founded what is now called the Philadelphia Bar Association. At 42 years of age, he was an accomplished lawyer and recognized as an expert in the law relating to international commercial transactions. Du Ponceau was fluent in virtually all of the European languages. He handled cases arising from significant events of his time. For example, in McIlvaine v. Coxe, 4 Cranch 209 (1808), Du Ponceau argued that a resident of New Jersey who left the country shortly after the Declaration of Independence and who had declared his allegiance to Britain should be considered an alien who forfeited his title to real estate in the United States. Du Ponceau also represented European merchants whose cargoes had been seized or destroyed on the high seas. Along with his Philadelphia lawyer colleagues-William Lewis, Alexander Dallas, Jared Ingersoll, William Rawle and Edward Tilghman-Du Ponceau annually made the three-day journey in February to appear before the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Moreover, Du Ponceau was not a one-dimensional person, not by any stretch of the imagination. He served as president of the American Philosophical Society, the organization founded by Benjamin Franklin for the advancement of science. President Thomas Jefferson wanted to appoint Du Ponceau chief justice of Louisiana. Du Ponceau declined the appointment. He was the second Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, and the first provost of The Law Academy. He was president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. And he received high praise, including an international award, for his treatise on the grammatical structure of the languages of Indians in North America. His work on the languages of North American Indians drew the attention of Alexis de Tocqueville, who was gathering information for his classic Democracy in America. Tocqueville made it a point to interview Peter Du Ponceau.

But a recitation of Du Ponceau's accomplishments, viewed in isolation, tells us little about the man and his times. In early nineteenth-century Philadelphia, nearly everyone urged Du Ponceau to write an autobiography. Yet, Du Ponceau demurred. He did not seek public attention. He could not understand why anyone would find the story of his life to be of any significance.

In 1836, there was a change. After the death of William Rawle, Philadelphia lawyer Thomas I. Wharton undertook to write a memoir on Rawle. Wharton asked for Du Ponceau's help. Wharton asked the 76-year-old Du Ponceau to write a letter containing his recollections of Rawle. Du Ponceau wrote the letter, and it contained as much about the world of Peter Du Ponceau as it did about his friend William Rawle.

Du Ponceau told about William Lewis, the Philadelphia lawyer with whom he studied the law in 1784. Lewis was the son of a Chester County farmer. As a youth, Lewis would bring his father's horse and wagon to the market in Philadelphia. After selling the vegetables, Lewis would go into the courthouse at Second and Market streets and listen to the lawyers. This sparked a keen interest in the legal profession. Lewis sought an apprenticeship with lawyer George Ross, and was eventually admitted to the bar. Du Ponceau's letter describes Lewis as, "at that time [1784] the most celebrated lawyer in Philadelphia, and, perhaps, in the United States."

It was while studying with Lewis that Du Ponceau met Rawle. Du Ponceau and Rawle had a mutual interest in law books. And in 1785, Rawle was one of the two examiners who interviewed Du Ponceau for admission to the bar of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

Du Ponceau's letter describes his February journeys with Lewis, Dallas, Ingersoll, Rawle and Tilghman to the U.S. Supreme Court. Those six Philadelphia lawyers shared a stagecoach and also shared the bumps and bruises inflicted by three-days travel in each direction, much of it over rugged forest roads. How did those preeminent Philadelphia lawyers conduct themselves on their way to the highest court in the land? Du Ponceau's letter tells us that "as soon as we were out of the city, and felt the flush of air, we were like school boys on the play ground on a holiday; and we began to kill time by all the means that our imagination could suggest." They sang, made outrageous puns, told jokes and generally made fun of each other.

In February 1808, after Rawle and Du Ponceau had argued opposite sides of the McIlvaine case, their courtroom argument was resumed in the stagecoach on the way back to Philadelphia. Rawle had argued in court that, although the British subject had sworn allegiance to Britain, the revolution acted as a new birth and that he became a citizen, albeit against his own will. Du Ponceau had responded that he had "never heard of a surgical operation, by which the subject was extracted from the womb, with the revolutionary forceps." Sharp comments about "forceps" flashed back and forth among the six passengers. The driver was so caught up in the quick exchanges of wit that he failed to see a tree stump in the road. The coach nearly overturned. The driver was thrown from his seat and the horses ran uncontrolled toward a dangerous bridge across a river. All six lawyers leaped from the hurtling stagecoach and went sprawling across the Maryland countryside. Had it not been for an honest and resourceful farmer who later found and returned the horses and stage, it would have been a long walk to Baltimore.

Du Ponceau's letter makes it clear that a strong camaraderie developed among those six lawyers. They not only traveled to the Supreme Court as a unit but they also arrived at court together and they left together. And Justice Bushrod Washington, who had read the law in Philadelphia, welcomed them with the proud declaration, "This is my bar."

Du Ponceau may have doubted his own ability to write an autobiography but his letter to Wharton provides an interesting snapshot of Philadelphia lawyers in the early 1800s. And this was not the only letter of that type Du Ponceau wrote. In 1836, Robert Walsh, a journalist, asked Du Ponceau to write a series of letters about his life. Over the next year, Du Ponceau wrote seven letters to Walsh. But then Walsh moved to Paris and the project was abandoned. About one year later, Du Ponceau's granddaughter, Anna Garesché, persuaded him to resume writing the autobiographical letters. Reluctantly, Du Ponceau acquiesced and continued the course of letters even though his health was declining. Du Ponceau dictated the last several letters to Anna, who wrote them out in longhand. The letters describe the early life of Peter S. Du Ponceau. And a fascinating life it was.

Du Ponceau was born on the Isle of Re, just off the coast of France, in the Bay of Biscay. His father, an army officer, wanted him to join the military, that is, until it was determined that "Pierre" was very nearsighted. Peter did not want to become a soldier. But he did enjoy being at the garrison on the Isle of Re where he came into contact with military men from many countries. Peter was gifted when it came to languages. He would talk to the foreign soldiers; and before long, he would be speaking that soldier's native language.

Peter's mother wanted him to become a priest. At the age of 13 years, his mother enrolled him in a college of Benedictine monks, and two years later, in the abbey at La Rochelle to study for the priesthood. One month after entering the abbey, Peter ran away to Paris where he supported himself by translating English writings, later taking a position as secretary to a minister who was engaged in literary efforts. It was not long before he met an unemployed Prussian soldier, Captain Frederick Steuben.

Most Americans are familiar with the story of Steuben: how Benjamin Franklin in France feared that the Continental Congress would ignore this Prussian captain; how Franklin wrote a letter introducing Steuben as "Baron de Steuben, lately a lieutenant-general in the king of Prussia's service;" and how Baron Von Steuben instilled discipline in the ragged American army at Valley Forge. What is usually left out of the story is that Steuben spoke little or no English. All of Steuben's commands and his training manual were written by his 17-year-old secretary, Peter Du Ponceau, who then held the rank of captain. It was not exactly the military career that his father had in mind. But at the early age of 17 years, Peter Du Ponceau found himself an officer on the staff of General George Washington, a staff that included Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, John Marshall, James Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette, among others.

Over the next two years, Du Ponceau was promoted to the rank of major. He participated in cavalry sorties as far north as West Point and New Rochelle. When Steuben was ordered south, Du Ponceau went with him to Virginia where they were engaged in a series of minor frays with the cavalry of Lord Cornwallis. It was in 1779 that Du Ponceau was first diagnosed as suffering from "consumption," a broad term typically applied to tuberculosis and similar diseases. Still, Du Ponceau continued with the army as far south as the North Carolina border. At that point, illness forced him to turn back and return to Philadelphia. Everyone thought Du Ponceau was going to die.

Du Ponceau did not die-at least not at that time. In Philadelphia, his health gradually improved. In 1782, with the help of Steuben's recommendation and the influence of other significant leaders, he obtained employment in the Office of Foreign Affairs, which was headed by Robert Livingston. It was a logical step from the Office of Foreign Affairs to the law office of William Lewis.

It is at this point, however, that Du Ponceau's autobiographical letters stopped. Peter Stephen Du Ponceau died on April 1, 1844. Before he died, he expressed regret that he had not begun writing his letters earlier in life. Had he written more letters, Peter Du Ponceau might be a familiar figure. Instead, Du Ponceau has been treated by history as a person to be dismissed summarily with adjectival characterizations that are often inconsistent, e.g., "an upper-class Philadelphian," "specifically not an Old Philadelphian," and "a French auslander." On the other hand, Philadelphia lawyers should be grateful for the letters that were written and the insights those letters preserved. Moreover, it is entirely appropriate that the new building on Independence Mall places the Liberty Bell almost exactly on the site of Du Ponceau's home and law office.