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1821: The Attorney General and the Rule of Law

1821: The Attorney General and the Rule of Law

Chapter:
XIV. 1821: The Attorney General and the Rule of Law
Source:
A Community Built on Words
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226677224.003.0015

William Wirt was one of the greatest public lawyers of the early Republic. As a young Republican lawyer he was a member of the defense team representing the defendant in a notorious Sedition Act prosecution, United States v. Callender, and later sat at the opposite table as one of the prosecutors in United States v. Burr. In later years he served briefly as U.S. attorney in Virginia and then for almost twelve years (1817–1829) as attorney general of the United States, the longest period anyone has held that office. Wirt did as much to shape the position of attorney general as anyone before or since, and long enjoyed a reputation, as an early-twentieth-century court put it, as a “learned...great and able lawyer.” One of Wirt's central accomplishments was his regularization of the attorney general's role as the executive branch's chief interpreter of the law.

Keywords:   rule of law, attorney general, William Wirt, Sedition Act, executive branch, interpreter of law

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