In 1839, French immigrant John Bouvier published the first edition of his classic "Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union," hoping it would be "useful to the profession" as the first legal dictionary based on American law. Well-received by such notable jurists as Chancellor James Kent of the New York Supreme Court and Justice Joseph Story of the United States Supreme Court, it was revised by Bouvier in 1843 and 1848. After his death in 1851, it continued to be updated and published anew through more than 20 editions and is still in print.
These 12 autograph letter, sent to Bouvier over a period of 23 years, spanned his career from small-town Pennsylvania newspaper publisher to Philadelphia lawyer and Judge, and reveal his intermingling interest in politics and law – and the last reached him just days after the Dictionary that would make his name famous in the legal profession appeared in the bookshops of Philadelphia.
1. Unsigned (and apparently incomplete) Harrisburg, Pa., January 27 – February 3, 1817, three pages.
To Bouvier, then the 20 year-old editor of The American Telegraph, Brownsville, Fayette County, the weekly newspaper he had founded three years before, being resolved to "discountenance factions and factitious men" while dedicated to "exposure and support of the truth."
The unknown writer, a friendly local lawyer and legislator seems "factitious" enough, inexplicably breaking off his letter in mid-sentence while castigating – for "hypocrisy, intreague, falsehood, infamy and political terqiversation" [sic] – Dr. Michael Leib, a physician, scientist, inventor and philosopher who served in the Pennsylvania Senate as well as the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. Significantly, the letter also mentions a pending petition asking the Governor to appoint Bouvier a Justice of the Peace and responds to Bouvier's declared interest in beginning to study Law, recommending Blackstone's Commentaries as a preliminary text and offers the use of his own law library as well as legal "instruction" by his law partner.
2. Stewart, Andrew, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, January 18, 1818, to Bouvier as Editor of the American Telegraph in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, 3 pages
Stewart was a state legislator who proudly stated that he had "written and reported to the house … between 20 and 30 bills on various subjects …" He thanks Bouvier for information "on your Domestic politics" and describes attending, on New Year's day, the "most splendid … grand Levee" ever seen in Washington, D. C.: "Commodores, Generals … in full dress, foreign Ministers … rigged off with all the paraphernalia, badges, stars and garters, the European nobility". Like the earlier writer, he condemns Dr. Leib and his "miserable little band of factitious followers". He was also disturbed by an "infamous, garbled and mutilated … false and scandalous… report" on the coming Inauguration. Stewart, then serving as U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania and soon to be elected to the U.S. Congress, Stewart was a significant figure in Bouvier's life as it was under Stewart's tutelage that he began to study law, being admitted to the Bar of Fayette County the following year. After two more years as a journalist, he gave up his newspaper in 1820 and in 1823 moved to Philadelphia to begin his law practice.
3. Elder, Thomas, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Bouvier, Philadelphia, January 8, 1827, 1 page
Elder, who had been Attorney General of Pennsylvania four years before, had been subpoenaed – as had all the attorneys of Lebanon – as witnesses in the case of a Judge who had been impeached. But, he still intended fulfilling Bouvier's request for a legal service.
4. Ellis, M. Cox, Harrisburg, to Bouvier, Philadelphia, January 10, 1827, 2 pages
Concerns a judgment he had won for their client of $ 1,478. Ellis, apparently then Bouvier's law partner, had served in both the Pennsylvania and the U.S. House of Representatives.
5. Burden, Dr. Jesse R., (Signed with initials and free-franked), Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Bouvier, Attorney, Philadelphia, January 28, 1827
Burden, a Quaker who served as Speaker of the State Senate, writes humorously about legislation in which Bouvier was interested. "If thou couldest get Friend Meredith to oppose it vehemently I really think thou wouldst obtain success … I should have no objection to aid thy friends with my obstetrical knowledge and acquirements to give it a fair chance of coming forth still-born without hurting its mother…" As to the Bridge stock, "our up-risings and down-sittings are likely to be continued in this land of Dauphin and … we shall tarry at Jericho for a season." As to Bouvier's comment about political "fractures" : "… thinkest thou that men of healing are anxious to prevent the will of Providence? I might as well say to thee, rejoice for lo! The time cometh when strife shall cease between man and man until the voice of the lawyer shall not be heard from the rising of the Sun to the going down of the same."
6. Rhoads, Daniel J., Pottsville, Pennsylvania, to Bouvier, Attorney, Philadelphia, May 9, 1831, 1 page
Rhoads had just returned from a visit to his West Branch Coal Lands and would supply the money "to pay the City."
7. Todd, James, Uniontown, Pennsylvania to Bouvier, Philadelphia, August 15, 1835, 3 pages
Todd writes: his "advertisement in case of the partition of the toll lands" had not yet arrived and would like them as soon as possible. "I had hoped your city printers who do so much advertising business would be prompt". He required proof of publication for a legal case. "As to the election all is yet fair in the west …Do let me hear from your prospects in the east. I think [Governor] Ritner's Prospects are good. The general impression here is by all parties that he will be elected. Indeed our friends are confident he will beat the united vote of both his opponents…"
Governor Joseph Ritner was elected, much to the benefit of Bouvier, whom he appointed first Philadelphia City Recorder and then Associate Justice of the Court of Criminal Sessions.
8. Thompson, John, Unsigned, and possibly incomplete, but with his free-frank signature as state legislator on address leaf, Harrisburg to Bouvier, Philadelphia, January 26, 1836
"… our opponents are watching for every slip and anything that would lose us any one of the papers here that support your election would probably turn the current against us …those Whigs who voted with us lost face … Morris the Editor of the Enquirer attended our late antimasonic meeting … his columns have been opened to antimasonic matter … we cannot move so fast here as in the country, we have to keep our opponents in the wrong in publick estimation …"
9. Signed only "Opponent of Unlawful Combinations" Philadelphia, to Bouvier, as Recorder of the City of Philadelphia, March 23, 1836, 1 page
"Having listened to your eloquent and learned charge to the Grand Jury at the opening of the Mayor's Court … and being convinced that its publication would not only gratify but enlighten many of your fellow citizens, I respectfully request you to hand it to one of the Daily prints for insertion…"
10. Conrad, R.[obert] T.[aylor], Harrisburg, to Bouvier as Judge, Philadelphia, March 5, 1838, 1 page
"… I have been constantly engaged on the Court Bill" Names several legislators who were opposing it. "I think that it cannot be carried. My fears have been realized. The dangers arise from our friends. I am doing all that can be done to bring the friends of the Administrators to the charge and if I succeed, may carry the Bill, but dare not indulge in expectation. The City delegations are true …" No year on the letter, but a postscript – "Porter nominated" – apparently refers to the nomination of David Porter for Governor, opposing the incumbent, Bouvier's friend, Ritner. Porter won but the election result was bitterly contested by Ritner's supporters to the point of violence leading to the "Buckshot War" of 1838, which forced Ritner to call out the militia to restore order in Harrisburg. Conrad was later elected Mayor of Philadelphia.
11. Ronaldson, James, Philadelphia to Judge Bouvier, December 24, 1838, 1 page
Concerns an unsettled bill. Ronaldson was a veteran Philadelphia printer, a close friend of Thomas Jefferson's, who established the first permanent type foundry in the United States and invented the first truly American typeface. It's interesting that this letter states the amount owed as $ 29.86 because it was Ronaldson who originated the "$" as the dollar sign for American printing.
12. Sturgeon, Dr. Daniel, Harrisburg, Treasury Office to Bouvier, Philadelphia, January 7, 1840, 1 page
Sturgeon sends a check for $ 650 for the Judge's quarterly salary. Sturgeon was later elected to the United States Senate.
American National Biography, vol. 3, p. 262
Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 1, section 2, pp. 490-491 (Inventory #: 30780)