David Dudley Field

David Dudley Field (1805-1894), controversial American jurist, was a vigorous champion of legal reform.

David Dudley Field was born on Feb. 13, 1805, at Haddam, Conn. His brother Cyrus laid the first Atlantic cable, and another brother, Stephen, became an influential Supreme Court justice. He attended the Stockbridge Academy and Williams College but withdrew before graduating. Field studied law in Albany and New York City, was admitted to the bar in 1828, and became a partner in a New York firm. By 1840 his reported worth was $100,000, this affluence coming partly from his practice and partly from his marriage to a wealthy widow. Throughout his career he was known for his rigidity and single-mindedness, qualities that both helped and hindered him.

In 1839 Field had begun his long fight for legal reform through codification. New York's distinction between equity and common-law courts seemed chaotic to him. He believed that the laws ought to be systematized, contradictions eliminated, bad laws removed, and all placed in one book available to lawyer, magistrate, and client alike. But codification was considered a radical change in the legal system, and only one of his five codes, the penal, was adopted by New York (1881) due to opposition by the legal profession.

In other states Field's codes were better received. The civil procedure code was adopted in part by 24 American states and several foreign countries. The criminal procedure code had a similar reception outside New York. Partly through the efforts of Stephen Field, California adopted all five codes.

When his work on the domestic codes was completed in 1865, Field turned to international codification. He was largely responsible for the Draft Outline of an International Code (1872), which considered the peace-time relations of nations; a second edition (1876) had an added section on war.

Field split from the Democratic party over its territorial expansion and slavery policies. He became active in the Free Soil party, then in the new Republican party, and was an early supporter of Abraham Lincoln. He may have influenced Lincoln's appointment of his brother Stephen to the Supreme Court in 1863. In 1864, however, he was part of a move to oust Lincoln from the ticket. He finally returned to the Democratic party. He skillfully but unsuccessfully argued the case of Democrat Samuel Tilden in the disputed Hayes-Tilden presidential election of 1876. In the Reconstruction era he argued a number of important constitutional cases before the Supreme Court. In general his arguments helped protect civil liberties of white citizens but were detrimental to the civil rights of black freedmen.

Before the Civil War, Field had crusaded against lawyers' arguing cases in which they knew their client was wrong. But after the war his choice of clients, like robber barons Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, and some questionable tactics led to a report critical of his conduct by the Bar Association of New York City. He died on April 13, 1894, in New York City.


Further Reading on David Dudley Field

There is no modern biography of Field. The best source is Speeches, Arguments and Miscellaneous Papers of David Dudley Field, edited by A. P. Sprague (3 vols., 1884-1890). Background studies are Albert Wormser, The Law: The Story of Lawmakers and the Law We Have Lived By from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1949), and William Seal Carpenter, Foundations of Modern Jurisprudence (1958).

Additional Biography Sources

Field, Henry M. (Henry Martyn), The life of David Dudley Field, Littleton, Colo.: F.B. Rothman, 1995.

Van Ee, Daun, David Dudley Field and the reconstruction of the law, New York: Garland, 1986.