Luther Martin

Luther Martin (1748-1826) was an American lawyer, Revolutionary War patriot, and member of the Constitutional Convention.

Luther Martin was born in Metuchen, N. J., on Feb. 9, 1748. He attended the grammar school of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) and the college itself, graduating in 1766. Moving to Maryland, he taught school and studied law. Admitted to the Virginia bar in 1771 and to the Maryland bar the next year, he practiced in both colonies. Despite his land ownership and lucrative law practice, Martin mismanaged his financial affairs, and was sued for debt as early as 1770.

Martin's personal life was a succession of tragedies. The deaths of two wives left him with three daughters. One daughter became insane and died. Another married against her father's wishes and died a few years later; her son died in early manhood. Martin himself became infatuated with Aaron Burr's daughter, who was already married.

Martin lent his legal talent to the Revolutionary cause. He published defenses of the patriot position and, as Maryland's attorney general during the war, vigorously prosecuted Tories. As a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention, he made prolix, ungrammatical, and often disorganized speeches, that commanded attention and made him a leading spokesman of the states'-rights interests. He insisted on equal representation of the states in Congress, sought to limit the powers of both Congress and the president, and insisted that the Constitution be submitted to the state legislatures for ratification. He refused to sign the finished document and led opposition to its ratification in Maryland.

Martin's political career became a peculiar combination of adherence to the Federalist party and continued defense of states' rights. His federalism stemmed in part from his intense, personal anti-Jeffersonianism, which exploded in public attacks. His hostility to Jefferson was exacerbated by the 1805 impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, Martin's lifelong friend. Martin's arguments helped bring about Chase's acquittal. In 1807 Martin again opposed Jefferson in the famous treason trial of Aaron Burr; Martin's skillful defense aided in getting Burr acquitted.

In two other important cases, Fletcher v. Peck (1810) and McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), Martin argued for states' rights. However, Chief Justice John Marshall's nationalism proved to be more compelling in both instances and, in the process, produced historic Supreme Court decisions enlarging the scope of national jurisdiction.

Though Martin became increasingly intemperate in later years, his popular reputation was attested by the extraordinary action of the Maryland Legislature in levying a license tax on attorneys to create a trust fund for its now destitute former attorney general. Martin died in New York City on July 10, 1826. Universally acknowledged as a distinguished orator and a legal genius in his day, Martin contributed to the nation's legal development.


Further Reading on Luther Martin

The only full-length biography is Paul Clarkson and R. Samuel Jett, Luther Martin of Maryland (1970). It is as definitive as the absence of any significant body of Martin papers allows. Martin's legal career is treated briefly in Charles Warren, History of the American Bar (1911; repr. 1966), and his participation in the Chase and Burr trials more fully in Albert J. Beveridge, Life of John Marshall (4 vols., 1916-1919). Martin's role in the Constitution struggle may be traced in Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (4 vols., 1911-1937; rev. ed. 1966).