de Vos: Lawyers in Congress
The Friday Report
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Dick the Butcher shouts this in Part 2 of Shakespeare’s play, Henry VI. It’s become a famous line for t-shirts and coffee mugs, humorous in its hyperbole and mean-spirited in its hopefulness.
In 1850, eight out of ten Congressmen were lawyers. By 1960 it had fallen to six out of ten and today it’s four out of ten and the numbers are still dropping. Before you chalk that up as good news, be aware that it’s because they’re abandoning low-paid political careers for the Sky’s-the-Limit private sector.
There are about 1.3 million attorneys currently in practice in America with about 55,000 bright, shiny new lawyers passing the bar annually. In 1890, four out of every thousand attorneys were in Congress. Today that figure is one out of every 6,000. That reflects not only their flight from Congress but also a growing surplus of pinstripes and tort suits. In Colorado, three out of every four folks who take the bar exam pass it. In Montana it’s almost 90%.
Politicians have become paid servants to the wealthy. Public service and leadership no longer interest them in their role as protectors of special interests. Of course, fatter wallets receive extra special interest. Congress gets nothing done because they’ll only tear themselves from the mirror to beg for money or clemency.
Since their numbers are dwindling in Congress, our legislative dysfunction may not be solved by killing all the lawyers. In fact, Shakespeare is actually advocating quite the opposite. If you slip back five centuries and put the lines in context, the whole scene is a striking compliment to the law profession.
When his dad’s brief reign ended abruptly in 1422, Henry VI was crowned at age 16. But he never got the hang of wielding the scepter. He was weak. By 1450, his monarchy was in shambles. His wife Margie was carrying on in front of his back, Joan of Arc (a girl) had kicked his butt in France, while the royal court played paper/rock/scissors for the crown.
Lord York was the nastiest of the pretenders to Henry’s throne. He hired a professional street thug named Jack Cade to create havoc in London. York even had Cade pose as a royal claimant to the crown, just to see if it would work. I know that’s convoluted but it’s Shakespeare and all. York figured he could then push Cade out of the way and install himself as king. Cade raised a bloodthirsty band of rabble and, while the army was busy in France, terrorized all of London. At this point Cade decided to become king himself by killing a bunch of the royal court and most of London’s intelligentsia.
Cade shared his plan with his chief henchman, Dick the Butcher, who roared approval and shouted, “First let’s kill all the lawyers.” Then they set out doing just that. In the end, however, Cade’s mob figured out he was no good and stabbed him to death.
In essence, what Shakespeare is saying is that to disrupt the social order for your own gain, the first thing is to do away with the law. So despite how tempting it sometimes is, and how much fun it is to say, the phrase is actually quite complimentary to lawyers.
There’s just so doggone many of ‘em.
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