5 Lawyers Who Shook Up the Political World – Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro

Abraham Lincoln
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Abraham Lincoln. Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

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Lawyers and Politics just can’t be separated.

They go hand in hand and get on well with each other.

In fact, I’ll even go as far as to say that no other trade or profession has had as much impact on the world of politics, directly or indirectly, as lawyers have had.

Don’t believe me?

Fair enough. Please allow me to convince you then!

My evidence is fairly obvious, that is, Political History. The history of world politics has shown us time and again that lawyers have dominated the political stage for centuries, either directly or indirectly. They have impacted the world at large as no other profession has.

And I shall list a few of them now in order to prove my case.

But before I do so, I would like to include a few honorary mentions who deserve to be on this list (if the list were longer), but didn’t quite make it.

Honorary mentions include:

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt (the 32nd President of the United States)
  2. Jawaharlal Nehru (the 1st Prime Minister of Independent India)
  3. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (the father of the Indian Constitution)
  4. Barack Obama (the 44th President of the United States)

All the above-mentioned names were also lawyers before they entered the world of politics.

Now let’s begin with the main list!

Thomas Jefferson

Yes, the man himself. Thomas Jefferson. A great statesman, philosopher, diplomat, architect, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, and the Nation’s 3rd President.

Thomas Jefferson was all those things, as well as a lawyer.

As a young man, Jefferson was admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1767. Apart from the usual cases that came his way, he was also known to take cases of slaves who were seeking their freedom.

In one particular instance, he even waived his fee for a client who claimed that he should be freed before the statutory age of thirty-one, which was required for emancipation in cases with interracial grandparents. In order to assert his client’s claim, Jefferson invoked the Natural Law by stating that everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person, and with a right to use it at his own will.

It seems to be a pretty convincing argument now, doesn’t it? An argument that’s obvious and fair. But, unfortunately, it was a different time in history back then, and the Judge ruled against his client.

But Jefferson didn’t let this ideal of his go to waste. He would later incorporate it into the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson also took several cases for the General Court of Virginia in 1767, where he was involved in three highly notable ones: Howell v. Netherland (1770), Bolling v. Bolling (1771), and Blair v. Blair (1772).

While practicing law, Jefferson represented Albemarle County as a delegate in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769 until 1775, where he strongly advocated reforms to slavery. And in 1769 he introduced legislation allowing masters to take control over the emancipation of slaves, taking the authority and discretion away from the Royal Governor and General Court.

Even later on in his life, while serving as the 3rd President of the USA, Jefferson would go on to use his knowledge of the law to shape the newly independent country and guide it in the right direction.

In 1807, Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.

Abraham Lincoln

Another great statesman! And another President! Perhaps one of the most loved US Presidents of all time.

How could this list be complete without mentioning Abraham Lincoln? It’s obvious, I have to mention him.

The fact that Lincoln was a lawyer, and a good one at that, is widely known.

Lincoln’s life can serve as an inspiration to each and every one of us. He was mostly self-educated, with barely any formal schooling to his name. But his willingness to work hard, his dedication, his ability to never give up in the face of failure, and his lifelong interest in learning, all led him to greatness.

In order to become a lawyer, Lincoln had to again rely solely on himself. He studied law on his own by reading law books that were loaned to him. And in 1836, he obtained his license for practicing law.

In 1837, Lincoln was admitted to the Bar of Illinois. And thus began his successful law career.

Can you imagine? He did it all without any sort of formal education in law. Only sheer hard work and persistence!

Lincoln went on to have a lucrative law career. He was involved in many notable, high-profile cases, the majority of which were decided in his favor. And it was his legal reputation that gave rise to the nickname by which we all know him now – ‘Honest Abe’.

But, as we all know, Lincoln went on to achieve greater things in life while serving as the 16th President of the United States. He led the North to victory in the Civil War and put an end to slavery in the USA with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln encouraged the border states to outlaw slavery, and he promoted the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which outlawed slavery across the country.

He was a man who stood for his beliefs and convictions, no matter the consequences, for he knew they were right and just.

I believe we should all strive to be a little more like Honest Abe.

Mahatma Gandhi

One of the most influential men to have ever lived. The Mahatma himself. Or as we call him in India, ‘Bapu’.

Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer, political activist, and social reformer, who led India to Independence from British rule. He is the Father of India.

In 1888, Gandhi, aged 18, sailed from Bombay to London in order to study law at University College. He was invited to enroll at Inner Temple with the intention of becoming a barrister. And in 1891, he was called to the bar.

Gandhi returned to India to establish a law practice in Bombay. But things didn’t turn out as expected. Gandhi was naturally very shy and introverted. And his attempts at establishing a law practice in Bombay failed because of his fear of public speaking, and because he was unable to cross-examine his witnesses.

But in 1893, Gandhi’s life would change. He sailed to South Africa to act as a lawyer for the cousin of a man named Dada Abdullah. He thought it would be a one-year commitment, but he ended up spending 21 years in South Africa.

It was in South Africa that Gandhi developed his political views and philosophy. This was where his philosophy of Non-violent Resistance or ‘Satyagraha’, was born.

As the years passed by, Gandhi increasingly moved away from practicing law, and steered more towards political and social activism. He fought for the rights of the Indian indentured laborers in South Africa, by organizing marches, demonstrations, and civil disobedience campaigns.

The results of Gandhi’s peaceful methods of protesting were surprising, and many of the campaigns were successful and effective.

By the time Gandhi returned to India in 1915, he was no longer a practicing lawyer. He was a political and social activist who had already become a hero to the Indian people.

For the next 33 years, Gandhi led the Indian masses against the British Empire, using the same non-violent methods developed by him in South Africa. And on 15th August 1947, India finally gained its Independence under Gandhi’s leadership.

Gandhi’s peaceful methods of protesting against an unjust rule inspired many other movements for civil and political rights, human rights, and freedom across the world. He also served as an inspiration to great leaders and activists such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Cesar Chavez.

Mahatma Gandhi’s message to the world continues to be of value even to this day.

Nelson Mandela

The first black President of South Africa. A great statesman. A human rights icon.

Nelson Mandela was one of those rare human beings who are born but rarely in history. His life is a source of inspiration for millions of people around the world. And his struggle symbolized the strength of the human spirit and mind.

After completing his BA in 1943, Mandela began studying law at the University of Witwatersrand, where he was the only native African student. Simultaneously, he began his three-year articles at Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman.

By his own admission, he was a poor student. While studying law, he became increasingly aware of the racial inequality existing in South Africa. He saw how non-whites were oppressed and subjugated, and segregation based on race was widespread. This sudden awareness prompted him to join the African National Congress (ANC), to fight against the Apartheid political system.

Mandela’s increasing involvement in politics distracted him from his law studies. And in 1948, after having failed his final year exam three times, he left the University without graduating.

The only reason why Mandela could practice as a lawyer, later on, was because the minimum qualification for entering the profession was an Attorney’s Diploma, followed by five years of articles. And so, Mandela qualified as an attorney in 1952, and along with Oliver Tambo opened the first black legal practice, Mandela & Tambo, in South Africa. They gave affordable and sometimes even free legal advice to native Africans who could otherwise never afford it. This meant that they were constantly in great demand.

But Mandela and Tambo’s political life regularly interfered with their law practice. They were constantly persecuted by the Government, which eventually affected their practice, forcing them to shut down the firm.

But in the long run, it didn’t matter.

Mandela went on to achieve greater things in life. After spending 27 years in various prisons, he came out victorious. He went on to become the first black President of South Africa, ensured a smooth transition of power, and succeeded in making South Africa a truly democratic nation.

Mandela spread the message of love and peace, equality and justice, and he advocated for a united and race-less South Africa.

And now that is his greatest achievement!

Fidel Castro

Perhaps the most controversial figure on this list. But that’s hardly surprising.

Fidel Castro, the great Cuban revolutionary, was one of the most iconic and controversial figures of the 20th century.

In 1945, Castro began studying law at the University of Havana, where he got involved in student activism. By his own admission, he was politically illiterate before joining student politics.

It was while studying law that Castro formed his early political views. He was strongly against US intervention and influence in the Caribbean, and he developed an anti-imperialist ideology.

Student violence at the University escalated to such an extent that Castro began carrying a gun in order to protect himself. He even campaigned for the presidency of the Federation of University Students on a platform of “honesty, decency, and justice”, but lost.

After graduating, Castro co-founded a legal partnership along with an acquaintance. The partnership was formed with good intentions, and they mostly catered to poor and oppressed Cubans. Due to this, the partnership proved to be a financial failure.

But Castro clearly had other interests, which eventually led him deeper into the world of politics.

On 26th July 1953, Castro, along with 165 other revolutionaries, attacked the Moncada barracks. But the mission failed, and Castro was thrown in jail for two years.

On his release in 1955, Castro fled to Mexico in order to organize an armed revolution to overthrow General Fulgencio Batista. There he met and befriended Che Guevara, an Argentine doctor, whose face would eventually become the symbol of resistance and revolution across the globe.

Castro led the rebels in the guerrilla war against Batista’s army, which began in 1956 and ended in their victory on 8th January 1959, when Castro triumphantly entered Havana.

Castro would go on to serve as the leader of Cuba for almost six decades, through some harsh and terrible times, and became a popular and heroic figure of the third world. He led Cuba and its people throughout his entire political life, and he defied the US Government while doing so.

Under Castro’s leadership, Cuba became an important participant in the Cold War, which led to the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis. Never before had such a small Caribbean island made such a huge impact on global politics.

However, Castro’s rule was pockmarked with controversies and human rights violations, forcing many people to lose faith in the revolution. Many Cubans would eventually flee Cuba due to political and economical reasons.

But, in spite of everything said and done, no one in their right mind can deny that Castro was one of the most iconic leaders of the 20th century.

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