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Democracy's Lawyer

Felix Grundy of the Old Southwest

by J. Roderick Heller III

Southern Biography

384 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / 16 halftones

ebook available

Southern History

  Paperback / 9780807145609 / February 2012

A central political figure in the first post-Revolutionary generation, Felix Grundy (1775-1840) epitomized the "American democrat" who so famously fascinated Alexis de Tocqueville. Born and reared on the isolated frontier, Grundy rose largely by his own ability to become the Old Southwest's greatest criminal lawyer and one of the first radical political reformers in the fledgling United States. In Democracy's Lawyer, the first comprehensive biography of Grundy since 1940, J. Roderick Heller reveals how Grundy's life typifies the archetypal, post-founding fathers generation that forged America's culture and institutions.

After his birth in Virginia, Grundy moved west at age five to the region that would become Kentucky, where he lost three brothers in Indian wars. He earned a law degree, joined the legislature, and quickly became Henry Clay's main rival. At age thirty-one, after rising to become chief justice of Kentucky, Grundy moved to Tennessee, where voters soon elected him to Congress. In Washington, Grundy proved so voracious a proponent of the War of 1812 that a popular slogan of the day blamed the war on "Madison, Grundy, and the Devil."

A pivotal U.S. senator during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, Grundy also served as Martin Van Buren's attorney general and developed a close association with his law student and political progté James K. Polk. Grundy championed the ideals of the American West, and as Heller demonstrates, his dominating belief--equality in access to power--motivated many of his political battles. Aristocratic federalism threatened the principles of the Revolution, Grundy asserted, and he opposed fetters on freedom of opportunity, whether from government or entrenched economic elites.

Although widely known as a politician, Grundy achieved even greater fame as a criminal lawyer. Of the purported 185 murder defendants that he represented, only one was hanged. At a time when criminal trials served as popular entertainment, Grundy's mere appearance in a courtroom drew spectators from miles around, and his legal reputation soon spread nationwide. One nineteenth-century Nashvillian declared that Grundy "could stand on a street corner and talk the cobblestones into life."

Shifting seamlessly within the worlds of law, entrepreneurship, and politics, Felix Grundy exemplified the questing, mobile society of early nineteenth-century America. With Democracy's Lawyer, Heller firmly establishes Grundy as a powerful player and personality in early American law and politics.

J. Roderick Heller III, chairman and CEO of a Washington, D.C., investment firm, is co-editor of The Confederacy Is on Her Way up the Spout: Letters to South Carolina, 1861-1864.

Advance Praise for Democracy's Lawyer

“In this valuable new book, J. Roderick Heller restores an important nineteenth-century figure to public attention. Felix Grundy was a key player in the Age of Jackson, and Heller’s original and engaging book tells the Grundy saga with verve and skill.”—Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek

“Real estate developer, the leading criminal lawyer west of the Alleghenies, a warhawk congressman, and then U.S. senator from Tennessee, the peripatetic Felix Grundy personified Tocqueville’s restless American on the make during the first four decades of the nineteenth century. An attorney himself, Roderick Heller tells Grundy’s story with panache and great authority in this superbly researched and finely crafted biography.”—Michael F. Holt, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

“Rod Heller has successfully rescued Felix Grundy from the shadows of history with a superb biography. In doing so he shines an important light on life in the early decades of nineteenth-century America, particularly on what was then the frontier. Heller’s research is prodigious and the story he tells is compelling. For anyone interested in American history this book is not to be missed.”—Richard Moe, President, National Trust for Historic Preservation

“This is a superb biography, deeply researched and elegantly written. Grundy emerges from these pages as the very embodiment of frontier democracy, in all its energy and contradiction. His story is a fitting place to explore the United States as it took shape and force.”—Edward L. Ayers, author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863

“There are numerous figures in U.S. history, obscured to modern Americans by the cobwebs of time, who offer rich insights into our past if taken up by deft biographers. Felix Grundy is such a figure, and J. Roderick Heller is such a biographer. As power-lawyer, U.S. representative and senator, U.S. attorney general and mentor to a future president, Grundy cut an expansive path through American politics during the turbulent era of Andrew Jackson. He is captured here by Heller with all the vibrancy, thoroughness and elucidation that a man of his stature and accomplishment deserves.”—Robert Merry, author of A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent

“Felix Grundy of Tennessee was one of the most important makers of the political age of Andrew Jackson. Now J. Roderick Heller has brought Grundy and the age back to life with meticulous scholarship and great discernment. This book will long remain an essential resource for historians and anyone interested in the early history of American democracy.”—Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

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