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Guide to Life and Literature
of the Southwest

Lawyers, Politicians, J. P.'s

STEPHEN F. AUSTIN wanted to exclude lawyers, along with roving frontiersmen, from his colonies in Texas, and hoped thus to promote a utopian society. The lawyers got in, however. Their wit, the anecdotes of which they were both subject and author, and the political stories they made traditional from the stump, have not been adequately set down. As criminal lawyers they stood as high in society as corporation lawyers stand now and were a good deal more popular, though less wealthy. The code of independence that fostered personal violence and justified killings -- in contradistinction to murders -- and that ran to excess in outlaws naturally fostered the criminal lawyer. His type is now virtually obsolete.

Keen observers, richly stored in experience and delightful in talk, as many lawyers of the Southwest have been and are, very few of them have written on other than legal subjects. James D. Lynch's The Bench and the Bar of Texas (1885) is confined to the eminence of "eminent jurists" and to the mastery of "masters of jurisprudence." What we want is the flavor of life as represented by such characters as witty Three-Legged Willie (Judge R. M. Williamson) and mysterious Jonas Harrison. It takes a self-lover to write good autobiography. Lawyers are certainly as good at self-loving as preachers, but we have far better autobiographic records of circuit riders than of early-day lawyers.

Like them, the pioneer justice of peace resides more in folk anecdotes than in chroniclings. Horace Bell's expansive On the Old West Coast so represents him. A continent away, David Crockett, in his Autobiography, confessed, "I was afraid some one would ask me what the judiciary was. If I knowed I wish I may be shot." Before this, however, Crockett had been a J. P. "I gave my decisions on the principles of common justice and honesty between man and man, and relied on natural born sense, and not on law learning to guide me; for I had never read a page in a law book in all my life."


The Prairie Dog Lawyer, Dallas, 1945. OP. Experiences and anecdotes by a lawyer better read in rough-and-ready humanity than in law. The prairie dogs have all been poisoned out from the West Texas country over which he ranged from court to court.


The Case of John C. Watrous, United States Judge for Texas: A Political Story of High Crimes and Misdemeanors, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, 1950. More technical than social.


Governors Who Have Been and Other Public Men of Texas, Houston, 1921. OP. Best collection of lawyer anecdotes of the Southwest.


Judge Robert McAlpin Williamson, Texas' Three-Legged Willie, Texas State Historical Association, Austin, 1948. This was the Republic of Texas judge who laid a Colt revolver across a Bowie knife and said: "Here is the constitution that overrides the law."


Roy Bean, Law West of the Pecos, Macmillan, New York, 1943. Roy Bean (1830-1903), justice of peace at Langtry, Texas, advertised himself as "Law West of the Pecos." He was more picaresque than picturesque; folk imagination gave him notoriety. The Texas State Highway Department maintains for popular edification the beer joint wherein he held court. Three books have been written about him, besides scores of newspaper and magazine articles. The only biography of validity is Sonnichsen's.


Memories of an Arizona Judge, Stanford, California, 1932. Full of humanity. OP.


A Saga of Texas Law: A Factual Story of Texas Law, Lawyers, Judges and Famous Lawsuits, Naylor, San Antonio, 1940. Interesting.

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