Democracy's Lawyer: The Saga of Felix Grundy

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Felix Grundy (1775-1840) was a central political figure in the early years of the United States.  A Jeffersonian through and through, Grundy's life was characterized by his eternal fight for small government and states’ rights.  As a core power in both the Kentucky and Tennessee governments, as well as a strong advocate of the War of 1812, Felix Grundy epitomized the political murmuring of many frontier Americans.

Roderick Heller III is the great, great, great, great grandson of Felix Grundy.  His book, Democracy's Lawyer, is the newest comprehensive biography of Grundy.

Let’s start with Grundy's early life.  Was there something that prompted him to get involved in politics?

He was the youngest of nine sons.  His father traveled to Kentucky in 1780, during the very earliest days of European settlement in that area.  In Kentucky, Grundy lost three of his older brothers in Indian conflicts.  Living on the frontier, his life was right at the time of the growth of the nation.  That's the way that, in a sense, Grundy is representative of the quintessential "new American."

On the other hand, Grundy was unique because he was a very talented man.  His mother recognized that he had an unusual talent because he was quite well-educated for living on the frontier.  So from his very earliest days, I think he was not only personally ambitious, but also honed by his family to become a significant figure.  His mother might have had an interest in medicine for him, but early on, he decided that he liked the give and take of debate.  He saw that lawyers could not only do well financially, but become big players in their community as well.

What was Grundy's role in the War of 1812?

Well, he had a pretty significant role.  He was a congressman from Nashville by then, and he represented the farthest, most western district in congress at the time.  The War Hawks who really provided the drum beat for the war were found at the forefront in the West; the core was in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The West had a very strong concept of national honor, and personal honor, too.  Most Westerners thought that [America] was being pushed around.  Grundy was a pretty strong War Hawk, being from the West, and he became the spokesman for the House of Representative's Foreign Relations Committee that pushed Madison and others to get Britain to either change their policy, or go to war.  He was such a figure that the Federalists had a saying that the war was caused by "Madison, Grundy, and the Devil."  So he was a big player in the War of 1812.

If Grundy were alive today, would you say he would be pro-war?

I don't think so, necessarily.  Grundy was a very smart fellow and I think he would probably have assessed the situation.  But looking at the beliefs that motivated [the Iraq War], his concept of national honor and the Westerner desire to strike back…he, I couldn't speculate fully, but I certainly think he would have been inclined to support the movement into Afghanistan after 9/11.

What do you imagine he would think of our current federal government?

As far as Grundy's political beliefs, he was a Jeffersonian Republican, or a Democrat as they would be called today, as was Andrew Jackson.  As such, he did not believe in a solid federal government.  He opposed taxes, he did not want a standing army, he wanted to minimize government expenditure, and he opposed the build up of debt.  But he had a very limited role in the federal government.  Now if you apply all those beliefs, I think he would have been pretty upset by the state of the government today, absolutely.  His core beliefs are antithetical to the build of big government.

How would Grundy have classified Obama in his time?

He would probably regard Obama in the tradition of a strong governmental party, which would have been the part of Alexander Hamilton—the Federalists.  Their government took an active role in commerce, and was much more active in personal lives.

How did Grundy's policy and political thinking develop over the course of his political career?

The critical issue here is his upbringing.  Almost literally in Kentucky and Tennessee, which were the fifteenth and sixteenth states, that was the frontier—that was the west; there was a lot of self reliance; the government didn't provide people with a lot and the people didn't want them to.  Most people were farmers, they were concerned with their land and they wanted to sell their product.

I think that kind of relative isolation, where government was distant and didn't do much for people, more than anything else explain Grundy's philosophy.  Plus, at the time, all his teachers and close friends in Kentucky were Jeffersonians.  As a consequence, he would have imbibed their view.  So I think most of his background led him to have a Jeffersonian view.

Over his life, he really didn't change his beliefs.  He was a proponent of limited government, limited taxation, and strong rights of the people.

What would you say were Grundy's most important political acts?

He was mainly significant in helping shape the governments in Kentucky and Tennessee.  Most peoples view of government was shaped by the views of local politicians, and Grundy played a big role in dealing with two political issues:  access to capital and access to courts.  He was a great believer in the common man and the rights of people.  So I think his role in helping shape the two state governments was critical.

Second, his role in the War of 1812 was important, as I said earlier.

What do you think Grundy would think about the current standing of education in the United States, with low test scores and high drop out rates?

One one hand, he would have been appalled.  He believed strongly in education.  But equally, he believed that everybody had to have the opportunity to be educated, and if you didn't take advantage of that opportunity, well, that was your fault.

Grundy was a lawyer before he became a politician, what sort of reputation did he have in court?

He was a great lawyer.  My book starts with a quote that reads, "Felix Grundy could stand on a street corner and talk the cobblestones into life."  Various people have said that he is one of the greatest orators that they had ever heard.  Grundy reportedly represented 185 first-degree murder defendants, only one of which was hanged.  His reputation as a lawyer was just stunning.

Trials were a popular source of entertainment in the nineteenth century, which is part of why Grundy was so well known; do you think he would do nearly as well in today's courtrooms?

I think he would, if only because the skills he had, their importance has not gone away in our lifetime.  Grundy's skill with the jury and his intelligent approach are still important today, absolutely.  He wasn't a pompous guy, everyone speaks to the fact that he spoke in a way that everybody could understand.  He was very effective in getting to the core of the argument to persuade people of the critical issues—those skills haven't changed.

Lastly, the title of your book is Democracy's Lawyer.  Why is this?

Because that epitomized Grundy in many ways.  He was a strong believer in the voice of the people.  He was an egalitarian.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others believed that the U.S. government should be run by the upper class, by people who had time and wealth and who could bring to government the background.  Grundy, Henry Clay, and a lot of the other political leaders in the first forty years of our country changed all that.  They emphasized a new style of political leader.  Basically Grundy and many like him provided the background to set the stage for the egalitarian emphasis.

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Tim Matthewson - 8/2/2010

There is a curious omission in the piece on Felix Grundy. The word slavery does not appear in the piece. Does it appear in the book?

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