The Rise and Fall of Moses Simons: A Black Lawyer in the New York City Criminal Court, 1816-1820

Article excerpt

Introduction

No black man practiced law in America before the 1840s. This is accepted historiography. Students and scholars of American history know the names: Macon B. Allen--1844, the first black man formally admitted to the bar; George Vashon--1848, first black lawyer in New York; John Mercer Langston--1850, first black applicant to an American law school. (2) Yale University's records tout Edward Alexander Bouchet in 1874 as the first black person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale. (3)

These "firsts" are accepted as facts.

None is true, and moreover, they miss the mark by decades. In 1809 a black man graduated from Yale. Two years later, he attended Litchfield Law School under the tutelage of Judge Tapping Reeve. In 1816, he was admitted to the New York bar, and in 1817 signed the oath as counselor-at-law. (4) That man was Moses Simons.

Between 1816 and 1820, Simons practiced in New York City's criminal court, known as the Court of General Sessions, dominated then by a handful of lawyers. Flamboyant and silver-tongued, these professionals used the tropes of mercy and humanity to advocate for their clients. (5) In 1817 Simons's career looked promising. Several of his cases had been reported in Daniel Rogers's The New York City Hall Recorder. (6) These widely-read, monthly publications were held as good authority by court officials. Like his colleagues, Simons represented defendants accused of passing counterfeit notes, keeping bawdy houses, or stealing hats in a venue where whites and blacks testified for and against each other. Simons was originally from South Carolina, the son of one of five Jewish brothers who emigrated from London. He exemplified the twin proscriptions of the American dream that hard work is rewarded with economic success and education is the path to advancement. (7)

Then, in late December 1817, at a public dance Simons suffered a racially motivated outrage to his honor. Indignant, he slapped the transgressor across the face. Charged with assault and battery, he was tried in the very court in which he practiced. Two colleagues represented him and thirteen influential men testified on his behalf. A jury of his peers heard the case. He was convicted and assessed a small fine. (8) He continued to practice but those events and their aftermath presaged the end of his career.

That Moses Simons was probably the first black attorney in New York City is more than merely an historically-worthy new fact. (9) His rise and fall holds deeper significance. For years achievements of black people were invisible, giving rise to the supposition that there were no achievements. That Moses Simons is forgotten in our historiography, and that the records of both Yale University and Litchfield Law School fail to identify him as a black student and lawyer exemplifies this invisibility. Colleges and academies did not keep good enrollment records prior to the 1830s, and noting a student's ancestry was not the practice. (10) The information if generally known among his compatriots may later have been lost. By 1912, when the biographical sketches of Yale students were published, racial hatred had hardened and a black man having earned a Bachelor of Arts degree and practiced law in the early 1800s might have seemed inconceivable. But Moses Simons did exist. He lived, worked, and was accepted as a professional in a white world. He represented white defendants before all-white juries and co-counseled with other attorneys all of whom were white. The city's criminal bar was a clubby group, whose members socialized together at dinner and exchanged ideas at clubs. (11) Simons was of their number.

This is not to say that Simons's existence in recent historiography has been totally unnoted. McConville and Mirsky mentioned his trial in their study of the criminal court, but only to illustrate a point about opening statements. (12) Millender described him as "New York's first black lawyer," in discussing the members of the New York criminal bar as social outsiders. …