Remarks of Edwin David Robertson, NYCLA’s President-Elect, on the 75th Anniversary of the NYCLA Home of Law
May 26, 2005
The New York County Lawyers’ Association thanks each one of you for sharing this evening with us. The County Lawyers is especially grateful to Trinity Parish for sharing with us today this place and this space, St. Paul’s Chapel. This is our Great City’s oldest public building in continuous use.
Over the last eight decades, St. Paul’s has been more than merely our neighbor to the south. It is special. And today is a special day. Three hours and 75 years ago … our Home of Law, across the street, was dedicated. When Mr. Cromwell selected that lot for the Home of Law, he conceived a place and a space that would ennoble our profession. As Mr. Cromwell expressed it at the time:
“Our building has a unique location as well – unique in its historical association in sacred memories. It faces dear old St. Paul’s, the oldest of the churches in our Island City.
Within whose walls and under whose guardianship rest the precious souvenirs and records of Colonial days, and confronts, too, the neighboring graveyard where, amidst all the swirl of the modern world, lay the remains of our forefathers who left us the ever living memory of their achievements and heroic deeds. It was here in St. Paul’s,… that Washington walked with his distinguished confreres immediately following the ceremonies of his taking the oath of office as our First President.”
As Mr. Cromwell explained: “How fitting, then, that a Home of Law should be established in such a unique setting. How inspiring to the youths of law as well as to the elders, that the example of patriotism, freedom, sacrifice, unity and fraternity of their forefathers should ever be present to their senses as, generation after generation, they enter the gates of this, our Home of Law.”
Of course Mr. Cromwell never suspected that, only 70 years later, St. Paul’s would, in the darkness of September 2001, rekindle a beacon of hope and renewal that eclipsed even what had gone before. Mr. Cromwell’s indebtedness to this space was matched by the words of our architect Cass Gilbert.
In 1928, Mr. Gilbert proposed what he planned to do with the lot across the street.
As he explained: “[I]t is not designed to develop a new or startling type of architecture, but rather to adopt an architectural style which is calm and serene and has had the test of time, in short which is in good taste now and will always remain so. “
As he put it, “The design of the building will be in harmony with the type of architecture so adequately represented by St. Paul’s Church. One of the most graceful and beautiful structures of the early period of New York.”
This evening we do not pretend to present any historical reenactment of the proceedings of 75 years ago. On the other hand, each of our speakers has a historic link to the events of that May afternoon. And you will hear more of that as they are introduced. Let’s go back for a moment to the events of 220 years ago when the new republic was being organized.
When the first Congress was convened in New York City in March 1789, senators and representatives had such difficulty getting here that almost a month passed before a quorum of both houses of Congress was present. Then they could proceed with the first order of business – counting the electoral votes to determine who would become our first president. At the time there were no federal judges, because the federal judiciary had not been established. Who would administer the oath of office to General Washington?
That task was assigned to the highest judicial official of the State of New York, Robert Livingston, the chancellor of the State of New York. From all the contemporary accounts, Washington’s inaugural speech was marked by an anxiety that was uncharacteristic of a general who had commanded troops in battle and presided over legislative debates for many years – indeed the deliberations that drafted the new constitution.
Following his inauguration, the President and new Congress came here. The buildings where they slept, and ate, and talked, and wrote have all fallen to the wrecking ball. But we know that the founders came here, to this chamber, while New York City was the seat of government. For example, the pew of George Washington is clearly marked. Yet, many of us wonder, where did Hamilton sit? Was Madison or Randolph near by? Where was John Jay? What words did they whisper as they lingered here? These were the people who began to put the first flesh on the skeleton of our constitution. The people who gave us our first laws. The people who drafted the Bill of Rights. And the people who enacted the First Judiciary Act. These were the people who laid the firm foundation of what we call the “rule of law.” Mr. Cromwell was certainly wise in choosing Vesey Street for our Home of Law. As a place and a space, it was calculated to inspire us to remain faithful to our charter just as the members of the first Congress were faithful to the charter of the new republic.
When our Association was founded almost a century ago, its leaders joined together and pledged to advance the science of jurisprudence and to elevate the standards of integrity, honor and courtesy in the legal profession, all to the end that we may serve the public interest and promote the public good. Our Association’s founders rested their case on the simple proposition that membership in the bar of this great City gives each us – as New York County Lawyers – a common bond and a common purpose that are stronger than any difference of sex, or race, or religion that may, sadly, tug at others to pull them apart.
Today our Home of Law stands as a monument to the vision of our founders, and an inspiration to those of us who strive to keep that faith alive. At this time I am delighted at the honor to introduce a friend who shares that vision and nourishes that faith – the President of the New York County Lawyers’ Association – Norman Reimer.