William Bradford - The Second Attorney General
Yesterday we discussed William Bradford so today I thought we could look at the life of his equally influential son William Jr.
Technically, this William was the forth by that name, but he was known in his time as Jr.
William Bradford Jr was the second Attorney General in US history after a long career holding the same position for the State of Pennsylvania.
William Bradford Jr.
“What business I shall follow for life I have not yet determined. It is a Matter which requires deliberation & as I am not pressed by Age I intend to be in no hurry about it.”
These words were written by William Bradford, Jr to his good friend James Madison shortly after the two graduated Princeton.
Speaking to ‘My Dear Jemmy’ (as Bradford would often call Madison) he lamented the end of their time together in college, discussed their friend Phillip Freneau’s new play, and mourned the passing of their other friend William Smith Livingston.
This quote is interesting because the business Bradford followed in life took him to great places, but he was more pressed by age than he expected.
Deputy Mustermaster General
Three years later, Bradford joined the Pennsylvania Militia, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Soon thereafter, he was noticed and appointed by George Washington as Deputy Mustermaster General of the Continental Army. In this position, he assisted in keeping track of the thousands of Continental Soldiers.
After two years in this position, and suffering from ill health, William resigned his post and began to study law.
Still just 24 years of age, this bright young man was named Attorney General for the State of Pennsylvania. He would hold this position for the next eleven years.
Pennsylvania Attorney General
While the main purpose of the Attorney General was to prosecute lawbreakers within the State’s territory, Bradford found himself dealing with Pennsylvania’s neighbors on several occasions.
During the years between the Declaration of Independence and the Ratification of the Constitution (1776-1788), each independent State was technically its own nation. Therefore, when conflicts arose, there was a legitimate chance the States could end up going to war.
William found himself playing peacemaker on several of these occasions. The most notable of these was when he went as a representative of Pennsylvania to negotiate a territory dispute with Connecticut. At the time, Connecticut claim a large chunk of land that we now consider part of Pennsylvania based on its original charter. Bradford was able to secure the land for his home State.
After over a decade as Pennsylvania Attorney General, William Bradford was selected as a member of the State Supreme Court.
During this time, he was also the lawyer for the claimant in the case of West v. Barnes, which was the first trial in the history of the United States Supreme Court. He lost on a technicality, as his client only had ten days to travel from Rhode Island to Philadelphia to file an appeal.
This rule was clearly unfair and would be adjusted soon thereafter.
Attorney General of the United States
By this time, William had married the daughter of Elias Boudinot, a President of the Continental Congress. Additionally, he’d help reduce the use of the death penalty in Pennsylvania (no matter what your views are today, the corporal punishment was used waaaaay too much back then).
With all this experience under his belt, President Washington chose Bradford as the second Attorney General of the United States, replacing Edmond Randolph.
Unfortunately, William held this position for less than two years when, after a brief illness, he passed away at just 40 years old. Apparently, he was more ‘pressed for age’ than anticipated.
Here are some articles on other early Attorneys General.
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Want to read about Bradford’s time in the White House?
'His Excellency’ is the best I’ve found when it comes to discussing Bradford. It is a biography of Washington and William is only a short part of the story but it still gives a good overview of his influence.
If you’d like a precious copy for your very own you can through the Amazon affiliate link below (you’ll support this site, but don’t worry, Amazon pays me while your price stays the same).