Ethicists, historians and sociologists have generally accepted the premise that the legal profession did not offer strong, public defenses of the adversary ethic (ethically neutral service of clients) until after 1870 when professional elites sought to rationalize their role in the rise of corporate capitalism. Prior to 1870, it has been argued, the legal profession was dominated by a civic republican ideology in which lawyers conceived their role as a form of public service dedicated to vindicating the interests of justice and morality even if that meant refusing to seek a client's lawful ends.
This paper challenges both claims. Surveying antebellum law periodicals, the article reveals a robust debate on the definition and justifiability of the lawyer's role. In particular, the article examines defenses of the adversary ethic that were both more vigorous and far less apologetic than defenses offered today. Moreover, the article shows that the defenses came from legal elites, not simply Jacksonian levelers, and the defenses were couched in the discourse of civic republicanism – suggesting that morally activist lawyering was not the only conception of the role thought to be consistent with civic republican principles.