Publication Date
February 18, 2015
David B. Kopel
Lyman Trumbull, Second Amendment, Thirteenth Amendment, freedmen, reconstruction, Eugene Debs
This article provides the first legal biography of lawyer and Senator Lyman Trumbull, one of the most important lawyers and politicians of the nineteenth century. Early in his career, as the leading anti-slavery lawyer in Illinois in the 1830s, he won the cases constricting and then abolishing slavery in that state; six decades later, Trumbull represented imprisoned labor leader Eugene Debs in the Supreme Court, and wrote the Populist Party platform. In-between, Trumbull helped found the Republican party, and served three U.S. Senate terms, chairing the judiciary committee.

One of the greatest leaders of America’s “Second Founding,” Trumbull wrote the Thirteenth Amendment, the Civil Rights Act, and the Freedmen’s Bureau Act. The latter two were expressly intended to protect the Second Amendment rights of the former slaves. Another Trumbull law, the Second Confiscation Act, was the first federal statute to providing for arming the freedmen.

After leaving the Senate, Trumbull continued his fight for arms rights for working men, bringing Presser v. Illinois to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1886, and Dunne v. Illinois to the state Supreme Court in 1879. His 1894 Populist Party platform was a fiery affirmation of Second Amendment principles.

In the decades following the end of President James Madison’s administration in 1817, no American lawyer or legislator did as much as Trumbull in defense of Second Amendment. Yet Lyman Trumbull had little personal interest in firearms, and never considered the Second Amendment to be one of his major issues. So did Lyman Trumbull become the leading Second Amendment lawyer of the time?

His lifelong cause was “the poor who toil for a living in this world.” When Trumbull examined America in the nineteenth century, he saw that the rights of the toilers could always be trampled, unless they had the right to arms, individually and collectively.

The story of Lyman Trumbull’s career begins in the Age of Jackson and ends with Trumbull’s protégé, William Jennings Bryan, winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896. It is a story of a man who changed political parties five times, while holding fast to his fundamental principle of free labor. Even today, “The Grand Old Man of America” continues to shape our understanding of constitutional liberty.
Recommended Citation
Kopel, David B. and Kopel, David B., Lyman Trumbull: Author of the Thirteenth Amendment, Author of the Civil Rights Act, and the First Second Amendment Lawyer (May 9, 2016). Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, Vol. 47, No. 4, 2016, Available at SSRN: or

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