The Nashville Bar Association, established in 1831, is a professional organization serving the legal community of Nashville, Tennessee. The NBA—with over 2,500 members—is the largest metropolitan bar association in Tennessee.
Submitted by NBA Member, Paul R. White
The origins of the Nashville Bar Association are somewhat obscure in the available documentation of the historical record. James Summerville tells us that the organization was founded, apparently in April 1831 to induce the next General Assembly to address the issue of the delay in adjudicating cases before the state Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals. “Signing their names to the notice of the association’s formation, Ephraim W. Foster, William T. Brown, H. A. Rutledge, E. A. Collinsworth, J. T. Yerger, and Thomas H. Fletcher disavowed any intent to ‘dictate to the wisdom of our legislators,’ but felt the suggestions of the united members of the bar would be ‘entitled to some weight.’ They then wrote a letter, which survives, dated April 23rd, 1831 enlisting the members of the Wilson County, Tennessee Bar to unite with them in this new association whose objects “are not at all connected with any local interests, or with party politics; - they desire to promote the respectability of their profession, to increase their legal and literary attainments, and, as far as is in their power, to secure the adoption of a system of laws commensurate with the wants of the people of this State. It is not intended to interfere in any manner with the rates of compensation or fees demanded of clients, leaving these matters to be regulated as heretofore by statute, and by contract.
“It is an ancient custom, the good results of which are sanctioned by experience, for those who exercise the liberal profession to unite themselves as a fraternity, and adopt such rules are best fitted to secure their honor and usefulness.”
The historical record thereafter falls silent; it is not known if the Wilson County lawyers joined with their colleagues, nor is the outcome of the endeavor a matter of record. This phase of the history of the Nashville Bar Association is simply shrouded in the mists of time.
The Nashville Bar Association was again constituted under the Presidency of Chancellor and Justice William F. Cooper on March 27, 1875 and continued under his Presidency until 1886. The minutes of this period of the Bar are preserved in the records of the present Nashville Bar Association, and some of them are reproduced for the benefit of the reader in David C. Rutherford’s able account of the bar, to which the reader is referred, as reproduction of those minutes is beyond the scope of this brief review. The Bar Association library, at this time, was located in the Davidson County Courthouse. The purpose again was the overcrowded docket of the Supreme Court, now lagging some four years behind in adjudication of cases, and the desire for an intermediate court of appeal. The organization seems to have lapsed in 1886, due to a lack of interest.
An article in the Nashville Banner of April 27, 1906, reports on the efforts of Thomas E. Matthews, James S. Brown, John A. Pitts, John T. Lellyett, Baxter Smith, Joseph W. Byrnes, John R. Aust, Thomas H. Malone, II, John H. DeWitt, meeting in the office of T. A, Matthews to form another association, but it evidently came to naught as well. Brief biographies of these men are recounted in James Summerville’s book (pp. 57-60), and some mention is made of them in Sketches of the Bench and Bar of Tennessee by Joshua W. Caldwell, to which the reader is referred for a more thorough development.
Again, meeting on June 21, 1912, a group of lawyers consisting of W. L. Granberry, W. K. McAlister, Jordan Stokes, Walter Stokes, Claude Waller, D. F. Wilkins, John B. Keeble, Charles C. Trabue, James C. Bradford, John R. Aust, Dan E. McGugin, Thos. H. Malone, H. H. Barr, Thos. J. Tyne, Lee Brock, Clarence T. Boyd, George H. Tillman, Robert T. Smith, John T. Lellyett, Norman Farrell, Jr., and Jordan Stokes, Jr. generated a charter for the Nashville Bar and Library Association which was duly chartered and continued in existence until 1936, when the name was changed to the Nashville Bar Association. The first President of the new organization was J. C. Bradford; W. K. McAlister served as Vice President, R. T. Smith Treasurer, and Jordan Stokes, Jr. was Treasurer. From that time until the present, the Association has functioned continuously, and the records are intact except for the minutes for 1924, 1925, and 1934, the whereabouts of which are not known. In 1937, the Association took a quite strong stand in opposing the very controversial policy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to “pack” the United States Supreme Court by increasing its number of justices to allow approval of some of his social policies. David C. Rutherford, who read all of the extant minutes of the Association had this to say about its influence: “There is little evidence that the Association has ever been very aggressive either in advocacy of or opposition to proposals to alter existing laws. Procedural reforms have sometimes been advocated but questions of substantive law debated are notable only by their absence.”
If one wishes to delve more completely into the history of the Nashville Bar Association, or the biographies of the principals in its organization and continuance, no more thorough works can be recommended than those of Joshua W. Caldwell, David C. Rutherford, or James Summerville cited herein, to which authors this brief history is indebted.