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Benjamin Harris Brewster

Benjamin Harris Brewster was the 37th attorney general of the United States, serving from 1881 to 1885 in the administration of President CHESTER ARTHUR. Previously, Brewster was appointed by President JAMES POLK as a special commissioner for the adjudication of claims by the members of the Cherokee Indian tribe against the U. S. government.

Brewster was born in Salem County, New Jersey, on October 13, 1816. In 1834 he graduated from Princeton College. Like many other aspiring lawyers of the period, Brewster did not attend law school. Instead these aspirants "read law" by performing various clerical and administrative duties for a lawyer who had already been admitted to the bar. Brewster studied under a Philadelphia attorney named Eli Price.

After mastering the necessary requirements, Brewster took and passed the bar exam in 1838. After his admittance to the Pennsylvania bar, he continued to practice law in Philadelphia.

Although he had established a lucrative law practice, Brewster, like many other ambitious young lawyers his age, became interested in politics and government service. Brewster had a personal connection, his father-in-law, Robert J. Walker. In the decade between 1835 and 1845, Walker had served as the U.S. senator from Mississippi. In 1845, Walker was appointed by President James Polk to be secretary of the Treasury. Twelve years later, Walker would serve as governor of the Territory of Kansas.

It was through Walker that Brewster became a special commissioner for the adjudication of claims by the Cherokee Indians against the federal government. In 1846 Walker convinced President Polk to appoint his son-in-law to the position. The Cherokee had established a republican form of government called the Cherokee Nation. In the years leading up to the early nineteenth century, the Cherokee tribe was one of the most progressive and well-to-do tribes in North America. The Cherokee lived in the southeastern part of the country on lands that subsequently whites came to define as the states of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. As time went on, more and more white settlers moved into the area claiming land that belonged to the Cherokee Nation.

Some Cherokee leaders signed the Treaty of New Enchola in 1835 that agreed to their removal to land west of the Mississippi River. A number of Cherokee opposed the relocation and under the leadership of Chief JOHN ROSS tried to resist. In 1838 President ANDREW JACKSON sent U.S. troops to forcibly move the Indians to the new land, the dry plains of the area that later became Oklahoma. The brutal relocation journey of between 13,000 and 17,000 people that became known as the Trail of Tears took place over winter and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Cherokee.

The leaders of those who survived regrouped as the Cherokee Nation and sought to make claims against the federal government concerning the forced relocation and their losses. As special commissioner in 1846, Brewster reviewed the claims and granted some relief before returning to his law practice in Philadelphia.

By now a prominent Pennsylvania attorney with strong connections to the REPUBLICAN PARTY, Brewster once again pursued political aspirations. In 1867, he was appointed by Governor Geary to be attorney general for the state of Pennsylvania. After a brief tenure, Brewster returned to private practice.

In September of 1881, following the assassination of JAMES GARFIELD, Vice-President Chester Arthur succeeded Garfield as president. In December of that year, Garfield's attorney general, ISAAC MACVEAGH, resigned so that the new president could make his own appointment. Arthur, who had practiced law in New York, appointed Brewster.

Many had anticipated that Arthur would continue as a supporter of the spoils system, whereby loyal party workers were given appointive office without attention to merit. Arthur surprised the analysts and the electorate by promoting government reform. Brewster backed the president, and in 1883, Congress enacted the Pendleton Act, which provided for civil service reform and helped to reduce the primacy of the spoils system.

Brewster also vigorously prosecuted the Star Route Trials, a group of cases involving several prominent Republicans who were found guilty of fraudulent activities concerning the United States Post Office Department.

Brewster continued his work as attorney general until GROVER CLEVELAND was elected president in 1884. In 1885 Brewster returned to Pennsylvania. He died in Philadelphia on April 4, 1888.


Hall, Kermit L. 1989. The Magic Mirror: Law in American History. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Justice Department. Attorneys General of the United States, 1789–1985. Washington, D.C.: GPO.

State Department Timeline. "Indian Treaties and the Removal Act of 1830." Available online at <www.state.gov> (accessed June 17, 2003).

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Bill of Particulars to William Benson Bryant