The Story of Two Trials that Launched a Life of Greatness

Martin Van Buren Salem Witch Trials George Jacobs

George Jacobs was arrested for an unspeakable offense. He was innocent, as he loudly proclaimed to anyone who would listen, but his protests fell on deaf ears. Whatever her reasons, George’s granddaughter had accused him of such a despicable crime that there was nothing he could do to clear his name. He was tried, sentenced, and executed. George’s last words were, “Because I am falsely accused. I never did it.”

The George Jacobs trial occurred before the legal reforms of the 1950s and 1960s, so we have to wonder whether the result would have been different if George had been afforded the right to have an attorney, the right to confront and question his witnesses, and the right to not have his silence used against him in a trial.

We may wonder this, but we’ll never know. George Jacobs’ grave is a vivid reminder that while the hand of justice may not always be fair, it is always final.

“Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692” by artist Tompkins H. Matteson

George’s younger cousin Martin grew up hearing the story of how his relative was unfairly condemned. Perhaps this helped motivate Martin to become a lawyer and to prevent other people from being wrongly convicted. Certainly, that was on his mind when he took one of his first cases.

Martin agreed to represent a man who had been accused of assault. His client was charged with placing another person in reasonable fear of receiving a battery.

Martin thought long and hard about how to best defend his client. When the day of the trial came, the alleged victim took the stand. He told his story about how he and the defendant got into an argument. He said that the defendant shook his fist under his nose, saying he was going to hit him.

All things considered, it looked like a pretty cut and dry case that Martin was destined to lose. In a flash of insight, however, he approached the witness during cross-examination. He said, “Now, suppose for a moment that you are a man of ordinary courage – that you’re not a coward. If that were the case, would my client’s threats have frightened you?”

The witness was indignant. “What do you mean, ‘If you are not a coward’?” he said. “I guess I’m just as brave as anyone. How dare you call me a coward!”

“Then,” asked Martin, “You were not frightened by my client’s threats?”

“No,” said the plaintiff. “Of course not!”

His trap having been successfully sprung, Martin asked, “Then why did you bring this frivolous lawsuit? I move for an immediate dismissal.”

The motion was granted, and Martin won one of his first cases.

President Martin Van Buren

With this encouraging start to his legal career, Martin gained the self-confidence to seek even greater things in the years to come. His name would become famous as he grew his successful law practice and then ventured into politics. He won office as a state senator, state attorney general, governor, and set his sights on even loftier offices.

One has to wonder if any of that would have happened if he had not grown up knowing that his cousin, George Jacobs, had been wrongfully executed — in 1692 — in Salem, Massachusetts — as a witch.

Had it not been for the Salem Witch Trials, we might never have heard of the remarkable life of the eighth President of the United States, Martin Van Buren.

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