In 1965, about a week after our youngest daughter was born, Polly and I moved our burgeoning clan to a beautiful six bedroom home in the Sherwood Forest section of Detroit.
I was a Circuit Court Judge at the time, and by no stretch of financial legerdemain was I qualified to make such a purchase, but with the aid of cousin Leo at the Savings and Loan and Gertrude Harwin, who desperately wanted to sell the property, we swung the deal.
It was a lovely home, and perfect for a family of our size. Among its many benefits was the fact that our next door neighbor was a man named Arthur J. Lacy.
He was known by all as Judge Lacy, despite the fact that his judicial career as the first and only Judge of the Wayne County Court of Domestic Relations, lasted only eight months until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1913.
The Judge was a kindly, pleasant man, born in 1876. By 1965, when I met him, he was well into a ninety-nine year lifespan. As a young man, he had been elected Mayor of Clare, and subsequently was the Democratic nominee for Governor in 1934.
Despite his loyalty to the Democratic Party, the Judge took great exception to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third and fourth terms. In fact, he purchased radio time to broadcast speeches opposing FDR in 1940 and 1944.
To me, the old Judge was a father figure. As a young Circuit Judge, I had a way of generating controversy which spilled into the newspapers. I found the Judge to be a steady, wise and sympathetic counselor. His comment: “There is nothing older than yesterday’s newspaper.”
In his last years, the Judge donated his personal papers to the Bentley Historical Collection at the University of Michigan. The index reveals his broad circle of friends and acquaintances as well as his life long interest in public affairs.
I am specially in his debt. On the upper shelf of my cozy new East Lansing den there is a set of twelve volumes entitled simply, “America.” Published in 1925, by the Americanization Department of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the books are a compendium of letters, speeches and essays, described as a library of original sources. It was a gift from Judge Lacy shortly before he moved to a retirement home.
A bonanza to a history buff, every page of those books yields insights into the history of our nation that can’t be found elsewhere, even with the help of Google.
For example: this evening, out of curiosity, I pulled down the volume that covers 1783 to 1803 and opened it to a page about the Northwest Ordinance.
Few Americans have ever read the Northwest Ordinance, and fewer still appreciate its importance in the history of our nation. Adopted by the Continental Congress during the fading days of the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance was a blueprint for the expansion of the United States from a timorous thread of thirteen coastal colonies to the bold nation that reaches from sea to shining sea.
It established our use of the common law, protected the right to own private property, abolished slavery in the Midwest, and provided for the creation of independent states chartered and governed with the consent of the people.
Along with the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance deserves to be enshrined as a founding document of our nation.
But interestingly, it was not the work of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton or James Madison. Or any of the other Founding Fathers who are celebrated throughout the land by the naming of cities, streets, schools and Universities.
No indeed, the Northwest Ordinance was written by a lawyer from Massachusetts named Nathan Dane. Perhaps you never heard of him. I hadn’t until I opened Judge Lacy’s book.
There I discover that Mr. Dane not only wrote the Northwest Ordinance, he also wrote an eight volume treatise called “A General Abridgement of American Law” which became the sine qua non of reference for lawyers throughout the country. It was so successful that Dane donated the profits to establish a law school at Harvard University.