The term “Philadelphia lawyer” means: An astute person; sometimes one whose cleverness leads him into shady practices.
According to historian John Fiske, the expression stems from the noted trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735. Zenger, a New York printer, began to publish a newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal in 1733, which became the organ of the popular party in that colony.
Attacks upon the administration of the governor of the colony, William Cosby, brought about the arrest of Zenger on a charge of libel, and he was held in jail, awaiting trial, for about eight months. Friends busied themselves in his behalf and eventually secured the services of Andrew Hamilton, former Attorney General of Philadelphia.
At the trial Hamilton admitted the publication of the statements charged by the prosecution, but maintained that inasmuch as the statements were true no libel had been committed.
The jury supported that contention and gave a verdict of not guilty, thus establishing the principle of freedom of the press in America.
Thus Fiske reports, people then proclaimed, “It took a Philadelphia lawyer to get Zenger out.”
Fiske’s statement may be true, but, regrettably, no proof has yet been discovered that people in New York or elsewhere had actually made such a remark. Nevertheless the expression was certainly in use before 1788.
In that year, as found by Allen Walker Read, the Columbian Magazine of Philadelphia printed a “Letter from a Citizen of America,” “written in London,” to his “Correspondent in Philadelphia,” a portion of which reads, “They have a proverb here (London), which I do not know how to account for;, in speaking of a difficult point, they say, it would puzzle a Philadelphia lawyer.”
But there are other accounts. One credits it to an unnamed attorney in colonial days who rescued two British sailors from some unnamed difficulty they experienced in the City of Brotherly Love.
Again, it is reported that there was a saying in New England that any three Philadelphia lawyers were a match for the devil, though we have found no proof of that report, nor substantiation of the statement.