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The quality of prudence has long been associated with lawyers, including when they have served in quite broad capacities. Indeed, for an important period in 20th century U.S. history, one of the most distinctive contributions of a certain type of lawyer, referred to here in shorthand as “the New York lawyer-statesman,” was the application of prudence not to the practice of law as such, but to the broader domain of U.S. international strategy and the exercise of the broader quality of “lawyerly prudence.”

Drawing on a few discrete chapters in U.S. history, this article recounts and interprets the high-water mark of this New York lawyer-statesmen tradition around WWI and WWII, while also arguing that the circumstances that shaped, allowed, and even encouraged such contributions to international strategy by this type of lawyer during the first two-thirds of the 20th century had largely run their course by the final third of “the American century.”

This leaves a pressing puzzle to be solved. On the one hand, international strategy remains as much in need of prudence now as ever before—arguably more so because of the absence from the scene for the last couple of generations of the lawyerly prudent type. But because New York lawyers can no longer serve as the primary exemplars of lawyerly prudence in this context, we must now turn elsewhere for reliable sources of prudence. The article concludes that to do so we now have no choice but to unpack the elements of the old lawyerly prudence and encourage their self-conscious adoption by a broader group of citizen-statespeople who have the right kind of intellectual training and real-world experience to be able to develop and exercise prudence of the old lawyerly kind, even though many or most of such people will not be lawyers.

GW Paper Series

GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2017-64; GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2017-64

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