William Rawle

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William Rawle, after a portrait by Benjamin West

William Rawle (April 28, 1759 – April 12, 1836) was an American lawyer in Philadelphia, who in 1791 was appointed as United States district attorney in Pennsylvania. He was a founder and first president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and for 40 years a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania.

Early life and education[edit]

Rawle was born in Philadelphia, where he studied at the Friends' Academy. His father was Francis Rawle (1729–1761) and mother was Rebecca Warner (1730–1819). His grandfather was William Rawle (1694–1741) and his great-grandfather was Francis Rawle (1663–1727), who authored some early pamphlets printed by Benjamin Franklin before he started his own business.[1][2] Rawle's family were Cornish American members of the Religious Society of Friends (known as "Quakers"), originating in the parish of St Juliot, Cornwall.[3]


Rawle studied law in New York and at the Middle Temple, London, and was admitted to the bar in 1783. William Rawle founded The Rawle Law Offices in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1783, and this firm has continued to the present day as the oldest law firm in continuous practice in the United States, Rawle & Henderson LLP. In 1791 President Washington appointed him United States district attorney for Pennsylvania, in which capacity he prosecuted the leaders of the Whiskey Insurrection.

He also served as counsel for the First Bank of the United States. In 1830 Rawle assisted in revising the civil code of Pennsylvania. He took much interest in science, philanthropy, and education, and was active in groups supporting these. He was a founder and first president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, a member of the American Philosophical Society,[4] and for forty years served as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania.

Marriage and family[edit]

He married Sarah Coates Burge (1761–1824) in 1783. They had 12 children together.[1] Their son William Rawle, Jr. (1788–1858) followed his father into the legal profession. Grandson William Henry Rawle (1823–1889) married Mary Binney Cadwalader (1829–1861), whose father was the jurist John Cadwalader (1805–1879). Their daughter Mary Cadwalader Rawle (1850–1923) married the brother of the novelist Edith (Jones) Wharton (1862–1937), and had daughter Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959).[2]


Rawle's publications include:

  • Vindication of Rev. Mr. Heckewelder's 'History of the Indian Nations' (1818)
  • A View of the Constitution of the United States (1825; second edition, 1829)
  • Discourse on the Nature and Study of the Law (1832)
  • "An Address before the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture" (1819)
  • "Two Addresses to the Associated Members of the Bar of Philadelphia" (1824)
  • "The Study of the Law" (1832)
  • "Biographical Sketch of Sir William Keith"
  • "A Sketch of the Life of Thomas Mifflin"
  • "Essay on Angelic Influences"


  1. ^ a b Thomas Allen Glenn (1900). "Descendants of Francis Rawle of Philadelphia". Some colonial mansions and those who lived in them: with genealogies of the various families mentioned. H. T. Coates & company. pp. 184–185. 
  2. ^ a b Rawle "Rawle Family Papers, 1682-1921" Check |url= value (help). Collection 536. Historical Society of Pennsylvania. 2007. Retrieved March 12, 2011. 
  3. ^ Rowse, A.L. The Cousin Jacks, The Cornish in America, 1969
  4. ^ The American Philosophical Society (1837). "Obituary Notice (Rawle's name appears fifth on the list)". Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. V.—New Series.: ix. Retrieved 3 September 2015. 


  • T. I. Wharton, "A Memoir of William Rawle, LL.D." in the Collections of the Pennsylvania Historical Society, volume iv (Philadelphia, 1840)

External links[edit]