THE AXE AND THE LAW BOOK
by Marc Maurer
Abraham Lincoln wielded and axe, and he also became a
lawyer. Although Marc Maurer has never been elected President of
the United States, he has followed Lincoln's footsteps with the
axe and the lawbook. Living in different centuries, both Lincoln
and Maurer had hardships to overcome--and both succeeded when
they might have despaired and given up.
No, Marc Maurer has never been elected President of the
United States--but he has been elected President of the National
Federation of the Blind, a position he holds today. And the
lives of countless blind people are better as a result. Here is
how he tells the story of his development.
Many of the toys I was given as a child were mechanical. Toy
cars and trucks often contained mechanisms attached to the wheels
that made a noise when the vehicle was pushed across the floor. I
wanted to know what was inside, and I took them apart. But this
was not all. Alarm clocks, mechanical ice-cream dippers, egg
beaters, door knob assemblies, electric motors, our family lawn
mower, the vacuum cleaner, and anything else I hadn't been
forbidden to touch--I took them all apart.
Then came the question of putting them together again. Those
who have taken an alarm clock to pieces know how difficult this
can be. The spring shoots out, and the pieces go everywhere. Even
if you can find all the parts, it is hard to tell which tiny
wheel or spring goes where.
The first time that I dismantled a piece of machinery which
was not working and reassembled it so that it functioned
properly, I was delighted. I began to examine everything with the
idea that I might "fix it."
Although I was then--as I am now--blind, I became the fixer
for our family. My father was the principal fixer, but he was a
traveling salesman, and he was often away from home. If an
electrical cord needed a new plug, if a curtain rod needed
hanging, if a hinge on a door had become loosened, if the washers
in a faucet needed to be replaced--I was the one to be called
upon to put it right.
I even got to work on our second car, a nineteen fifty-four
Plymouth. My Dad forbade me to monkey with the internal
mechanisms of the new car. He drove that one for work, and he did
not want me fiddling with it. He would let me change the tires if
they were flat or put the new license plates on. He would even
let me look at the engine if I wanted to. I just couldn't do
anything to it.
My father had many tools, and he shared them with me and
taught me to use them. But he had very little experience with
blindness, and he did not know how blind people use power
machinery. He gave me an electric drill, and he let me use his
disk sander, but he did not encourage me to use the power saws.
He thought that using them was beyond the capabilities of a blind
boy, and I agreed with him.
In 1969, I met Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was then serving as
President of the National Federation of the Blind. I was a
student in Dr. Jernigan's program for training blind adults. In
that program there was no prohibition against blind students
using power tools.
There were hand tools, of course, but there were the big
ones, too--a table saw, a planer, a radial arm saw, a joiner, a
wood lathe, a metal lathe, a vertical mill, a drill press, and
more. And best of all, I was not prohibited from using them. I
was expected to make them function. I was expected to learn how
to use the machines and to demonstrate my knowledge by building
something. During the time that I was in the program I hoisted an
engine out of a car, tore it to pieces, and rebuilt it.
One cold winter day we traveled to a wooded area. I took one
end of a two-man cross cut saw, and before the day was through we
had cut down a tree more than three feet thick. It was exciting
Although I was a student in Dr. Jernigan's program, I knew
that the time was approaching for me to go to college. The fun
that I had had manipulating tools made me wonder whether I should
Dr. Jernigan encouraged me not to be limited by a single
perspective. How mechanical things fit together can be
interesting, he told me, but there are other fascinating ideas as
well. How do organizations accomplish their goals? How do
governments achieve their objectives? What is it that makes
people persuasive? What are the characteristics that cause an
individual to be a leader? How is opportunity created? What are
the driving forces behind social change? How are the decisions
reached within society to select one direction over another? Not
only did Dr. Jernigan pose these challenging questions, but he
also introduced me to a startling new idea.
I, as a blind person, could--if I possessed the ability and
the willingness to work--help to decide the answers. If I could
learn how social structures worked, and if I could discover how
change was created, I might be able to help contribute to the
building of a nation.
Before I became a part of the National Federation of the
Blind, I believed that I might be able to replace a broken leaf
spring or to balance a flywheel. But I never imagined that I
would be able to participate in determining broader questions.
With the help of my friends in the National Federation of
the Blind, I enrolled at the University of Notre Dame. After
graduating with honor from Notre Dame, I entered law school. For
many centuries the law has been among the honored professions.
In law school I learned that the law, the courts, and the
judicial system are not mysterious or unknowable--not beyond the
mental capacity of a blind student--not an unattainable goal. The
law is a tool to be used to achieve a stable and a civilized
society. It changes to meet the demands of that society. In the
hands of a skillful artisan the law can be used to bring about
the most worthwhile results. And it possesses a great deal of
Early in my legal career I learned that a seventy-six year
old woman had (four years earlier) been declared criminally
insane. Agnes had been placed behind bars in the mental hospital
for criminals. When I questioned the doctor about her case, he
told me that Agnes was perfectly sane. I asked for permission to
interview her in the hospital, and she asked me to represent her
in the courts.
Agnes had been good friends with her neighbor Clara--a woman
somewhat younger than she. To Agnes' amazement, Clara stole
Agnes' husband. There was a fight, and Agnes was hauled off by
the police. Clara told the arresting officer that Agnes was
having strange hallucinations, and she repeated her testimony in
the court. Agnes was adjudged to be insane.
Unless something could be done to change the circumstances,
Agnes would live out the remainder of her life in the mental
hospital. I prepared a petition of habeas corpus and presented it
to the court. The prosecuting attorney refused to consider an
adjudication without court proceedings. The matter came on for
hearing, and I prepared witnesses to present evidence. The doctor
repeated under oath what he had told me in our private
conversation. Medical evidence indicated that Agnes was sane.
After the evidence had been presented it was time for
argument to the court. Locking a person who is sane in a hospital
for the criminally insane is the same as putting that person in
jail. Our law states unequivocally that no person may be put
permanently in jail unless that person has been convicted of a
crime. Even if a conviction has occurred, a judge must decide how
long the sentence will be.
Agnes had already been in the hospital for four years and
she was facing the real possibility of life behind bars. I asked
the court to release this seventy-six year old lady. The judge
gave the order that we wanted.
Although I have handled many different kinds of cases in my
career, most of the legal practice that I do today involves
individuals who are blind, or corporations established to assist
the blind. The diversity of experience I have had in the courts
has helped to give me perspective and understanding in the things
I do today.
As I think about the tools that I have used in my lifetime
(both those that are mechanical and those that are not), I am
astonished and pleased to note that the learning never stops. In
1993 my son David joined the Cub Scouts. A new pack was being
formed at the church we attend. Despite my inexperience (I had
never been a Scout), I was asked to serve as an assistant leader.
As a part of my responsibility, I participated in the 1994 fall
In this event the scouts go out into the woods, set up
tents, build fires, cook their meals, and practice outdoor
skills: recognizing and following tracks, tying different kinds
of knots, building shelters with the materials at hand in the
forest, learning to load a backpack, and chopping wood. The wood
chopping exercise demands precision. A wooden match stick is
placed on the chopping block with its striking end up. The Scout
is expected to split the match with a hatchet. Extra points are
given (they say) if the match lights as you cut it.
I was the leader, so I was not asked to perform this feat. I
was glad not to be expected to perform in public. Even though I
have a great respect and a great appreciation for good tools, I
had never used a hatchet or an axe.
I thought about why this was so. I remember quite well the
story of the tin woodman from the Wizard of Oz. He made a number
of mistakes with his axe. One at a time he cut off each of his
legs and each of his arms. They had to be replaced with tin. Then
he slipped once more and cut his body so that it had to be
replaced as well.
I came to understand that using an axe was a dangerous thing
to do. Although I would probably not have said so, I thought it
was too dangerous and too impractical for a blind person.
Consequently, I never tried. All of this is what I thought on
that camping trip. How often we create our own limitations and
restrict our activities because we don't believe there is any
possibility of doing otherwise.
Later in the fall of 1994 I borrowed a hatchet and, working
with my son David, chopped out a stump in the yard of one of my
neighbors. I have always liked physical work with tools. Perhaps
this is because I spend most of my working days in an office,
meeting with people and managing documents.
The fireplace in my house needs wood to make the evenings
pleasant. Each fire requires kindling. I suppose it is possible
to buy it, but my son and I have begun making it ourselves. He
uses the hatchet he got for Christmas, and I use an axe. Neither
one of us is very good at it yet. But we enjoy being with each
other; we enjoy the outdoors; and we enjoy the physical exertion.
We also feel good about learning a new skill. We hope to become
competent at using the tools that helped to clear the forests
from our nation to give us the productive farm land that has fed
this country for so many years, and we like to have kindling for
We keep the tin woodman in mind. We don't want to have
artificial legs, so we play it safe. But we don't let the worries
about safety keep us from using the tools.
In the National Federation of the Blind we offer hope and
encouragement to blind people who believe that the possibility
for having a full life is ended by blindness. We know that blind
people can perform most jobs that are done by the sighted. We
know that blindness is not the thing that will stop a blind
person but that negative attitudes about blindness are. I learned
this when I joined the organization in 1969, and I have had this
learning reinforced from time to time throughout the years.
In the fall of 1994 with an axe in my hand, I learned it
again. I may never spend a significant amount of my time using
an axe, but it isn't because I'm blind. I thought that it
couldn't be done--that my muscles might do many things, but they
would never feel the bite of the axe blade in the wood. Because
the Federation taught me to explore what I thought I could not
do, and because my son wanted to go camping, I have learned to
swing an axe.