Biography and History

Arthur von Briesen, born into German aristocracy in 1843, came to the United States after completing his early education in northern Germany in 1858. He is said to have lived through bouts of extreme poverty while his family struggled to settle in their adoptive country. After responding to President Lincoln's call for troops and fighting with the First New York Volunteer Engineers, von Briesen returned to New York City and worked for Scientific American. A highly resourceful and ambitious man, von Briesen simultaneously studied law at New York University and was admitted to the Bar in 1868. By 1874 von Briesen ran his own firm, practicing patent law primarily. Sixteen years after his immigration, Arthur von Briesen had established himself as a distinguished lawyer.

As a German immigrant, von Briesen took great interest in the German-American community in New York City as well as in other areas of the United States. He was active in a number of organizations and publications meant to speak to and on the behalf of immigrated Germans. Such organizations included the Deutscher Gesellig-wissenschaftlicher Verein, Deutsches Hospital, Liederkranz, and Deutsche Gesellschaft. His interests and philanthropic energies, however, were not exclusively German. As a leading member of the Good Government Club, von Briesen carried an influential voice in municipal as well as state legislation. Von Briesen was president of the Legal Aid Society (1890), president of the Political and Citizens Union (1896), chairman of the Ellis Island Investigating Committee (1903), president of the New York Roosevelt League (1904), and a delegate to the Universal Congress of Lawyers and Jurists in St. Louis (1904). He also served on various committees and was a member of a number of charity organizations in New York City. For the services rendered to the French and German citizens of New York in connection with the Legal Aid Society, von Briesen received the Cross of the Legion of Honor from the French government in 1905, and the Order of the Crown of Prussia from Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1906.

Arthur von Briesen's greatest deed and gift to New York City was indeed his dedication and impassioned involvement as President of the Legal Aid Society. As stated in the organization's constitution of 1908, its purpose was, “to render legal aid, gratuitously if necessary, to all who appear worthy thereof, and who are unable to procure assistance elsewhere and to promote measures for their protection.” The Society's aim was to avoid litigation through negotiation, saving the client both time and money. The Legal Aid Society was originally founded as the Der Deutsche Rechts-Schutz-Verein in 1876 by a group of German citizens concerned with the abuses and hardships of newly arrived (German) immigrants in New York. Arthur von Briesen's rise to the Society's presidency in 1889 marked the beginnings of a larger movement in legal aid around the country. In the immediate decades thereafter, branches of the Legal Aid Society appeared in other larger cities around the country.

Arthur von Briesen resigned as president of the Legal Aid Society in 1916 due to his views on the World War, then in progress. Not entirely convinced that Germany was to blame for the war, von Briesen did not want his views to threaten the future of the Legal Aid Society. Although not present in this collection, von Briesen is said to have published a number of pro-German articles (or at least calls for American neutrality--references to these are made in Series 6 of this collection) in 1914, and in 1915/6 his name was associated with the pro-German activities of George Viereck. Von Briesen became active in a number of organizations engaged in relieving the hardships wrought by war in Europe--medical aid and food shipments, primarily. And as the war worsened and exchanges with his family in Germany grew dimmer and disheartening, von Briesen too became disheartened. He died shortly after the War's close, in May 1920.

Source: From the finding aid for MC034


  • Lawyers -- New York (N.Y.).
  • Arthur von Briesen Papers. 1895-1929 (inclusive), 1905-1920 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC034

    The papers housed in the Arthur von Briesen Papers document the later years of Arthur von Briesen (1843-1920), a New York City lawyer and philanthropist. Von Briesen, a German-American patent lawyer, served as President of the Legal Aid Society of New York (1889-1916), and as president of the Alliance of Legal Aid Societies of America. Aside from emphasizing his work with the Legal Aid Society, the papers also highlight a variety of other areas--professional, political, and philanthropic--actively pursued by von Briesen. The papers illuminate the passionate side of von Briesen in the private correspondence with his family and others, as well as his cultural interests and engagement within the German-American community of New York City.