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The provision of legal assistance for the poor has mirrored, since its first appearance in 1880, the social and political attitudes of the American people and their governments. Each of the four distinct periods, into which the history of legal aid in the United States can be divided, reflects a fundamental change in these attitudes. This paper analyzes these periods, the reasons for the change and the type of delivery system that emerged in each. The fourth of these major attitudinal shifts has only recently emerged. Concern is expressed about the future of the concept of legal aid, particularly in light of recent government resistance to the growing belief that access to legal services is not a privilege but a right of all citizens.