The original meaning of this clause in the 6th Amendment appears to have been no more than a limitation on the power of the government: the state could not prevent the defendant from seeking the assistance of legal counsel during a criminal trial. Recent interpretations, however, have given to this clause a more literal and less historical interpretation: “the accused shall enjoy the right”—whether or not he can afford it—“to have the assistance of counsel for his defence.”
Although an old proverb instructs us that any man who represents himself has a fool for a client, self-representation was still quite common at the time of the American Founding. Throughout the 19th century, however, defense attorneys became increasingly the norm for all but the poorest defendants. And in many cases, lawyers would volunteer their services even for indigent clients, either through benevolence, or because novice attorneys wished to gain experience, or, in certain high-profile cases, because they sought the publicity. Lawyers were also sometimes compensated at public expense for this service.