Atticus is the descendant of Simon Finch, an apothecary from England who settled near Maycomb. Rather than stay in the family homestead (named "Finch's Landing"), Atticus went to Montgomery to study law. He was later elected to the Alabama State Legislature, was then reelected without opposition many times, and was known as a respected and hard-working lawmaker (although it's never stated whether he was a member of the Alabama House of Representatives or the Alabama Senate). While a legislator, he met and married the future mother of Jem and Scout Finch (who is never named, although it is mentioned that she was fifteen years his junior). His wife died of a heart attack two years after Scout, their youngest child, was born. Throughout the novel, Atticus lives in Maycomb with his two children and his maid, Calpurnia.
Atticus is the book's most upright character, representing the moral ideal of both a lawyer and a human being: he is brutally honest, highly moral, a tireless crusader for good causes (even hopeless ones), a virtual pacifist and, for the most part, devoid of any of the racial or class prejudices afflicting the other citizens of Maycomb. He goes to great pains to instruct his children on the importance of being open-minded, judicious, generous neighbors and citizens. He is eventually revealed to be an expert marksman (the best shot in Maycomb County), but he had chosen to keep this fact hidden from his children so that they would not in any way think of him as a man of violence. Physically, he is described throughout the novel as a tall, middle-aged man with glasses to correct his failing eyesight, and hair slightly graying at the temples. He is also mentioned never to take off his vest and tie, except right before changing for bed (he did loosen up his collar once during his closing argument at Tom Robinson's trial).
The novel centers on (from the perspective of his daughter, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch) Atticus' struggle to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, convicted for the rape of a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Despite the fact that there is strong evidence suggesting that Tom is innocent, most of the town takes the side against Atticus simply because his defendant is a black man and the victim is a white woman. Hence, Atticus, his children and his family continually face slander, insults, and sometimes even threats of physical violence from fellow town citizens, schoolmates of Jem and Scout, and even other members of the Finch family. Despite all this, Atticus refuses to abandon the case, and continues to urge Jem and Scout to remain unresponsive to the town's criticism, fearful that they may learn the wrong ethical lessons. Atticus shrugs off all prejudices and insults, forgiving the townspeople for their failings, and continues to work for Tom's acquittal, taking the release of the innocent man as a personal crusade.
Claudia Durst Johnson noted about available critique of the novel that, "a greater volume of critical readings has been amassed by two legal scholars in law journals than by all the literary scholars in literary journals." Alice Petry remarked that "Atticus has become something of a folk hero in legal circles and is treated almost as if he were an actual person." Examples of Atticus Finch's impact on the legal profession seem to be plentiful. Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center cites Atticus Finch as the reason he became a lawyer, and Richard Matsch, the federal judge who presided over the Timothy McVeigh trial, counts Atticus as a major judicial influence. One law professor at the University of Notre Dame stated that the most influential textbook he taught from was To Kill a Mockingbird, and an article in the Michigan Law Review claimed, "No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession," before questioning whether, "Atticus Finch is a paragon of honor or an especially slick hired gun."
In 1992, an Alabama editorial called for the death of Atticus, saying that as liberal as Atticus was, he still worked within a system of institutionalized racism and sexism and should not be revered. The editorial sparked a flurry of responses from attorneys who entered the profession holding Atticus Finch as a hero, and the reason they became lawyers. Critics of Atticus maintain he is morally ambiguous and does not use his legal skills to challenge the racist status quo in Maycomb. However, in 1997, the Alabama Bar Association erected a monument dedicated to Atticus in Monroeville marking his existence as the "first commemorative milestone in the state's judicial history."
Lee herself, in an interview in 1961, described Atticus as "a man of absolute integrity with as much good will and good humor as he is just and humane." He is described as having "Christ-like goodness and wisdom" illustrated by Miss Maudie's comment that Atticus "was born to do our unpleasant jobs for us," and Aunt Alexandra's reaction to Atticus' grief at Tom Robinson's death: "It tears him to pieces...what else do they want from him?" Praise for the character is tremendous indeed, likening him to the "Abe Lincoln of Alabama," Emersonian in his wisdom, and a modern-day prophet. The American Film Institute voted Atticus Finch the greatest film hero in movie history, and Gregory Peck acknowledged Atticus to be the greatest role he ever played