December 01, 2005
Today in History: Harvard Needs a Dean
On this date, December 1, 1869, Dean and Dane Professor Theophilus Parsons, Jr. (left), stung by criticism that “the condition of the Harvard Law School has been almost a disgrace to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” submits a letter of resignation to President Charles Eliot. Eliot, looking for fresh blood to put a spark into the old horse, will quickly settle on a largely unknown New York lawyer who doesn’t much like actual law practice, Christopher Columbus Langdell. This will start a trend.
Parsons, now largely forgotten, was himself a commercial lawyer of the first rank. A Boston Brahmin, his father Theophilus Sr. had played a key role in getting Massachusetts to ratify the new Constitution and had taught law to the young John Quincy Adams, before serving as Chief Justice of Massachusetts. The younger Theo, at Harvard since 1848, apparently had been a popular teacher:
The affable Theophilus Parsons was a fascinating lecturer whose humor and enthusiasm were enduring. He hated the more technical parts of the law and preferred to present his witty anecdotes with a poetic dreaminess of temperament. He presented both sides of his legal issues so fully and fairly that students wondered whether he had any opinions, but when he did express one it was sure to be original. Yet it was said that his lectures, "for clearness, scope and literary excellence, have often been compared to those of Blackstone." [Mark D. Hirsch, William C. Whitney: Modern Warwick 19 (1948)]
Parsons was himself a formidable commercial lawyer, having written such works as The Law of Contract (1853), Elements of Mercantile Law (1856), Laws of Business for Business Men (1857), Maritime Law (1859); Notes and Bills of Exchange (1862); and Shipping and Admiralty (1869), as well as The Law of Conscience (five editions, 1853-64) and The Political, Personal, and Property Rights of a Citizen of the United States (1875).
As it happens, his chief research assistant on The Law of Contract had been young Langdell.
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