The History of Harvard Law School

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Dan Coquillette discussed the founding of Harvard Law School and the early years, leading up to the Civil War, followed by commentary and discussion with a panel of HLS faculty and closing remarks by Dean John F. Manning.

This talk and session focused on the first fifty-five years of Harvard Law School. Founded as a radical experiment – after a bequest from a slave holder – the school barely survived its first decade. It was down to the last student when the brilliant Joseph Story, the youngest Supreme Court Justice in history, was induced to rescue the school. Story’s vision, including a radical new pedagogy, essentially re-founded the school on three aspirational goals: 1) to be a truly national school, 2) to be fundamentally meritocratic, and 3) to provide a legal education that prepares, not just competent professionals, but lawyers motivated and equipped to be the leaders of the New Republic, goals still at the heart of the Law School today. Story’s vision was shattered in the next decade by the division of the nation, a nation torn over racism, slavery and succession. During the Civil War, student and alumni deaths made this the bloodiest time in the school’s history, and the school saw its graduates as leaders of both the Confederacy and the Union. The talk concluded with Charles Eliot’s efforts to restore the school, the controversial outreach to the School’s Southern alumni, and the appointment of Christopher Columbus Langdell as dean.

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