Legal History at Columbia Law School - Part 3

A renaissance in legal history education

The importance of legal history education and its place in law school curricula has waxed and waned over much of the past century.

"That's part of the normal ebb and flow of academia," notes Alan Brinkley, the Allan Nevins Professor of History and chair of Columbia University's History Department.

"The old antiquarian approach thought of legal history as culture making, as turning out cultured lawyers," says Harvard's Prof. Horwitz. "Legal history as an intellectual apparatus to understand the law [is a newer concept]."

Also influential in legal history education in the 20th century was the work of J. Willard Hurst of the University of Wisconsin, who focused on law's relationship to social change, and Colonial legal historian George Haskins of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, according to Prof. Black. For years, the field had focused on ancient history, with few scholars writing about anything beyond the 18th century. Increasingly, legal history covers the 19th and 20th centuries and the new fields of law that have emerged during the modern era.

The U.S. economy had its own hand in the evolution of legal history, as a serious shortage of jobs in the arts and sciences in the 1960s and '70s drew many liberal arts graduates to law school.

Adds Prof. Brinkley, "In a period of new methodology and theory, history got wrung out of many fields, including law, political science, sociology, and even economics."

The 1960s also saw the formation of the American Society for Legal History, which brought together people interested in the field.

"When this small inner circle came in contact with each other, legal history really began to take off," says Prof. Black, who served two terms as the group's president.