Probing the Law School’s Past: 1821-1962

From GW Encyclopedia


The following was written in 1962:

Perhaps many are aware that George Washington University Law School is the oldest in the District of Columbia, but few, it seems, know much of the beginning years in the 1820's and again at the close of the Civil War. George Washington University - known as Columbian College until 1873 - was chartered by an act of Congress approved by President James Monroe on February 9, 1821. Less than two months later, President Monroe, with a touch of clairvoyance in his pen, wrote the President of the Board of Trustees, "I avail myself of this mode of assuring you my earnest desire that...Columbian College...may accomplish all the useful purposes for which it was instituted;....this institution, if it receives proper encouragement, cannot fail to be eminently useful to the nation." The University purchased in those early years a forty-seven acre tract (mostly farmland) for about $7,000 extending from Florida Ave. (then Boundary St.) to Columbia Rd., between 14th and 15th Streets N. W.

Columbian College was barely nine months old when a law school was first projected in November of 1821. February 3, 1826, the trustees of Columbian College, meeting in special session, elected Justice William Cranch, a nephew of John Adams, and William Thomas Carroll, Esq., as the first law professors. On June 13 of the same year, with President John Quincy Adams in attendance, Professor Cranch delivered the first law lecture in the court room of the City Hall. Justice Cranch, later Chief Justice, is perhaps most widely known by the product of his labor as a Reporter for the United States Supreme Court namely, Cranch's Supreme Court Reports (1801-14). Professor William T. Carroll, a clerk of the United States Supreme Court, could claim the satisfaction of graduating in 1825 from the first Law School in the United States at Litchfield, Connecticut. The program outlined for Columbian College's "Law Department" was an ambitious one, but after little more than one year of operations it was discontinued due to a dearth of funds. Fortunately, nine volumes of the manuscript lectures of Professor Carroll have been preserved in the vault of the University's Main Library. Perusal of these lectures indicates the law was divided into 48 titles, each being treated in systematic detail.

It was not until some thirty-eight years later in 1865, largely due to the efforts of the Reverend Dr. George Whitefield Samson (President of the University from 1859-71), that the School of Law was re-established. It was designated the Columbian College of Law, a name which it retained until September 1, 1904 when the present designation, George Washington was adopted.

The Law School's first "home" (1865-84) was in a 37 year old structure occasionally referred to today as the "Old Trinity Church," located at 416 Fifth St. N.W. In actuality it had been at one time a church; Francis Scott Key had at one period been the "Senior Warden," but by the time the University purchased it, it had been converted into a stable. A thorough scrubbing and partial renovation undoubtedly preceded the Law School's establishment in the structure. Thereafter the place seems to have been referred to as the Columbian Law Building. Today the much larger Columbian Office Building occupies the site.

For many years the regular faculty did not exceed two in number. The first professorships were held by John C. Kennedy and Samuel Taylor [actually William M. Merrick]. In order to recapture a bit of the flavor of those early years, it might be well to draw upon the memory of George S. King, a graduate of the class of 1872. As part of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Law School in 1915, a student publication, Res Gestae, called upon Mr. King to report school life as he had found it forty-five years earlier. Referring to Professors Kennedy and Tyler, he recalled the former to be quite the opposite from the latter. Professor Kennedy generally read his lectures in an impersonal, formal manner from "manuscript" while Professor Tyler departed freely from his notes and often interspersed his comments "with many interesting anecdotes of his own practice and reminiscences of the bar of his native city of Frederick, Md." Apparently with a twinkle in his eye, Mr. King added that the frequent and hearty applause of Professor Tyler's students would sometimes encourage him "to go on with his reminiscences to a much greater length than he had originally intended, thus cutting off the length of the 'quiz' ...."

Until 1898 only two years of law school were required for the Bachelor of Laws degree. And apparently it was not until 1899 that an applicant for admission was required to have "had an education equivalent to a high school course." In 1884, for example, one reads that the law school was open to "all ... who desire ......" The text book system of teaching generally prevailed in the Law School until after the turn of the century. During Mr. King's sojourn in the school, some of the text books used "were Blackstone's Commentaries, Williams on Real Property, Williams on Personal Property and Chitty on Contracts..." Contrasting the text book method with the later case book system of instruction, Mr. King believed the latter to be "doubtless more successful," but, at the same time, he could not help "wishing that there were more reading of the great text books, particularly Blackstone's Commentaries." In 1874 Professor Kennedy was succeeded by Walter S. Cox, and William Maury in 1878 replaced Professor Tyler. Professor Cox, a member of the faculty for 27 years, was appointed to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia in 1879 and from 1895-1901 served as Dean of the Law School. Upon Dean Cox's resignation in 1902, just prior to his death, his long time associate, Professor Maury, said, "I never knew a man more devoid of the little arts and assiduities which are so often employed for the purpose of attracting popularity."

Professor William Maury, who became the Assistant Attorney General under President Harrison (1889-93) was known as "one of the most loved professors of the school." A faculty member for 28 years, Professor Maury was honored posthumously by the dedication of the present Law School Library in Stockton Hall as the "Wm. A. Maury Memorial Library." Today his picture appropriately hangs on the East wall of the library bearing his name. Another significant change occurring during the 1870's was the creation of a post-graduate course; the curriculum in 1877 was extended and the degree of Master of Laws was offered. The School was a pioneer in the field. The following year seven students graduated with the new degree.

In 1884 the Law School moved to the University Building on the corner of 15th and H Streets, N.W. apparently where the Woodward Building now stands. Tuition the year of the move was $80 for one year or $150 for both. By that date the Law School could proudly proclaim that since 1865 over one thousand students had graduated. The last two decades of the nineteenth century brought added prestige to Columbian Law School with the addition to the faculty of one former member and two members of the United States Supreme Court viz., Justices William Strong, who taught from 1881-88, John Marshall Harlan (1889-1909), and David Josiah Brewer (1890-1908).

Justice Harlan taught such courses as "Constitutional Jurisprudence and Public and Private International Law;" Justice Strong likewise taught Constitutional Jurisprudence, while Justice Brewer dealt with the "Law of Corporations." In evidence, it seems, of the lighter burden enjoyed by members of the Supreme Court at this time, Justices Harlan and Brewer held their faculty positions concomitant with their judicial responsibilities. On the other hand, Justice Strong had resigned from the High Court the year prior to his association with the Law School. Today the Harland-Brewer House on the Northeast corner of 20th and H Streets N.W. stands in memory of these two notable men.

A perusal of some of the surviving Class Books of the 1890's has revealed some interesting and rather frank "statistics." For example one finds the average age of the class to be 28; the "average weight is 146, the range being from 100 to 250, this latter being that of a well known member of the class... Fourteen are married but a larger number express themselves as wanting to be. Politically there are: Republicans, 39; Democrats, 24; Go1d Democrats, 5; Free Silver Democrats, 3; Mugwumps, 2; Prohibitionists, 2; Free Silver Republicans, 1 ..." and so on. Fifty-eight percent were found to be opposed to the use of liquor and 43% to tobacco.

The Class Book of 1899, after naming the best dressed men, the most popular man, the "man most to be admired," and the windiest man, stated: "In the race for the homliest man, Tyssowski led Everts by one vote; these two practically had the field to themselves...."

By the turn of the century the Columbian College of Law had indeed accomplished a great deal. In 1895 a course in Patent Law was established and in 1898 the School of Comparative Jurisprudence and Diplomacy was initiated. Perhaps the last noteworthy event to occur in the last century was the move in 1899 to new quarters in the Law Lecture Hall located next to the University Building.

At the turn of the century (1900) the Association of American Law Schools was founded with GWU Law School (known as Columbian College of Law until 1904) as one of the charter members. At that time the Law School was not yet co-educational; it was not until 1911 that women were permitted to enroll. Five years later in 1916 Marion Clark became the first woman to graduate with the LLB.

By 1916 the Law School was not only able to boast six professors devoting substantially all their time to their school responsibilities, but several additional part time instructors as well. 1916 also marks the date when summer school was offered for the first time (classes were from 7:00 A.M. to 8:40 A.M.). Of further interest, Dean Everett Fraser reported that year that the case method of instruction which had been partially adopted some years previously, had been "extended to all the substantive law subjects, and to those adjective law subjects" for which it was deemed suitable. And interestingly enough, although a college degree was not yet required, the average age at that day was 26.

To the student of 50 or so years ago, today's common term "Trial Practice" would have sounded strange indeed, for at that time the expression "Moot Court" was the vogue. According to a student publication of 1915, Res Gestae, this method of instruction "originated at George Washington University," and spread to the other schools of the nation. In 1910 the Law School made its fourth move and occupied the 5th and 6th floors of the Masonic Temple at 13th and H St., N. W. where it remained for 10 years. That same year the University acquired a new president whose name has become commonplace to the law student today. Charles Herbert Stockton had been a Rear Admiral and an authority on International Law - especially on the U. S. Naval War Code - preceding his position as president. He died at the age of 78, in 1923, the year prior to the commencement of the building bearing his name - the present home of the Law School.

In 1920 GWU Law School, seemingly always on the move, again found new quarters, this time in the former U.S. Department of Justice Building at 1435 K St., N. W. Here the School had its briefest stay, for in 1925 Stockton Hall was completed and occupied. As the following figures indicate the Law School was growing; more spacious and adequate facilities were needed and Stockton Hall served well that need. In 1900, 46 students graduated; 53 in 1915 received degrees and in 1924 a whopping 179 graduated including one William T. Fryer of Maryland.

1924 may also be noted as the year William Cabell Van Vleck became Dean of the Law School. Dean Van Vleck, who died at the age of 70, six years ago, remained Dean for 24 years. Today the annual Van Vleck Case Club Competition serves as a tribute in memory of this man. 1925 was a year of celebration; Stockton Hall constructed with an eye fixed to the future was completed. The dedicatory address was given by the grand ol’ man of the law (then not so old) Roscoe Pound. Already this building has served the purposes of the Law School longer than any other. By 1925 the full time faculty complement had increased to 9; tuition fees were about $6 per semester hour and it appears that evening classes were scheduled from 5:10 to 6:55. Although only one year of college was required the school boasted 43% of the students were college graduates. Futhermore in a publicity brochure it claimed that while during the years 1919-23 nearly half of those who took the District of Columbia Bar had failed, 87% of those from GWU Law School who took it passed the first time.

Not long after Stockton Hall was occupied, Dean Van Vleck fortunately obtained the talents and services of three outstanding young men to wit, William T. Fryer (J.D. 1925 Yale), Carville D. Benson (S.J.D. 1926 Harvard) and James F. Davison (S. J.D. 1929 Harvard). Subsequent years have demonstrated that Dean Van Vleck may have acted more astutely in recruiting these men than at the time he knew. The product of these three has not only brought much deserved recognition and respect to them individually, but has contributed greatly in augmenting the reputation and duality of the George Washington Law School.

Perusal of the Law School Bulletin of Summer 1933 indicates Professor Fryer was teaching Agency using Mechem's cases; Professor Davison was teaching Corporations using Warren's Cases on Corporations and Professor Benson using Larrimore's casebook taught Personal Property. The following year Professor Fryer's Readings on Personal Property, appeared as an aid to the law student and others, and in 1937 he co-edited with Professor Benson, Readings on the Study of Law and the Anglo-American Legal System. This latter product, enlarged in 1949 to two volumes, Legal Method and Legal System, is well known among law students today. This same year, 1949, Professor Benson became Assistant Dean of the Law School. Other scholarly works and writings could be listed as flowing from the pens of William T. Fryer and Carville Benson, but suffice it to say that now as for many years to come hundreds and perhaps thousands of former students will pleasantly recall the friendly humor, the unimposing manner of Professor Fryer, and the kindly but thorough way of Dean Benson. Both are and will be remembered as experts in their field.

Professor James Forrester Davison, the third of the "senior" professors at GWU Law School can count back 32 years to when he taught his first class in Stockton Hall. As early as 1932 he co-edited with Felix Frankfurter, Cases on Administrative Law, and in 1952 with Nathan Grundstein came out with the current, Cases and Materials on Administrative Law. Among an impressive list of responsible and important positions held by Professor Davison, he has served as Consultant on the Joint Committee on atomic energy which prepared a report on the licensing of civilian uses of Atomic Energy. Likewise a recognized authority in his field, Professor Davison is undoubtedly and will continue to be placed in the minds of former students as one with an unusual breadth and depth of knowledge extending to countless aspects of the age in which we live, and as one genuinely devoted to the constant challenge of educating the student.

To some of the older alumni it may be of special interest to recall some of the surviving, former professors who taught at the Law School about a half century ago. Although Professor Fryer, who joined the faculty in 1926, holds the distinction of being the "senior" professor on the current staff, it is interesting to note that former GW Professor and Dean Merton L. Ferson, 86 years old, became a faculty member in 1911. Dean Ferson is currently teaching at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

As with Dean Ferson, former Dean Everett Fraser (1914-17), 83, is still active and teaching at Hastings. Judson A. Crane, 78, came to GW in 1914 from Tientsin, China where he taught for three years at Pei Yang University. Professor Crane also at Hastings is especially well known for his contribution to such fields as Partnerships, Corporations and Damages.

The George Washington Law Review publication beginning in 1932 has spoken for itself. Recent statistics illustrate that among approximately 79 Law Reviews in the United States, George Washington Law Review stands in about 13th place in number of paid subscriptions. The old Columbian College of Law has indeed developed into a leading institution over the last 97 years. And under the vigorous leadership of Dean Charles B. Nutting, Dean of the National Law Center, Dean Robert Kramer, Dean of the Law School and Dean Louis H. Mayo, Dean of the Graduate School of Public Law, it appears that the prior rate of achievement and progress will not only be maintained but surpassed as a new high in quality and prestige will be attained. The accelerated rate is already apparent. Ere long, the efforts to create a "top" law school in the nation's capitol of the Harvard, Yale and Columbia aura may be realized.

At least one other former law professor of the earlier era should be noted, namely, the esteemed Judge Henry W. Edgerton of the United States Court of Appeals (D.C.) who taught from 1921-29.

Marking the 75th anniversary of the Law School in 1940, the degree of Doctor of Juridical Science was added to the growing list of degrees obtainable at the School. In 1946 the degree of Master of Comparative Law was added and Master of Comparative Law (American Practice) followed in 1951. By 1952 the School, in collaboration with the Washington Foreign Law Society, had established an annual lecture series for the study of legal systems of the world. Two years later, the School not only absorbed the National University School of Law, established shortly after the Civil War, but fortunately added its Dean, Orville H, Walburn, to the faculty. That same year the University established the Patent, Trade-Mark and Copyright Foundation.

A law school does not exist, however, for the sake alone of drawing prestige unto itself and its graduates. Its primary purpose is to educate the student to become a lawyer in the finest sense of the word. It would seem that a law school should be judged by its finished product.

In this vein it might be appropriate to close this probe into the Law School's past with an excerpt from the Commencement Address delivered to the Class of 1872 by Robert S. Hale wherein he stated: "The lawyer must remember that in becoming a lawyer, he has not ceased to be a man; . . . he, as a lawyer, has obligations to the court and to his profession which he may no more violate than his duty to his client. "He is not absolved from his obligation to truth, justice and fairness, and given over to the service of injustice and falsehood by his donning the advocate's robe and assuming the charge of the case of his client, even though that case involve all the earthly interests of the latter."

Document Information

Images: 0
Photographic Credit: n/a
Author or Source: Amicus Curiae, March and May, 1962
Document Location: University Archives
Date Added to Encyclopedia: December 21, 2006
Prepared by: Lyle Slovick

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