Doing Justice to the Heritage of Legal Education at Penn

As the Law School celebrates the millennial year 2000--the 150th anniversary of its founding and the 100th anniversary of the opening of Silverman Hall--it presents Scrolling through History, a chronology of the Penn Law School, from the first lectures delivered in the late 18th century to today's bustling legal enterprise

(Click HERE for a time-line of the Law School's history).

The vast majority of the material on the Law School's Sesquicentennial website is taken wholecloth from the history compiled by Mark Frazier Lloyd, director of the University's Archives and Records Center, and placed along the walls of the Goat in 1993 under the direction of graphic designers Mayer & Myers. This text was reconceived as "Snippets of History" by Derek Davis for the Penn Law Journal magazine. Below is the beginning of the multi-part history.

Part I: The Formative Years

Law as an academic subject had as impressive a start at Penn as any institution of higher education could possibly claim. James Wilson, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was elected Penn's first professor of law in 1790. In December of that year he initiated his law lectures with an introductory address before "President and Mrs. Washington, Vice-President John Adams, members of both houses of Congress, the President and both houses of the Legislature of Pennsylvania, ladies and gentlemen."

Wilson's students, however, received only a single semester of lecturing before losing their distinguished professor to the press of national and personal business. An unsuccessful attempt at restarting the Law Lectures was made in the early 19th century, but it wasn't until 1850 that Law Lectures were permanently reinstituted by George Sharswood, Judge of the Philadelphia District Court and later, President of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In 1852 a three-member Faculty of Law was established and in June of that year the degree Bachelor of Laws was first conferred by the Trustees. Like the School of Medicine, the Law School was conducted as a proprietary school until 1888, when the law course was extended from two to the present three years. The Law School has required the bachelor's degree as a prerequisite to admission since 1914.

James Wilson, Founding Father and Advocate for Democracy

James Wilson was one of two signers of the United States Constitution who were faculty members at the College of Philadelphia (forerunner to the University of Pennsylvania). A native of Scotland, educated at the University of St. Andrews, Wilson was appointed a Latin tutor at the College in February 1766. His appointment was followed by the award of an honorary Master of Arts degree at that year's commencement. He later studied law in the office of John Dickinson, was admitted to the bar and established a practice in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Wilson was a member of the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776 and signed the Declaration of Independence. Simultaneously, however, he fought the radical Pennsylvania constitution of 1776. Despite his advocacy of the democratic principle and the sovereignty of the individual, Wilson's career subsequent to 1776 carried him steadily to the right.

Elected to the Continental Congress in 1782, where he served all but one year until 1787, Wilson's chief contributions were his proposal to establish states in the Western lands and his successful advocacy of a general revenue plan for Congress. On both measures he was accused of conflict of interest: first, as an investor in Western land companies and second, as a beneficiary of the payment of interest on the loans of the Bank of North America.

There was at least a modicum of truth in these charges, for there is ample evidence that Wilson's chief concern between 1778 and 1787 was the accumulation of great personal wealth. During this period he became a close associate of Robert Morris and adopted the Federalist position on the need for a strong central government.

Wilson's greatest achievement in public life was his part in the establishment of the United States Constitution. With the possible exception of James Madison, no member of the Constitutional Convention was better versed in the study of political economy, none grasped more firmly the central problem of dual sovereignty, and none was more optimistic and far-sighted in his vision of the future greatness of the United States.

Wilson regularly advocated the idea that sovereignty resided in the people, that the President and members of both houses of Congress should be popularly elected. He appears to have been the most influential member of the Committee of Detail, charged with preparing the first draft of the Constitution. Though not in agreement with all parts of the finished product, Wilson signed the Constitution and proved a powerful voice for its adoption.

Following the Constitutional Convention, Wilson enjoyed a surge of public triumphs. He led the Federalists in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention. In December 1787, after less than four weeks of debate, the delegates voted to ratify. Only the state of Delaware moved more quickly in taking favorable action. The Federalists' victory assured the passage of a new Pennsylvania state constitution, modeled precisely on the Federal Constitution. Wilson was its author. Wilson's national stature was confirmed in September 1789 when President Washington appointed him an Associate Justice of the first United States Supreme Court.

Professor of Law and Associate Justice

The College of Philadelphia, reconstituted in March 1789, joined in the national recognition of Wilson's extraordinary talents. In August 1790 Wilson was appointed Professor of Law, and on the occasion of his first lecture was granted an honorary Doctor of Law in December 1790, in Philadelphia's first year as the new nation's capital city.

Wilson sought to lay the foundations of an American system of jurisprudence. He departed from the Blackstonian definition of law as the rule of a sovereign superior; he argued instead that sovereignty resided in the people, giving as his rule "the consent of those whose obedience the law requires." On this foundation he defended the American Revolution and challenged Blackstone's denial of the legal right of revolution.

Wilson's hope of becoming the American Blackstone, however, failed. Except for the first, his lectures were not published until after his death and have never been cited in courts and law schools with the respect accorded the writings of the English lecturer. Wilson's lectures continued only a single year, and though he was elected Professor of Law in the new University of Pennsylvania in 1791, he never taught under its auspices. His judicial determinations were few. Instead, his private interests, particularly his land speculations, consumed his time and his energies.

Wilson's professorship of law came about as a response to the interests of law students. It seems likely that the requests came from the "Law Society of Philadelphia," which flourished for a few years in the late 1780s and early 1790s. The records of that society show that its membership overlapped extensively with the students of Wilson.

Fifteen young men attended Wilson's lectures in 1790 and 1791. At least 11 went on to the practice of law, for there is a record of that many admitted to the bar in Philadelphia alone. Two made significant contributions to the evolving Constitution: Joseph Hopkinson, as a member of Congress, 1815-1819, and as a United States Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 1828-1842; and Caesar August Rodney, as Attorney General of the United States, 1807-1811.

Wilson's lectures at Penn were interrupted in mid course; no degrees in law were recommended or granted. His influence on American jurisprudence, however, was carried by his students well into the 19th century.

For the remainder of Part I as well as the following parts...

... see

Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 12, November 14, 2000

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