Andrew Porwancher et al., "The Prophet of Harvard Law: James Bradley Thayer and His Legal Legacy" (UP of Kansas, 2022)


Though relatively short, the 2022 book The Prophet of Harvard Law: James Bradley Thayer and His Legal Legacy (UP of Kansas, 2022) by Andrew Porwancher, Austin Coffey, Taylor Jipp, and Jake Mazeitis, is jam-packed with information about late 19th and early 20th Century legal history and the professionalization of American legal education.

This is a moving tale of a professor whose acolytes included some of the giants of American jurisprudence (e.g., the judges and justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, Learned Hand and the legal scholars John Henry Wigmore and Roscoe Pound). Even those not directly taught by Thayer, such as Felix Frankfurter, lauded him as an intellectual influence.

You may be thinking, “Why should I take the time to read a book about a long-dead Harvard law professor?” Well, because many of the issues that James Bradley Thayer (1831-1902) and his students grappled with have shaped almost every encounter Americans have with the law and affect our rights from the workplace to the schoolroom to the courtroom.

Thayer and Wigmore, for example, did pioneering work on the laws of evidence. Hand did the same on the topic of expert testimony. Holmes and Thayer thrashed out the meaning of the word “presumption” as it was used in trials. And on a grander scale, Holmes, Brandeis, and Hand were trained as thinkers on Constitutional law by Thayer. We could all do with a primer on what “living constitutionalism” is, for example.

The book is also valuable for its contributions to the field of the history of education and will benefit those researching the development of professional associations and the transformation of universities like Harvard from small liberal arts institutions into major research universities. This is social history at its best.

We read about how Thayer attracted bright young men from across the country who applied what they learned under their beloved mentor once they left Harvard and took up posts elsewhere (as Wigmore did as dean at Northwestern Law School) and/or played key roles in major legal cases in the Progressive Era and beyond. Economics. Labor Law. Free speech. They’re all here.

And “beloved” is not too strong a word for the way these titans of American law regarded Thayer. Early career academics in any field who need a role model of a dedicated teacher could do worse than study the life of James Bradley Thayer. He was the subject of admiration and gratitude decades later by influential men who credited him with providing moral support and practical help when they were first starting out and for setting a standard of learning and hard work that they applied in their judicial and academic careers. Thayer was a networker and mentor par excellence.

The book is interesting in itself apart from its subject in that it is a joint work by a professor (Andrew Porwancher) and three of his former students. That is a project worthy of note and something Thayer would almost certainly have endorsed, given how closely he worked with his students when they were at Harvard and, in many cases, for years afterward. It is no exaggeration to say that our lives today were affected by the active law-related personal correspondence between Thayer and his men.

Let’s hear from Professor Porwancher about what might be called the Thayer Effect and what co-authorship with students entails.

Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.

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Hope J. Leman

Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher in the biomedical sciences. She is particularly interested in the subjects of natural law, religious liberty and history generally.

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