Curriculum Guide · Curriculum
The teaching of legal history at the Law Center dates from 1875 when Martin F. Morris, a founder and dean, offered lectures on the subject. Morris, a self-described "philosophic historian," studied the past to discern "a purpose and a continuity in human history," namely, the steady progress of civilization and civil liberty from antiquity to his day. Although Georgetown’s present legal historians are not likely to join in a search for an unfolding purpose in the past, all share his conviction that a first-rate law school owes its students more than instruction in the canons of legal reasoning and aspects of legal practice. It should also provide students with perspectives on the legal acumen they acquire, so that they can use their new power wisely and with self-mastery. As different as Georgetown's offerings are, they all consider legal history an engaging way to acquire this self-awareness.
Of course, judges, lawyers and law students have sometimes asked legal history to do more. In particular, some study the legal past to discover information that courts can use in deciding cases. Some of Georgetown's courses and seminars do permit students to search out the origins of a doctrine, to revisit landmark precedents, or to explore the legislative intent behind particular statutes. But this view of the utility of legal history is not the dominant approach of the school's offerings. More common is a concern for revealing how law has changed over time. Students should not expect to find authoritative lessons in the past, only analogies whose aptness are for us in the present to decide. They should also expect their teachers to stress differences between the past and present as often as they note similarities.
Two courses offer background and overviews of substantial portions of the Anglo-American legal past. In his English Legal History Seminar: Foundations of American Law, Professor James Oldham uses original trial manuscript sources to introduce students to the 18th-century English common law system, much of which was transplanted to the colonies. American Legal History, taught by Professor Daniel Ernst, takes up the years since Reconstruction with special concern for the development of the U.S. state.
The rest of the offerings allow students to conduct their own research in areas of their professors' special expertise, including the history of the jury, the history of ideas, the social history of gender and the family, and the constitutional history of speech in the United States.
Many of these seminars require that students work in the unusually rich sources available at or within walking distance of the Law Center. These include the Edward Bennett Williams Library's microform edition of English Legal Manuscripts, the Folger Library, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the libraries of the federal departments.
Full-time and Visiting Faculty:
American Legal History
Race and American Law
British Legal History Seminar: from the Celts to the Industrial Age, 1-1890 C.E.
Early American Legal History: From Settlement to Reconstruction, 1600 - 1880
English Legal History Seminar: Foundations of American Law
Holmes and The Common Law Seminar
Jury Trials in America: Understanding and Practicing Before a Pure Form Democracy
Law and Social Change: The Civil Rights Movement Seminar
New Deal Legal History Seminar