John Marshall Harlan’s Constitutional Law Lectures Now Available Online

13Oct13

It is a little known fact of John Marshall Harlan’s life that he was so hard up for money while he was on the Supreme Court that he had to take on a second job as law professor at what is now known as George Washington University, during the years of 1889 to 1910. It is unusual for a Supreme Court justice to take on such a task but it is not unprecedented. Harlan’s colleague David Josiah Brewer also taught at George Washington, and Clarence Thomas is currently co-teaching a seminar on constitutional law at the very same law school. Harlan taught many different courses, but his constitutional law course was possibly his most popular one, as one can well imagine.

The contents of the lectures of those courses (Harlan was not a believer in the Socratic method) would have been lost for all time if two students during the 1897-98 academic year hadn’t transcribed them all in shorthand. Many years later, one of the students presented Harlan’s grandson, John Marshall Harlan II, a typed copy of the lectures when he ascended onto the Supreme Court. From there, the transcripts eventually found their way in to the Library of Congress, where they sit with the rest of the library’s collection of Harlan papers. (Oh, if they had only found their to Louisville!)

The lectures have been cited numerous times in books and articles about Harlan, but they have never appeared in print until now. Long time Harlan scholar Josh Blackman, along with Brian Frye and Michael McCloskey have published an edited and footnoted copy of the transcriptions in George Washington University Law School’s online journal Arguendo. Even better, they have written an introduction of sorts titled “Justice John Marshall Harlan: Professor of Law” which was published in the July 2013 issue of The George Washington Law Review (also available online.) For more information about the article, you can read what I wrote about it a couple years ago.

The lectures are fun to read: not only do they give a good idea of Harlan’s views on the Constitution, but there are also occasional glimpses of Harlan’s personality that peek through. (My favorite is when he goes on about this great new invention he has just discovered called the telephone. It reminds me of what many law students must have gone through a hundred years later as their professors discovered what wonderful things they could do on the Internet.) However, I think most people interested in the lectures would be best served by reading the article. The lectures go on for 338 pages and the article does an excellent job telling you everything you need to know about them. I would say it’s essential reading for anyone who is interested in Harlan.

This does leave me with one question though: what is Carolina Academic Press going to do now? They have been promising an edition of the lectures by Davison Douglas for a couple years now. It was recently pushed back from this autumn to 2014. Are they still going to release it? And if so, will it sell enough copies to make it worthwhile?

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