John Marshall Harlan’s Constitutional Law Lectures


Supreme Court justices have always struck me as extremely busy people. Too busy–and well paid–to have time or the need to moonlight. But apparently this was not always the case. For the years 1891 to 1910, the perpetually cash-strapped John Marshall Harlan was a part time professor at the law school in George Washington University (then known as Columbian University.) He taught many subjects (torts, evidence, property, etc.) but he mostly taught constitutional law. Most of these lectures are lost in the mists of time, but in 1897 a pair of students transcribed a year’s worth of con law lectures, typed them and then years later gave them to Harlan’s grandson (the other Justice Harlan) who donated them to the Library of Congress. Alas, they aren’t part of the University of Louisville Harlan papers, but we do have the Library of Congress collection on microfilm, so the lectures are available for viewing here. (We do have some essays written by his students, but those seem to attract even less attention, for some reason.)

The idea of a con law class taught by a sitting Supreme Court justice is an intriguing one (imagine a class taught by Scalia or Breyer!) but the lectures have attracted amazingly little attention over the years. They have been cited a few times in Harlan biographies and that’s about it. But that looks like it is going to change soon. I have heard rumors that Carolina Academic Press will be coming out with a transcription of them either this year or the next, so Harlan scholars everywhere will be able to read them.

In the meantime, I have stumbled onto an article that summarizes not only the lectures, but also Harlan’s tenure at George Washington:  “Justice John Marshall Harlan, Professor of Law” by Josh Blackman, available at SSRN. Mr. Blackman peppers the paper with all kinds of intriguing bits. such as his classes were two hour lectures held each Saturday night. (That’s another hard to imagine in this day and age: law students attending class on a Saturday night.)

Unfortunately, having actually read a few of the lectures myself, I have to say they sound more intriguing and enlightening than they actually are.  Anyone hoping to get some insight into Harlan’s reasoning behind Plessy v. Ferguson or just about any of his other decisions is going to be disappointed.  Harlan starts with the pilgrims arriving in America, talks about the Articles of Confederation and then plods through the Constitution, one paragraph at a time.  There are 25 lectures in all, and he doesn’t get to the amendments until the 22nd lecture, and the 13th – 15th amendments, which could have lead to the most interesting discussion of all are summarily discussed in the last lecture. On the whole, they read more like a high school civics class than a modern constitutional law class. (Although there are occasionally flashes of humor and some amusing anecdotes and asides. Like the time he marvels over this amazing new invention he just installed in his house: a telephone.)

For people who are curious about how well they might have done in Harlan’s class, Mr. Blackman has also unearthed a test from Harlan’s 1899 con law class and has posted it on his blog. I actually have more to say about Mr. Blackman’s blog, but I’m going to have to save it for another post.

One Response to “John Marshall Harlan’s Constitutional Law Lectures”

  1. 1 John Marshall Harlan’s Constitutional Law Lectures Now Available Online | Brandeis and Harlan Watch

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