Simon Greenleaf I (1783-1853)
Bill Long 7/26/08
In His Own Words....Finally
One of the least-studied and written about major figures in American law is Simon Greenleaf, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School from 1833-1853 (actually, Royall Professor until 1846; Dane Professor until 1848; then professor emeritus until his death). He and Joseph Story were HLS for most of that time; and since Story spent a lot of his time in Washington DC on the Supreme Court, the "joy" of running the school fell to Greenleaf. In addition, he had time to pen, among other things, the first American treatise on the law of evidence, in three volumes, a treatise not surpassed until John Henry Wigmore's magnum opus in the 20th century (a treatise still used in law schools today). In fact, I contend that Greenleaf, one of the few law professors ever to have had a law school named after him, is the most influential American legal thinker never to have been written about in any detail.
The reason? Until 1977 his private papers will still lying in the attic of one of his descendants. In that year and at other times, they were sold to Harvard Law School, but very few people have the patience to paw through that stuff. Indeed, the "Finding Aid" put out by Harvard Universit Library speaks of the fact that the material "suffers from an inconsistency of organization and arrangement" because it had been sold on various occasions and "tampered with" by several individuals. In addition, the Finding Aid laments:
"A major drawback of the collection is its lack of depth into Greenleaf's personal life....In fact, very little of the collection reflects a personality distinct from his formal dealings."
This and the next essay try to rectify that gap in a small way. How? Read on..
Learning About Greenleaf's Life
I was minding my own business a few weeks ago when the same person who contributed massive Greenleaf papers to Harvard, who calls Greeleaf his "great great granduncle," contacted me. He told me that he still had some Greenleaf material in his possession, and would I like to see it? LIKE TO SEE IT??? I could barely contain my eagerness, and I quickly wrote back to the man in the East, and he sent me a small plastic storage container with several bundles of papers, notebooks and other documents written by or to Greenleaf during his life. In this and the next few essays I propose to go through some of these unique documents. Handling rather brittle documents that are 150-230 years old is exhilarating and humbling at the same time. You need patience to try to read the script, but you feel that as you are working through the script that you are touching the mind of another human--in a way that reading about him in a book would never do.
One of the most valuable of the documents that I found is a letter written by Greenleaf to his son James in 1838 narrating his early years. The letter is contained in an envelope dated 1944--when the current owner of Greenleaf material's father sent this autobiographical statement to him. Thus, there is still a 100-year period where I don't know the transmission history of this document, but it is written in a clear and disciplined hand. It is addressed "Mr. James Greenleaf, Natchez, Mis." What was his son James doing in Natchez? I don't yet know. But I do know that his James, the oldest of three Greenleaf offspring, had married Mary Longfellow, younger sister of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Both Simon Greenleaf and Stephen Longfellow, Henry's dad, were distinguished members of the Maine bar about the time of Maine statehood (1820).
The letter is, of course, in longhand, and is 5 1/2 pages in length. As will be evident, Greenleaf narrates some events of his early life in quite some detail, before "running out of time" near the end of the letter. He promises to continue the story in another letter, but I don't think that has survived (at least not in the collection I have or at Harvard). I will quote the letter now.
"Cambridge, Jan. 5, 1838
My dear Son,
In your letter of Dec. 7 about my birth Day, you mention that you have forgotten my age. So I will tell you that, and some other things, which it may amuse you, at least to read. I was born Dec. 5, 1783, on Friday, in a snow storm--in a house still standing on Water Street [Newburyport. There is some disagreement in printed sources as to the day of his birth. This letter should put that debate to rest]. I recollect three important events which happened while I was in petticoats, and of course before I was four years old--First, the breaking of my drum by Mary Johnson--secondly--my father's putting me for the first time into the river to wade & swim--and thirdly, my being pinned to the schoolmistress's gown [flourishing double "s"] for roguery at school.
In 1788 my father removed to a house of my mother's in Newbury Old Town, where we lived two years. Here I went to school to the famous Mr. Barnard Tucker, on "the green"--Of this part of my "education," I remember only being sentenced once to sit on a sharp rock in the school house, & at another time to stand & hold a brick at arm's length, for misdemeanors;--assisting every day for one summer in demolishing the chimney & breaking the glass in an uninhabited house near by; --wading in the green-pond after frongs & goslings; taking clay-impressions of angels heads from the grave stones; --birds-egging; --making sand puddings; & climbing into the village steeple. During this priod I went a short time to master John Raynes to learn to read; I well remember the beautiful penknife with which he pointed out the place & directed my eye along the line, as I read--I never got along well in reading, while he used that knife; & perhaps was taken away because his instruction was so poor and unsuccessful! So poor pedagogues often suffer unjustly--
It was during this same period that those events occurred of which you may have heard your grandmother speak, in her fondness for immortalizing the deeds of her babes--such as getting my head fast between the balustrades of the pew; putting off the wig of our sleepy neighbor Noyes, in summer time; and the adulteration of old Thomas's rum. But these are not worth remembering, unless as developments of character..."
Enjoying this so far? We continue this story in the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long