The Role of Morality in Early Republican Legal Science: The Case of Gulian C. Verplanck
49 Pages Posted: 13 May 2009
Date Written: May 13, 2009
This is the story of one of antebellum New York's most profound legal minds. In fact, a good case can be made that Gulian C. Verplanck rivaled Chancellor James Kent in his legal acumen. Verplanck is less familiar than Kent, however, because his career was so diverse and varied, and his contributions to the law did not always occur in the courtroom. This article is an attempt to restore a worthy member to American legal history and, at the same time, argue for an appreciation of Verplanck's larger importance among a unique group of early-American legal intellectuals who viewed the law as so much more than the pleadings of lawyers and the opinions of judges. Verplanck saw the law as interconnected with all fields of inquiry, especially moral philosophy, literature, and natural science. He vehemently argued that the search for legal knowledge was no different than the search for moral knowledge or the search for scientific knowledge. Thus Verplanck thought all lawyers should be liberally educated and that law should not be treated as a vocation. His theories led him to reject the common law doctrine of caveat emptor, to support an extension of copyright terms, and to make the case that the New York judiciary was in serious need of reform, a conclusion the legal community as a whole came to share within a decade. His proposals, however, were based, not upon precedent or established legal doctrine, but upon the science of political economy, a psychological theory of human motivation, and good old public utility. Verplanck's legal contemporaries were surprisingly supportive of his later endeavors despite his overt contempt for precedent and tradition. It seems modern legal professionals could learn something from Verplanck's desire to place the law in such a broad context even without agreeing with his philosophical foundations or policy conclusions.
Keywords: Gulian Verplanck, legal history, legal science, New York, caveat emptor, copyright
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