Melville M. Bigelow: Boston University’s Neglected Pioneer of Historical Legal Scholarship in America
43 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2011
Date Written: January 1, 2011
Melville Madison Bigelow, together with Henry Adams, James Barr Ames, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and James Bradley Thayer, introduced the professional study of legal history to the United States in the decades following the Civil War. Emulating German standards of “scientific” historical research based on primary sources, and often relying on prior German scholarship on the history of Germanic law, they investigated the history of early English law. As English scholars recognized at the time, these Americans surpassed the English themselves in the study of English legal history. Frederic Maitland, the great English legal historian who began publishing in the mid-1880s, built upon their work, which he frequently praised and cited throughout his own.
He corresponded with several of them, and maintained a close personal friendship with Bigelow. Maitland remains a towering figure, often admired as the best legal historian ever to write in the English language. The historical work of the Americans, by contrast, has been largely forgotten, Bigelow’s most of all. Yet Bigelow, a founding member of the law faculty at Boston University, where he taught from 1872 until his death in 1921 and served as Dean from 1902 to 1911, was the most productive of the late nineteenth century American legal historians. He was even better known abroad, particularly in England, than in the United States. Stressing Bigelow’s pioneering contributions to legal history, this Article attempts to restore Bigelow to the major position he deserves in the history of American legal scholarship. Through its focus on Bigelow, the Article also directs attention to the general importance of history for late nineteenth-century legal scholars, which their twentieth-century successors unfortunately have obscured by inaccurately ascribing a timeless “deductive formalism” to “classical legal thought.”
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