Disseisin, Doubt, and Debate: Adverse Possession Scholarship in the United States (1881–1986)

64 Pages Posted: 17 Jan 2018

See all articles by John A. Lovett

John A. Lovett

Loyola University New Orleans College of Law

Date Written: January 16, 2018


This article addresses how U.S. and occasionally English property scholars discussed, analyzed and understood the doctrine of adverse possession between 1881 and the early 1980s. It fills a gap in current American property law scholarship by taking a deep, historiographic approach to a century of American adverse possession discourse, beginning with the ruminations of Oliver Wendell Holmes on possession in The Common Law (1881) and culminating in the famous tournament of scholars featuring R.H. Helmholz and Roger Cunningham (1983-86).

The article identifies and analyzes several major themes that emerge throughout this long century of adverse possession discourse. Those include: (1) constant debate over the fundamental doctrinal nature of adverse possession; (2) frequent attempts to distill the social, economic and systemic purposes served by the doctrine; (3) preoccupation with the Americanization of the English common law of adverse possession, and (4) attentiveness to incremental developments in U.S. courts and modest attempts to influence that development, occasionally interrupted by more radical prescriptive and theoretical critiques.

The article demonstrates that American adverse possession scholarship during this period was generally endogenous, apparently uninterested, with a few notable exceptions, in any social, economic or market factors occurring outside the academy or the narrow confines of adverse possession case law. This article recovers for contemporary lawyers, judges and property scholars the impressive learning and frequently brilliant insights that scholars such as Henry Ballantine, Percy Bordwell, William Walsh, William Stoebuck and Charles Callahan provided in their work — insights, which in many instances, foreshadowed scholarly innovations that appeared in subsequent decades.

Keywords: Adverse Possession, Prescription, Property, Property Theory, Property Law Scholarship, Legal History, Disseisin

Suggested Citation

Lovett, John A., Disseisin, Doubt, and Debate: Adverse Possession Scholarship in the United States (1881–1986) (January 16, 2018). 5 Tex. A & M L. Rev. 1 (2017); Loyola University New Orleans College of Law Research Paper No. 2018-02. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3103332

John A. Lovett (Contact Author)

Loyola University New Orleans College of Law ( email )

7214 St. Charles Ave., Box 901
New Orleans, LA 70118
United States
504-861-5478 (Phone)
504-861-5733 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://law.loyno.edu/faculty/bio/jlovett

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