The Prophet of Harvard Law: James Bradley Thayer and His Legal Legacy
By Andrew Porwancher, Jake Mazeitis, Taylor Jipp, and Austin Coffey
Amid the halls of Harvard Law, a professor of legend, James Bradley Thayer, shaped generations of students from 1874 to 1902. His devoted protégés included future Supreme Court justices, appellate judges, and law school deans. The legal giants of the Progressive Era—Holmes, Brandeis, and Hand, to name only a few——came under Thayer’s tutelage in their formative years.
He imparted to his pupils a novel jurisprudence, attuned to modern realities, that would become known as legal realism. Thayer’s students learned to confront with candor the fallibility of the bench and the uncertainty of the law. Most of all, he instilled in them an abiding faith that appointed judges must entrust elected lawmakers to remedy their own mistakes if America’s experiment in self-government is to survive.
In the eyes of his loyal disciples, Thayer was no mere professor; he was a prophet bequeathing to them sacred truths. His followers eventually came to preside over their own courtrooms and classrooms, and from these privileged perches they remade the law in Thayer’s image. Thanks to their efforts, Thayer’s insights are now commonplace truisms.
The Prophet of Harvard Law draws from untouched archival sources to reveal the origins of the legal world we inhabit today. It is a story of ideas and people in equal measure. Long before judges don their robes or scholars their gowns, they are mere law students on the cusp of adulthood. At that pivotal phase, a professor can make a mark that endures forever after. Thayer’s life and legacy testify to the profound role of mentorship in shaping the course of legal history.
Andrew Porwancher is the Wick Cary Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Oklahoma. From 2020–2022, he is serving as the Ernest May Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. Aside from The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton, Porwancher is the author of The Devil Himself: A Tale of Honor, Insanity, and the Birth of Modern America (Oxford, 2016), which was adapted into a theatrical presentation in Dublin, and John Henry Wigmore and the Rules of Evidence: The Hidden Origins of Modern Law (Missouri, 2016), an inaugural volume in the series “Studies in Constitutional Democracy.”
Porwancher previously served as the Horne Fellow at Oxford and the Garwood Fellow at Princeton, and held senior research fellowships at the Straus Center (Yeshiva) and Clements Center (Texas). In 2017, he won the Longmire Prize for innovation in teaching. He is now at work on his fifth book, Theodore Roosevelt and the Jews (under contract with Princeton).
Professor Porwancher is a JMC fellow.
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