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Exhibit Shows Bay State’s Legal Legacy

Law Library hosting ‘Golden Age of Legal Publishing in Mass.’

“Seeing how the Commonwealth was a hotbed of this new legal thought and activity, in what was a new country, is striking.” — Laurel Davis (Photo by Jason Liu)

By Melissa Beecher | Chronicle Staff

Published: Dec. 1, 2011

Little known fact for those outside historical legal literature circles: Massachusetts was the hub of legal publishing in the 19th century, when American legal scholarship was taking shape. Now, some of those texts, published just after the American Revolution, are on display in the Daniel R. Coquillette Rare Book Room at the Boston College Law Library.

The Golden Age of Legal Publishing in Massachusetts,” on display through the spring of 2012, boasts rare treasures – works by Joseph Story, Simon Greenleaf and Theophilus Parsons – that show the progression of legal scholarship in the fledgling nation, according to Legal Information Librarian, Law Lecturer and Rare Book Room Curator Laurel Davis.

“So many legal thinkers and scholars of the 19th century came out of Massachusetts and were published in Massachusetts,” said Davis. “Seeing how the Commonwealth was a hotbed of this new legal thought and activity, in what was a new country, is striking.”

Prior to the rise of the West publishing empire in the late 1800s, Massachusetts publishers and printers led the way in producing many of the texts that established or influenced the legal practice in the new Republic, said Davis.

“In an age when so many things are getting digitized, the artifact itself becomes so important. Understanding how these works really came about and the efforts that went into producing them; having a larger birds eye view of how legal scholarship has evolved and how jurisprudence has evolved in a larger context is incredibly useful,” Davis said.

Among the treasures on display is The Spirit of Laws, a text written by French political thinker and social commentator Charles-Lois de Secondat, baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu. The work was published by Isaiah Thomas and greatly influenced the Massachusetts and US constitutions. Another is the first American printing of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England that was published after the American Revolution, at a time when reprinting English legal texts was a key first step in the evolution of American legal publishing.

Also on display is Simon Greenleaf’s first edition A Treatise on the Law of Evidence, purchased in honor of Michael Morales, a member of the BC Law Class of 2009. One volume includes an inscription penned by Greenleaf to Joseph Story.  

“Michael became very interested in rare books as a student, and the works of Greenleaf in particular. He helped the previous curator, Karen Beck, curate an exhibit on Simon Greenleaf,” said Davis. “After that exhibit concluded, this book came up for purchase and it was decided that it would be acquired in his honor. It is a beautiful, beautiful first edition.”

For the first time in a Rare Book Room exhibit, supplemental materials are available online through the use of QR code technology. Users can click a picture of the code using a QR reader in their mobile devices, and additional websites, slideshows and audio tours are available. Educational Technology Specialist Chester Kozikowski helped integrate the technology into the exhibit.

“It helps blend the old and new in a way that has not been done before here,” said Davis.

View a video here.

The exhibit can be viewed whenever the room is open, weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Class tours can be arranged by contacting Laurel Davis at