Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



James Bradley Thayer was one of the major figures in American constitutional law if only because of his influence upon Holmes, Brandeis, and Frankfurter (to say nothing of Learned and Augustus Hand). Now almost forgotten, Thayer, along with Christopher Columbus Langdell, John Chipman Gray, and James Barr Ames, was one of the giants at the Harvard Law School during its "golden age"at the close of the nineteenth century.' His legal career began only after serious flirtation with divinity and the Greek and Latin classics. That his interest in such matters was never suppressed entirely is evident in his "A Western Journey with Mr. Emerson" (1884). Yet Thayer was not a cloistered scholar. Graduated from Harvard Law School in 1856, he became a leading practitioner at the Boston bar before becoming Royall Professor of Law at Harvard in 1874,having previously turned down a Harvard professorship in English. His tongue and pen, moreover, were always ready to promote such "good causes" as tariff reform, better treatment of Indians, and reform in the granting of corporate charters. His great study, A Preliminary Treatise on Evidence at the Common Law, published in 1898, led in due course to Wigmore's masterpiece--Wigmore having been one of his students. Thayer also compiled the first casebook on American constitutional law, Cases on Constitutional Law, in 1895. Apart from his technical work, he is now known--by the few who remember--for his insistence upon judicial respect for the political branches of government.