Overview of the Legal Curriculum, 1826-1865

Before the Law professorship at UVA was filled in 1826 by John Tayloe Lomax, Thomas Jefferson and the Board of Visitors began outlining requirements for the position holder’s credentials and the kind of instruction this person should deliver. The Board of Visitors determined at their April 5, 1824 meeting that the Professor of Law and the Professor of Moral Philosophy were required to be United States citizens (the only positions to have such a specification). Later, on March 4, 1825, the Board passed a resolution designating a certain set of textbooks that had to be used in the curriculum. These texts included John Locke's Essay on Civil Government; Algernon Sidney’s Discourses on Government; The Declaration of Independence; Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s The Federalist; Madison’s Virginia Resolution of 1799; and Washington’s "Farewell Address."

When Lomax assumed the professorship in July 1826, the only admission requirement was that applicants be over the age of 16. Students under the age of 21 were required to enroll in courses in at least three of UVA’s eight different schools, unless a course of study was designed by the student’s parents or the governing faculty. Within the School of Law, Lomax offered a general law survey with topics such as “the Common and Statute Law, that of the Chancery [equity], the laws of feudal, civil, mercatorial, maritime and of nature and nations; and also, the principles of government and political economy.” According to an outline of the law program, likely written by Lomax, in the University publication Belles Lettres, the texts used for this course of study included the Board’s original group of texts as well as several selections added by Lomax, including Blackstone’s Commentaries, William Cruise’s Law of Real Property, William Selwyn’s Nisi Prius, and Murdock’s Chancery. For the first three years of the program’s existence students were required to follow this course of study under Lomax for two academic sessions to graduate. In 1829, Lomax revised the goals of the two sessions with the first focusing on municipal law and catered to those desiring to enter legal practice after one year and the second on broader legal principles for students who intended to complete the program. Lomax believed offering an expedited program would better suit the needs of the student body who were, according to him, increasingly turning to law as a means of attaining a stable livelihood as quickly as possible.

John Anthony Gardner Davis succeeded Lomax in 1830 as a temporary instructor for the 1830-1831 academic session but was later made a permanent hire according to the Board of Visitor minutes for July 11, 1831. In 1830, Davis divided the law school into a junior class and a senior class. The overlap of certain texts in Davis’ class system suggests that Davis chose to keep some of the texts, did away with others, added his own, and then reorganized them into new groupings. For the junior class curriculum, Davis taught Emerich de Vattel's Law of Nations; The Federalist; Madison’s Virginia Report of 1799; Blackstone’s Commentaries; and A Treatise on Criminal Law by Davis. To the senior class curriculum, Davis added Coke’s Commentary Upon Littleton; Stephen’s On Pleading; Starkie On Evidence; Matthews On Executors; Chitty On Contracts; Smith’s Mercantile Law; Story’s Equity; and Mitford’s Pleadings. According to the 1838-39 course catalogue (the year before Davis was shot and killed), Davis used the same texts that term as he did when he first assumed the position. The catalogue from this year also notes some opportunities for instruction outside of this typical course of study: an optional junior course on national law, government and constitutional law for those not interested in municipal law; and a Law Society, presided over by Davis, where students continued their in-class discussions and litigated fictitious cases.

The 1838-39 catalogue also gives some insight into the criteria for matriculation and graduation at UVA, which, according to the other catalogues, remained consistent from the time of the Law School’s inception to the outbreak of the Civil War. Students were examined in each of their courses of study twice a year, first in the middle of the academic session, and second toward the end. Grades were administered as first (75th percentile or higher), second (≥50), third (≥25), or fourth (<25) marks. If one school was attended, the student was charged $50; $30 per class if two; and $25 per class if three. The Law School was the only school that required an additional $20 charge for all students attending the senior class. Students who wanted to attend the optional national law, government, and constitutional law class (taught under Davis) that were not enrolled in the law school had to pay an additional $15. Students would pay a total of $125 in boarding expenses in three-month installments over the course of a nine-month academic session, then in addition to costs for fuel and candles ($30 total, $15 if shared with a roommate each), rent for a dorm ($16 total, $8 if shared with a roommate each), and a fee for library use ($15). All of this together cost a student an average of $238 a year.

Henry St. George Tucker assumed the law professorship in 1841, after Nathaniel Pope Howard finished Davis' term as a temporary hire in the wake of Davis' unexpected death. The junior/senior structure remained in place under Tucker’s leadership. There are two important foci that Tucker brought to the position: constitutional law and the rights of the states and natural law. The texts in his junior class included Blackstone; Wheaton's Law of Nations; Kent’s Commentaries (on constitutional law and the law of nations); The Federalist; The Virginia Report of 1799; Upshur’s Review of Story’s Commentaries; Paley’s Philosophy; and the Constitution of Virginia. The senior class included Henry St. George Tucker’s own Commentaries on the Laws of Virginia as well as Coke on Littleton, Stephen, Smith, Story, Starkie, John Tayloe Lomax’s Treatise on Executors, and Lomax’s Digest. Tucker’s description for the junior class for the 1844-45 academic year remains consistent through each catalogue during his tenure:

“In the arrangement of the political part of this course, the Professor’s object has been to lay before the student the most able dissertations on both sides of the great constitutional questions which have arisen in our country; to impress upon his mind the inestimable value of the union on one hand, and the vital importance of preserving the rights of the states on the other; thus guarding him against latitudinarian constructions and the invasion of the reserved rights of the States, while the disorganizing principles which lead to convulsion and disunion are earnestly discarded and industriously controverted.”

John Barbee Minor took over as law professor in 1845 and maintained Tucker’s exact curriculum until 1852 (including the optional course on national/constitutional law for the junior class) until James P. Holcombe joined the faculty as an adjunct. The 1852-53 course catalogue says that the Board of Visitors, “anxious to enlarge the sphere of legal instruction,” hired Holcombe to offer further instruction in equity and commercial law. At this point, the program was also divided further into three classes, with an added “intermediate” class between junior and senior. The junior class covered “studies… at once essential to the professional student, and form a highly useful branch of general education.” Texts included Vattel’s Law of Nations; Henry St. George Tucker’s Lectures on Government; The Federalist; Madison’s Virginia Report of 1799; and Blackstone’s Commentaries. The intermediate class involved instruction on “the theory and practice of law,” and the texts included Stephen; Barton’s Suit in Equity; Lomax’s Digest; Smith; Greenleaf’s Evidence; and Holcombe’s Equity. The senior class moved on to “a professional cultivation as liberal as the growing wants of the country shall demand, or allow,” and involved Story; Chitty; Mitford; Lomax on Executors; Byles’ Treatise of the Law of Bills; White and Tudor’s Leading Cases in Equity; Smith’s Leading Cases; and a text titled “Lectures on Civil Law” (author unknown).

In 1856, the law school received its first division into “departments,” and the program reduced back to a two-session (junior/senior) structure. Minor headed the Department of Common and Statute Law, with a junior class using Blackstone and Chitty, and a senior class using Stephen, Lomax’s Digest, and Lomax on Executors. Holcombe oversaw the Department of Equity, Mercantile, International, and Constitutional Law, and Government, with a junior class using Henry St. George Tucker’s Lectures on Government; The Federalist; Duer’s Outlines of the Constitution; Madison’s Virginia Report of 1799; Polson’s Law of Nations; and Vattel’s Law of Nations. The senior class was assigned Smith, Greenleaf, Barton, and Adam’s Equity. This curriculum remained consistent until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.