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New Collection in the Archives: John Dickinson’s Notebooks

October 17, 2008

dickinson.jpgI was excited to finish processing recently a small but very interesting collection: 12 notebooks filled with the research and lectures of former Penn Law Professor John Dickinson.

Born in Maryland in 1894, Dickinson was born into a legal history pedigree: he was a direct descendant of another John Dickinson, a Founding Father and lawyer who had authored the first draft of the Articles of Confederation. 

The younger Dickinson excelled in Greek and Latin from an early age, graduating from Princeton at the age of 19.  From there, Dickinson taught American and Medieval history before returning to Princeton to earn his Ph.D.  In 1919, the newly minted Professor Dickinson immediately enrolled in law school at Harvard, where he received his LL.B. in 1921.  While practicing law in New York and Los Angeles, Dickinson explored his lifelong passion of writing.  His efforts culminated in the 1927 publication of Administrative Justice and the Supremacy of Law in the United States, widely considered a legal classic.  After turning down offers from Harvard and Yale, Dickinson arrived at Penn Law School in 1929.  He would remain here until his retirement in 1948.

For nearly 20 years, Dickinson embodied the spirit of interdisciplinary study promoted by the Law School, teaching on a range of topics, including constitutional law, legal theory, and Greco-Roman law.  It was this last interest that inspired Dickinson to return to his roots in the classics to write a sprawling study of Western thought from the Ancient era to the present.  The centerpiece of the work was to be an in-depth study of Roman law and institutions.  Sadly, the manuscript was never completed, as Dickinson died suddenly in 1952 from an embolism.

The notebooks that the Law School Archives just accessioned include Dickinson’s handwritten notes in drafting the book.  One volume is particularly interesting: it’s a series of lectures that Dickinson might have given in one of his classes on the laws of Ancient Greece and Rome.  Below is a picture I captured of one of these lectures:

At the time of the scholar’s passing, Dickinson’s colleague, fellow Penn Law Professor George Haskins, wrote of Dickinson in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, “Seldom has anyone combined such a unique versatility and competence in so many fields of learning and endeavor.  A scholar of of world repute and a leader among men and in affairs, he died in the prime of life, his course not run.”  Dickinson’s final manuscript may have never been published, but the Archives is honored to have records of his preliminarly work. 

If you’re interested in taking a look at Professor Dickinson’s notes, contact me or drop by the Archives.

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blog, john dickinson, new collections at biddle, roman law