James Wilson’s Breakfront Now On Display in the Biddle Law Library
September 15, 2012
In recognition of National Constitution Day on September 17th, and especially in light of Penn Law’s September 17th exhibit featuring original documents from our country’s Founders, including James Wilson, the Biddleblog is pleased to repost this August 31, 2010 blog entry!
If you’re new to Penn Law School, returning from the summer off, or just happened to stop by the Biddle Law Library recently, you probably have noticed a new piece of furniture in the reference area. This object is the breakfront of James Wilson, perhaps the most important figure in Penn Law history.
In 1790, James Wilson held what are believed to be the first law lectures in the United States. Guests included Philadelphia’s legal and political community, including George and Martha Washington, who were living in the President’s House located on 6th and Chestnut Streets. While other educational institutions may credibly (and understandably) boast of founding the first law schools in the country, Philadelphia has the distinction of hosting the young nation’s first legal education opportunities, thanks to Wilson. Penn Law School acknowledged its debt to Wilson from the institution’s founding in 1850, including inscriptions on its original building in University City, now known as Silverman Hall, which commemorate both law school founder George Sharswood and Wilson.
Wilson’s acclaim extends beyond his ties to Penn and Philadelphia. Among his many accolades, he authored legal texts, served in the Continental Congress, and was appointed Justice on the first U.S. Supreme Court. Perhaps most notably, Wilson was also a drafter of the Constitution–an act which, it is alleged by some scholars, he is believed to have done alone and, perhaps, carried out while seated at the towering breakfront. Before its current location, the Wilson breakfront was located in the Dean’s suite, having been formally donated by James A. Montgomery, Jr. in 1944.
In a ceremony this summer celebrating the groundbreaking for the new Law School building, Golkin Hall, Dean Michael A. Fitts stood before the Wilson breakfront and acknowledged its relationship to the Sansom Street construction, drawing a link between the history of Penn Law School and its future.
The Biddle Law Library is honored to feature such an impressive antique on which history, perhaps quite literally, was written. Below is a slideshow of pictures I recently took of the breakfront. If you would like to learn more about the breakfront or its owner, contact me or stop by the Archives.