The appointment of Christopher Columbus Langdell as Dane Professor at Harvard Law School on January 6, 1870, is widely acknowledged to mark the beginning of the modern American law school. 1 Langdell's discovery of a new world of legal education was only a start. His disciples, especially James Barr Ames and William A. Keener, developed what we recognize today as the case method of legal education. 2 What generally has been overlooked, however, is Alfred Z. Reed's observation "that literally all good things are not first thought of in Cambridge" and "except on the score of practicality, there was nothing startlingly original in [ Langdell's] idea." 3 Reed was clearly on the right track. Aspects of Langdell's method of teaching, his beliefs about the scientific nature of law, and the rhetoric with which he justified them resembled those of the past. Yet the first dean of Harvard Law School has acquired the reputation of an innovator of the first order, and a perverse innovator at that. His thought -- and by extension the form of legal education he helped create -- has been identified as one of the principal sources of the sterile formalism that supposedly marked late nineteenth-century American legal thought. 4
It is clear that Langdell's view of law emphasized the logical coherence of legal rules. In Langdell's formulation, legal education is the study of a few fundamental principles that are found in the original sources -- cases - and, by implication, are derived from those cases by the process of induction. Thus the student thinks for himself rather than merely accepts the secondhand formulation of some treatise writer. This construct justified the study of law as a science.
When it comes to deciding what was new in Langdell's thought, Reed had it partly right. Langdell's ideas do share certain qualities with those of the preceding generation of American legal thinkers. Teasing out the innovative from the continuing opens a new prospect on late nineteenthcentury American legal thought; it also sheds new light on the significance of the changes in legal education associated with Langdell's tenure at Harvard. Any such effort must be grounded in an attempt to understand the intellectual world in which Langdell lived his life in the law. For purposes of analysis, that world can be divided into two parts: the realm of law as ideas -- as a system of principles that must be rightly understood if society