Case Method and Legal Science
The legal science of the antebellum period and the antebellum law school were closely related. A science of ordered principles based ultimately on the truths of revelation was inculcated in institutions designed as much to strengthen their students' resolve to be proper lawyers as to teach them what they would need to know as practitioners. The law school Langdell helped create was also a reflection of his idea of legal science. What that idea was has been a source of scholarly debate for some time. Recent work has begun to recognize the connections between Langdell's vision of legal science and that of his antebellum forebears. 1 The dean's talk of principles to be extracted from cases is the old language of Baconian science applied to a new subject matter. The legal science of the antebellum law school subordinated cases to great principles of law based on universal truth. Cases were the material from which the principles to be taught could be induced; they were not the substance of teaching. Langdell's science and his teaching looked to the cases themselves as the law.
What Langdell meant by legal science is easier to paraphrase than understand. Perhaps moved by the spirit that prevented him from aiding the campaign for his appointment to the Dane Professorship, Langdell seldom spoke to support or even to explain the theory of his teaching. The preface to A Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts and his brief speech before the Harvard Law School Association in 1886 embody the sum total of Langdell's direct statements of his ideas outside his annual reports as dean. In the preface Langdell recounted his conviction that making "a series of cases, carefully selected from the books of reports, the subject alike of study and instruction" provided the best answer to the question of how to teach. Another question was implicit in this statement: Which cases were to be selected? The answer was clear. Because "law, considered as a science, consists of certain principles or doctrines," one need only select the cases that illustrate the growth of these doctrines or principles. Fortunately, only a small number of cases are necessary: "The vast majority are