A Lawless University: The History of Princeton Law

twilight_20101203_Twilight_08_575As undergraduate students walk through the campus of an unnamed school in New Haven, Connecticut or through the corridors of another unnamed school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it is common for them to run into students from the adjoining law school. Such interaction at Princeton University is, however, not possible.

Many have asked the question: where is Princeton University’s law school? Contrary to the general belief of the public, Princeton does not have a law school. The entertainment sector has made use of this fact myriad times. For instance, a fraud lawyer on The Simpsons said he came from Princeton Law, proving that he was in fact a fraud.

The combination of the University’s elite reputation and numerous cultural references to Princeton Law makes public opinion rather ignorant of the law school’s nonexistence. Princeton undergraduates, in contrast, are well aware that their University lacks a law school. However, many students would be surprised to learn that Princeton did once have a law school, albeit very briefly and very long ago.


In 1824, Princeton University appointed a committee to create a law school. Initial attempts were confronted with many obstacles. The first two professors that accepted the job officers at the law school, Richard Stockton and John Van Cleve, died unexpectedly. Subsequent efforts at recruiting professors for the school were met with rejection after rejection. Finally, the school managed to hire three professors: United States Attorney James S. Green, New Jersey Attorney General Richard Stockton Field, and the retired Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court: Joseph C. Hornblower. The law school was finally established in 1846.

After acquiring all the necessary funds to launch the law school, the three professors met to design a course of study for the students. They decided students would take two or three years to complete required courses such as “Constitutional Law” and “Moot Court”—courses that a contemporary law school student can still identify with. Tuition for the degree was a measly $50 a semester, and brochures boasted how the school would “provide an ample course of legal instruction for gentlemen designed for the bar in any of the United States [1]”. Interestingly, the law school was very independent from the rest of the University. The College of New Jersey, as Princeton was then known, did not have enough funding to provide money to the law school and therefore did not intervene in curricular details. Additionally, the law school faculty did not go to faculty meetings at the parent college. As for students, they were allowed to go to either library and attend chapel and lectures at the college.  

The law school had significant financial problems from its opening. Because the school had no endowment, it had to rely solely on income received from tuition payments. It was said that the professors were barely compensated for their work; “the labors of the Professors were in fact a gratuity to the college.” [1] But with such a small price tag for the tuition, the school struggled to earn income, ceased instruction in 1852, and had to officially close its doors two years later. In its short five-year history, the law school conferred a grand total of seven law degrees and had at least one notable alumnus. Nathaniel W. Voorhees, a prominent attorney, delegate to the 1860 Republican convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln, and father of future governor of New Jersey, Foster McGowan Voorhees.

Revival Attempts

Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to revive the law school. Francis Landey Patten, president of the University from 1888-1902, once said:

We have Princeton philosophy, Princeton theology, but we have to go to Harvard and Columbia for our law. Gentlemen, that is a shame. Just as soon as I find a man with a half a million, I am going to found a law school [1].

Sadly, there was nobody with the necessary money willing to fund such an endeavor. President Emeritus Woodrow Wilson made a similar proclamation, but due to his fighting for the graduate schools and his residential college plan, he too was unsuccessful in this area. There were many rumors of acquiring a law school in New York City during the early 1900s, but such a plan was also abolished, probably due to World War I.

From that point forward, many of the attempts to create a law school were inspired by publications. For instance in 1923, a paper entitled “A Princeton Law School” written by Malcolm Lloyd from the class of 1874 inspired a surge of support for reestablishing the school. In the publication, Lloyd elegantly describes all the necessities and resources that would be necessary to found the law school, determining the University would require two million dollars for the school. After the printing of this extensive thirty-one-page pamphlet, the University created a committee to try and form a law school. However, the committee was given the task with a notable caveat: The requisite funds “should be forthcoming from outside of our Princeton circles of support and without any appeal whatsoever to the graduates and friends of Princeton” [1]. This proved to be an impossible task. Yet another committee was established in 1974 to determine the resources that would be necessary to set up a law school, but it recommended that the University instead use its funds to maintain the standards of its existing academic programs. Although occasional rumors about founding a law school in New York have surfaced, there have been no recent serious attempts at reviving Princeton Law. For now, it seems as though Princeton University will remain a lawless school.

Back to the Future

Princeton’s law school closed 161 years ago. Was this beneficial to the undergraduate students or was it detrimental to their education? With the exception of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton does not award professional degrees; a law school would thus be fairly anomalous at Princeton.

The lack of a law school is a huge asset to undergraduates. With so few professional school students, undergraduates benefit from the availability of legal research opportunities. Perhaps more importantly, law professors such as Robert George and Kim Scheppele who would elsewhere exclusively teach law students instead offer popular undergraduate courses. Similarly, Firestone contains an extensive law library, and undergraduates interested in pursuing a legal career can find extracurricular fulfillment through participation in Mock Trial or the Pre-Law Society.

Finally, law far from not dead at Princeton; the University has a long history of producing outstanding legal scholars. James Madison, the University’s first graduate student, is considered the foremost author of the Constitution, and Woodrow Wilson was a notable constitutional scholar before being elected president of the United States. Twelve Supreme Court justices have attended Princeton, three of whom sit on the current Court. Nevertheless, skeptics have questioned the University’s ability to contribute to the field of law. A memorandum from 1925 states:

If there is no place for the establishment at Princeton of a law school, the primary object of which would be to prepare men for the practice of law, can the University do work in law which will be of real public benefit ? [1]

Princeton has shown over and over again that it can. Without having the bête noir of the bar hanging over their heads, undergraduate students are free to perform creative legal research. Many influential constitutional commentators have been attracted to the university for having this pool of willing students. Most notably, Edward S. Corwin, hired by Woodrow Wilson in 1905, was and is a giant within the field of law. Corwin published over twenty books on the topic of constitutional law, became the president of the American Political Science Association, and was affectionately known as “The General” for his military-like disposition and his very hard but extremely valuable classes.

Furthermore, undergraduates benefit from legal courses such Constitutional Interpretation, Sociology of Law, Race and the American Legal Process, English Constitutional History, and Environmental Law and Moot Court. These courses are offered by a wide variety of departments, thereby enabling undergraduates to explore distinct aspects of law and to help them discover if they are truly interested in pursuing legal careers.  

Princeton professors produce extensive writings on legal issues and offer undergraduate versions of law school courses. There are numerous programs and extracurricular activities that cater to undergraduate (and graduate) students interested in later obtaining law degrees. Most importantly, however, Princeton offers a stellar liberal arts education and produces graduates with the ability to succeed in the legal field. The creation of a law school would detract from the University’s renowned emphasis on undergraduate education by diverting faculty and resources to law students. So, yes, Princeton does not have a law school, but we are doing fine without it.

Pavithran Ravindran is a freshman from Westbury, New York, and will be majoring in the Chemical and Biological Engineering department. He can be reached at pr12@princeton.edu.

[1] Hollander, David. “An Unexpected Story: The History and Origins of Princeton’s Long-standing Tradition of Interdisciplinary Legal Scholarship.” Law Library Journal. Web. 1 Oct. 2015.

[2] Cleeton, Christa. “Mudd Manuscript Library Blog.” Mudd Manuscript Library Blog. 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 2 Oct. 2015.

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