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John Harvard's Journal

Trove of Tomes


On a Saturday in April, two vans from New York drove up to Langdell Library at the Law School and off-loaded about a thousand early English law texts worth several million dollars, instantly transforming the library, which already housed a collection of early legal material, into the world's most important center for the study of the beginnings of the American legal system. Many of the titles represented in the vans had first come to Massachusetts with the Puritans on the Arbella, and Governor John Winthrop and other early legislators had depended on them to establish a rule of law in the wilderness.

The books were the gift of the late Henry N. Ess III, LL.B. '44, an estate lawyer with Sullivan and Cromwell in New York, who had lined every wall, floor to ceiling, in each room of his three-bedroom Manhattan dwelling, save for the bathroom and the kitchen, with 15,000 early law texts. Among those he gave to Harvard are a 1592 English edition of Sir Thomas Littleton's Tenures, one of the first legal textbooks; early editions of John Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding and of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan; a circa 1320 Magna Carta; and the only copy of the 1483 edition of Cicero's Orations in North America.

Many of the books contain marginalia--most welcome-- scribbled by generations of lawyers in what David Warrington, librarian for special collections at Langdell, describes as "law French," a legalese used in England from the Norman conquest to the seventeenth century. Once deciphered, the notes are expected to reveal much of historical interest about lawyers, their work habits, their understanding of the law, and their strategies.