Library Acquires Jefferson Letter on Law School’s Founding

Just months before he died, Thomas Jefferson completed one of his last tasks in the project to establish the University of Virginia: the selection of the University’s first law professor. In an April 1826 letter recently acquired by the UVA Law Library, Jefferson wrote to members of the University’s Board of Visitors that John Tayloe Lomax had accepted the professorship of law and would commence law classes in July 1826.

Early this summer, the Law Library was alerted to the letter’s upcoming auction at Sotheby’s. Prior to its sale at Sotheby’s, the letter had once been part of the James S. Copley Library, a large private collection of American manuscripts, books, pamphlets, broadsides, and maps. As a circular letter to the Board of Visitors, Jefferson wrote, signed, and sent copies to every member of the Board. The New York Public Library holds James Madison’s copy in its collections; the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at UVA holds the copy sent to Joseph Carrington Cabell. Based on markings on the UVA Law Library’s newly acquired letter, we believe that this is the copy sent to James Breckenridge.

The Law School Opens

Jefferson’s letter is an important institutional record in its own right, but its significance becomes more apparent in the context of other sources from the same time period. Based on further research, we know that the letter marked the end of a prolonged search for the University’s first law professor, during which Jefferson and Madison had scrutinized the credentials, elocution, and politics of numerous candidates. Their stringent criteria—must be a devoted patriot, a native Virginian, a legal philosopher more than a “common-place” lawyer, and an effective public speaker—coupled with the difficulty of convincing established jurists to move to central Virginia, resulted in the law chair remaining unfilled when University classes began in 1825.[1] Finally, in this April 1826 circular letter to members of the Board of Visitors, Jefferson announced Lomax’s hiring and the much-anticipated opening of the new Law School.

As with other aspects of UVA’s founding, the University’s historical relationship with slavery underlies the newly acquired letter and gives perspective to our understanding of the document. The opening of the Law School depended on the labor of enslaved people. Lomax’s own undergraduate education had been funded by his uncle, John Tayloe III, one of the largest slaveholders in Virginia at the time. Twenty-six male students, most from slaveholding families, formed Lomax’s first law class. Law lectures were held in Pavilion III, which had been built in large measure by enslaved laborers.[2] As the letter joins other primary sources in UVA archives, it offers the opportunity, in line with ongoing initiatives at the University of Virginia, to investigate and tell a full story of the University’s founding, particularly the founding’s deep connections to slavery.

Thomas Jefferson's architectural plans for Pavilion III
Thomas Jefferson’s elevation and floor plan for Pavilion III, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

Teaching the Law

After assuming his professorship, Lomax implemented the law school’s early curriculum, which comprised two year-long sessions: legal procedures in the first, for those entering practice after one year’s preparation, and principles of law in the second. Eschewing Jefferson’s preference for Sir Edward Coke, Lomax taught Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries to first years for its “general map of the law,” followed by additional assigned texts. In the classroom, he “rigidly and critically” examined the students upon their readings “every other day.”[3]

During annual examinations, students submitted written answers to a committee of University faculty for review. Below are actual Law School questions from 1829.

  Public Examination, School of Law, 1829[4]

1.  What are the ages at which male and females are competent to different legal purposes? Viz.

Males. To take oath of allegiance? When at years of discretion to marry? To choose a guardian? To make a testament of personal estate (by the common law? By Act of Assembly)? To be an executor? To aliene land?

Females. To be betrothed? To be entitled to dower? When at years of discretion to consent or disagree to marriage? To bequeath personal estate? To choose a guardian? To be an executrix? To dispose of herself and land?

2. What four requisites are necessary to make a tenancy by curtesy?

3.  Of what two sorts is the remedy for false imprisonment? What are the four means which may be employed (at common law) for removing the injury? And which of them is now the most usual and effectual means in all manner of illegal confinement? What is the remedy by way of satisfaction of the injury?

The Jefferson letter will now be part of the Law Library’s Special Collections and Archives. Interested researchers should contact archives@law.virginia.edu.

 

[1] For examples of Jefferson’s and Madison’s correspondence regarding the law professorship search, see Jefferson to Breckenridge (“the appointment should not be given to a mere common-place lawyer”), 22 December 1824; Madison to Jefferson, 31 December 1824, 1 February 1825, and 4 August 1825. See also James Ambuske and Randall Flaherty, “Reading Law in the Early Republic: Legal Education in the Age of Jefferson,” in The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University, eds. John A. Ragosta, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019).

[2] For a biography of Lomax and the financial support he received from his uncle to attend St. John’s College in Annapolis, see E. Lee Shepard, “John Tayloe Lomax,” in Legal Education in Virginia 1779-1979: A Biographical Approach, ed. W. Hamilton Bryson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1982), 359; For John Tayloe III as one of the largest Virginia slaveholders in this time, see Richard S. Dunn, “Winney Grimshaw, a Virginia Slave, and Her Family,” in Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9, no. 3 (2011): 495; For a list of the first law students, see A catalogue of the officers and students of the University of Virginia Second session, commencing February 1st, 1826 (Charlottesville: Chronicle Steam Book Printing House, 1880); For the role of enslaved laborers in the construction of the UVA lawn buildings, the African American community at the University, and the University’s connection to slavery more generally, see The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, Report to President Teresa A. Sullivan, 2018.

[3] See Lomax’s 1829 outline of the Law School curriculum in “University Intelligence,” The Virginia Literary Museum and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts & Sciences &c., August 5, 1829.

[4]University Intelligence: Public Examination,” in The Virginia Literary Museum and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts & Sciences &c., September 9, 1829.

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Randi Flaherty

Randi Flaherty is the Special Collections Librarian at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library. She is also an early American historian with a focus on foreign maritime commerce in the early American republic.

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What’s New This Fall

Welcome back, returning students! While you were away, the Law Library added some new resources that we thought you’d like to know about.

Washington Post Access

Law students can now sign up for free online access to the Washington Post. To request an account, navigate to the Student Services tab on LawWeb and select “Washington Post Academic Access” (or use this shortcut). This will bring up a form for you to fill out. After submitting the form, you will receive an email with further instructions for creating your online account.

As in past years, the Law Library also provides online access to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Bluebook. If you signed up for these resources last fall, note that two of them require annual renewal. You’ll need to reactivate your NYTimes.com account and get a fresh registration key for the Bluebook Online. (To renew your NYTimes.com account, you must be on-grounds or using a VPN.) First-time registrants can sign up for these resources by logging into LawWeb and following the links provided on the “Student Services” tab.

ProQuest Regulatory Insight

The Law Library has acquired a powerful new resource for researching federal regulations. ProQuest’s Regulatory Insight compiles regulatory histories for federal statutes and executive orders by assembling pertinent Federal Register notices, rules, and proposed rules. It also provides links to related pages in Supreme Court Insight and Legislative Insight (a legislative history resource). Use Regulatory Insight to help make your regulatory research more efficient and complete.

A New Digital Resource for Legal History Research

Law Special Collections has launched a new website for its Scottish Court of Session Digital Archive Project. The Project is an initiative to explore everyday life in early America and the British Atlantic world of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries through Session Papers, which were submitted to Scotland’s supreme civil court as part of the litigation process. Explore the archive to find material for your next legal history paper!

UVA Law at 200 Exhibition

In honor of the University’s Bicentennial, the UVA Law at 200 exhibition by Law Special Collections highlights a rotating selection of Law School alumni/ae who broke local and national barriers, mastered the campaign trail, issued judgments from the bench, and transformed the legal landscape. The exhibition includes photographs, old yearbooks, historical documents, campaign buttons, and more. Exhibit cases are located on the first and second floors of the library.

Updates to Study Spaces

The tables in Caplin Reading Room now have power outlets! With this addition, most seating in the Law Library provides a place to charge your phone or laptop. Additionally, new skylight windows have been installed over the study space in the Reference area.

As you embark on a new academic year, remember that the library is here to help you. Please don’t hesitate to contact us at refdesk@law.virginia.edu or to stop by and ask us a question.

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Kate Boudouris

Research, Instruction & Outreach Librarian, Arthur J. Morris Law Library

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Your Legal Rights as a Woman: A Handbook for Virginians

Five years after the University of Virginia Law School began offering a “Women and the Law” course, which was supervised by two male professors in 1972, the Virginia Law Women (VLW) embarked on an extraordinary project. Six members of the group—Joan Kuriansky, Susan Buckingham Reilly, Diane Pitts, Jackie Blyn, Diane Smock, and Tracy Thompson—researched and wrote a legal handbook for women in Virginia titled Your Legal Rights as a Woman: A Handbook for Virginians (1977). Modeled on a handbook created by the North Carolina Law School Women, the text was, as the introduction stated, “written by women for women who want the law to work for them…Today we have many more rights than we had even five years ago. But unless we are aware of these rights we cannot exercise them” (VL141 .Y817 1977). The handbook, funded by the Virginia Commission on the Status of Women, was written in lay terms and explained Virginia laws concerning marriage, divorce, adoption, property rights, insurance, taxes, employment, social welfare programs such as Medicare and worker’s compensation, birth control, abortion, the criminal justice system, and gay rights. It also included a section on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) which had been approved by Congress in 1972 and was awaiting the requisite 38 states to ratify it into law at the time. In concert with consciousness-raising movements and projects across the country in that historical moment, the text made women conscious of the rights they were entitled to and the wrongs they suffered on account of their gender.

A stack of letters in a manila folder.
A stack of the many letters received by VLW requesting copies of the handbook.

While the Virginia Law Women distributed the handbook locally to libraries, organizations, agencies, alumni, and faculty, the Virginia Commission on the Status of Women distributed the bulk of the copies across the state. In the VLW manuscript collection here at Law Special Collections, one folder brims with requests for the handbook at the time of its publication. Dozens of women who read about the handbook in the newspaper wrote and asked for copies. Several stated that they planned on using the handbook to help them through their divorces. One high schooler even asked for the handbook as research for a paper on the ERA. The group received requests from rape crisis centers, women’s prison projects, libraries, law schools, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the ABA, the National Organization of Women (NOW), the Women’s Law Coalition, and Legal Aid. The combination of the handbook’s popularity and the significant changes in laws applicable to women in this period resulted in revised editions in 1979 and 1984. In the second and third editions, new sections were added to reflect changing laws, such as Title VII, Title IX, establishing credit, mental health, and domestic violence. In addition to the revised editions, the VLW taught a local continuing education course on the handbook in 1980. While the handbook did not address everything (the absence of a discussion about the legal implications of American racial inequality is noticeable), it served as a much-needed resource for women across the state.

The most revised and debated section of the handbook was the section on the ERA. The VLW originally planned to openly advocate for the ERA in the first edition, but they deleted that paragraph, deciding simply to describe the amendment and its potential impact because their funder, the Commission on the Status of Women, asked them to remain “politically neutral” (VL16. L425L c.1). The second edition was delayed because the Commission asked them to remove the entire section on the ERA. The VLW objected, citing the copyright in their name and declaring the issue of the ERA “vital to the women of Virginia” (RG 209-82). The Commission eventually withdrew their request and the subsequent editions not only included a section on the ERA but a section that was longer than the original. While the ERA was not originally a partisan issue (it has appeared in the platforms of both the Republican and Democratic parties), the Commission’s anxieties about it have made me wonder whether they knew the story of the woman in the photograph on the front cover of the first and second editions. The photograph was of British suffragette Mary Leigh in her Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) uniform. Leigh was famous for throwing a hatchet at Prime Minister Asquith in 1912, among other militant activities.[1]

I’d like to end this post by reflecting on how these handbooks serve as a historical record of change. My own research focuses on women, politics, and property rights in eighteenth-century literature. I have spent more days than I can count poring over pamphlets about women’s legal rights, law books, and case documents from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. I inevitably came across the word “dower” in most of them. I never expected to come across that word in all three editions of Your Legal Rights as a Woman: A Handbook for Virginians. I was shocked that dower, a widow’s right to a life estate in one-third of her husband’s real property which came into being sometime around 1310, appeared in a legal handbook for women in the late twentieth century.[2] Upon further research, I discovered that dower was not abolished in the state of Virginia until 1990. I discovered that the topic of my last blog post, the law of necessaries—an integral element of coverture—was the law in Virginia until 1983 when the state Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional under the 14th amendment.[3]  Finally, I discovered the word “coverture”—the common law doctrine that rendered husband and wife legally one person after marriage, which required the husband to act as representative for them both and which stripped the wife of many legal rights—still appears in the Virginia state code in two places. The first place is section 55-35, a statute that reflects the Married Women’s Act of 1877, which enabled women to hold and dispose of property as if they were single women and declared that the wife’s property was not liable for her husband’s debts.[4]

The second place is section 55-38, a statute that states the wife’s right of entry into land cannot be barred by judgments during or after her husband’s lifetime.[5] Ironically, the word “coverture” appears in statutes that recognize women as legal persons independent of their husbands. In fact, these sections are scheduled to be repealed in October 2019 and replaced by revised sections that continue to use the word “coverture.” This means that the word “coverture” has been a part of Virginia law since the colony’s founding over 400 years ago and still is to this day.[6] To me at least as a scholar, the appearance of “coverture” in the state code raises the question of whether it was ever really abolished, or if it was simply reformed and remains part of our legal framework. Even though dower and coverture might seem like antiquated legal tools that we rightly dismissed long ago in the name of equity, they recently informed, and in the case of coverture may still inform, the way women are treated under the law in Virginia. These legal relics are one of the reasons why women would still find a handbook like this one useful today.

 

For more on the Virginia Law Women, see our collection (RG 209-82 and RG 209-2010) as well as the three handbooks (VL141 .Y817 1977, VL141 .Y817 1979, and VL141 .Y817 1984).

[1] Fern Riddell, “ Suffragettes, violence, and militancy,” British Library, 6 February 2018, https://www.bl.uk/votes-for-women/articles/suffragettes-violence-and-militancy.

[2] Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 144.

[3] See Va. Code Ann. § 55-37 (2012) and Mark S. Brennan, “The New Doctrine of Necessaries in Virginia,” University of Richmond Law Review 19 no. 2 (1985): 317–330.

[4] Va. Code Ann. § 55-35 (2012).

[5] Va. Code Ann. § 55-38 (2012).

[6] After October 2019, see Va. Code Ann. § 55.1–200 (Supp. 2019) and Va. Code Ann. § 55.1–203 (Supp. 2019).

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Written by

Kelly Fleming

Kelly is a Curatorial Assistant at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library Special Collections. She is also a Lecturer in the English department at the University of Virginia, where she earned her PhD in 2019. Her research focuses on the relationship between eighteenth-century British literature, women's property rights, politics, and material culture.

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Welcome, New Students!

To new students arriving for orientation: Welcome! The Law Library staff looks forward to working with you throughout your law school career. From personalized research consultations to exam-time grilled cheese breaks, the library offers services to make your time at UVA more enriching, efficient, and enjoyable. Here are some key resources that will help you hit the ground running this academic year.

Lexis, Westlaw, and Bloomberg Law Passwords

Lexis, Westlaw, and Bloomberg Law are three core legal research databases, so be sure to sign up for access! On August 21 from 9 am to noon, activation codes will be available in the lounge area of Withers-Brown Hall. The lounge is to the right as you exit the Law Library.

NYT, WSJ, WaPo, CALI, and More!

As a UVA law student, you’ll receive free access to resources like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and CALI (which provides interactive legal tutorials). You can sign up for these and other law-school-only resources via LawWeb. From the LawWeb homepage, just click on the “Student Services” tab (shown below), and then select the resource you’d like to access.

LR&W Help

Not sure how to tackle your Legal Research & Writing assignment? The Law Library is here to help! Each section of LR&W has a dedicated librarian—or “Library Liaison”—to help students get comfortable with legal research methods. Once classes start, your LR&W instructor will provide more information about meeting with a Library Liaison. For additional research tips, check out this guide to legal research for law students.

Bluebook Online

Well-formed citations are an important part of legal writing. To help you nail every detail, the Law Library offers online access to the Bluebook uniform system of citation. Law students and faculty can request an access code.

Guide to Student Services

As your studies progress, we hope that you’ll find the Law Library to be a valuable partner in your academic efforts. You can learn more about the library’s offerings in our guide for students. And remember, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact a staff member!

Once again, a warm welcome to all incoming students!

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Kate Boudouris

Research, Instruction & Outreach Librarian, Arthur J. Morris Law Library

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Research Tips for Interview Season

“Do you have any questions for us?” Make the most of your response to this interview question with a little bit of legal research into the firms, attorneys, and judges you’re meeting with. After you’ve read the firms’ websites, here is how to get to know your prospective employers’ work even better:

  • Litigation Snapshot – Get a visual overview of the types of cases a firm or attorney has worked on in Westlaw’s and Bloomberg Law’s Litigation Analytics (click the link from the databases’ main screens). Search by name and you’ll see graphics categorizing cases they’ve handled, jurisdictions they practice in, corporate clients, and links to case dockets.
  • Clerkships – Read your judges’ case opinions in Westlaw or Lexis:
    1. Go to “Cases.”
    2. Narrow to your judge’s jurisdiction.
    3. Click the “Advanced” search link near the searchbox.
    4. Scroll down the template to fill in the judge name box. When constructing your name search, try proximity connectors and wildcards to account for middle initials and abbreviations (s! /3 alito for Samuel Alito), or try just the last name.
    5. Run the search. You can sort the results to focus on the judge’s most cited opinions using the sort dropdown in the top right of Westlaw’s results list and the lefthand filter in Lexis’. Bloomberg Law’s federal district judge Litigation Analytics links to their most cited court opinions and shows top case types.
  • Your practice areas – Have more to say at callback lunches by signing up for Bloomberg Law and Law360 practice area news alerts. Bloomberg Law has email newsletters for Mergers & Antitrust, Health Law & Business, IP Law, and more. Sign up by going to “News & Analysis” > Bloomberg Law News, choosing your topic areas, and clicking the “subscribe to newsletter” link. Law360 has sixty topic and jurisdiction email newsletters including White Collar, Environment, New York, Massachusetts, and Texas. Access Law360 via Lexis (click the tic-tac-toe in the upper left of the main screen) or LawWeb. Click the link under the main page’s logo to “see all 60 sections” and subscribe to individual newsletters.
  • SCOTUS – Stay up to speed on the cases everyone will be talking about this year by perusing SCOTUSblog’s list of U.S. Supreme Court pending cases. The case pages link to filings, commentary, and email update sign-ups.

Need a Bloomberg Law account? Register here (use your @virginia.edu address). Forgot your Westlaw or Lexis law school account sign-in information? Click the links under “Law Databases” on our homepage to reach sign-in pages with forgotten password instructions, or see our FAQ with representatives’ contact information.

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Kristin Glover

Kristin Glover is a Research Librarian at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library.

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A Law Library Tradition: The “JAG Cake” Through the Years

For decades, the University of Virginia School of Law has had a special relationship with the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School (or “JAG School”), its neighbor on North Grounds. This relationship extends to the schools’ law libraries. The two libraries share materials, assist each other’s students, and observe a fun (and delicious) tradition: for more than 25 years, JAG School Library Director Dan Lavering has presented UVA’s staff with a year-end thank-you cake. We refer to this gift as the “JAG cake.” Without fail, the JAG Cake is generously sized and beautifully decorated.

A cake decorated with an American flag; beside it, a woman holding a bread knife stands arm-in-arm with a man leaning on an umbrella.
Former Law Library Director Taylor Fitchett (left) and JAG School Library Director Dan Lavering (right) prepare to cut the 2008 JAG Cake.

Our earliest record of the JAG Cake is a thank-you note sent in 1993 from UVA Law Librarian Larry Wenger to Lavering. “The cake was a wonderful end-of-the-year celebration for us,” Wenger wrote. He thanked the JAG School Law Library for being “exceptionally good about helping out and with sharing duplicate materials from your library with us.”

The current Law Library staff adds its thanks—both for the JAG Cake and for the JAG School’s cooperation throughout the year. Below are some images of the JAG Cake over time.

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Kate Boudouris

Research, Instruction & Outreach Librarian, Arthur J. Morris Law Library

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Life at the Time: Photo Collection of the University and Charlottesville in the 1970s

In May 2018, UVA Law Special Collections purchased a small collection of photographs of UVA in the 1970s, including one contact sheet of Libel Show images, from an eBay vendor. When the collection arrived, we discovered that the seller had included three additional boxes of UVA-related negatives and photographs. Special Collections Assistant Sara Garcia-Pretelt has completed an initial inventory of this collection, and she describes here some of her most interesting discoveries.

The UVA Law Library’s newly acquired UVA/Charlottesville Photograph and Negatives Collection is comprised of images of the University of Virginia and the greater Charlottesville area during the late 1960s through the early 1970s. Among the photographs, contact sheets, and negatives found in this collection are scenes of student life, iconic Charlottesville landmarks, and important historic events.

The Law Libel Show: April 18, 1975

A long-standing UVA Law School tradition, the annual Libel show displays law students’ creativity and humor through skits and musical numbers. These photos were taken on April 18, 1975 for the production titled “A Sale of Two Cities or Salooney Tunes.” The law school student newspaper reported that the show “delighted crowds and embarrassed a few professors” (Virginia Law Weekly, 1975). Pictured below on the left is a student performing as “Charlie Blackbread” and pictured on the right is an unidentified law student actor.

Student Protests: May 5, 1970

The following photos were taken by various photographers during the May 1970 UVA student protests following the Kent State shootings and President Nixon’s announcement that US troops would be sent into Cambodia. A number of UVA Law students served as student marshals during these multi-day protests. Photographer Rip Payne captured scenes of the Virginia State Police preparing to address the student protests. Pictured are officers gathered outside of the Downtowner Motor Inn (later the Cavalier Inn) at Emmet and Ivy Roads and two officers with a police dog. On May 8, 1970, during a “honk for peace” student rally outside the Rotunda, the Virginia State Police enforced the 1968 Virginia riot act, charged the demonstration, and arrested 68 people. In his photograph titled “Lawn Arrest,” photographer Jim Carpenter documented police officers arresting a student on UVA grounds. Photographer John M. Atkins, Jr. captured in his photograph titled “Marshal,” a law student attempting to negotiate with a police officer about the arrest of another law student at the door of the Mayflower van, which the Virginia State Police used to transport arrestees to the Charlottesville police station. The band tied around the student’s arm signals his role as a legal marshal to keep the peace during the student protests.

UVA Grounds and Student Life ca. 1970

Also in this collection are images of iconic UVA landmarks such as the Corner and the Lawn in the 1970s. Pictured below is University Avenue just outside of Mincer’s Pipe Shop (now known as Mincer’s) where students and professors cross over onto Grounds. Today, the Corner’s crosswalks are infamous for the students that cross with no regard for oncoming cars as they rush to classes and meetings. Nearly 50 years later, these images still capture what it is like to live and study at UVA.

The Sports Scene

As the ‘Hoos advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1984, students today are hoping for redemption for Tony Bennett’s principled and impressive team. Of relevance in this photograph collection are images of UVA men’s basketball games in the Spring of 1975, such as this photograph featuring star players Mark Iavaroni and Wally Walker playing in U-Hall.

Graduation

While most of this collection showcases student daily life, it also documents more significant moments like graduation. A symbolic UVA tradition, graduation on the Lawn is the culmination of students’ hard work over the last four years. Pictured below are families gathering on the Lawn by Old Cabell Hall to support their graduating students, while the Rotunda looms in the distance.

Unlike most of our digital collections, these images are presented under the fair use doctrine or with permission from the copyright holder, not under a Creative Commons license. Researchers can review the full collection of photographs and negatives at Law Special Collections on the third floor of the UVA Law Library.

Email: archives@law.virginia

Phone: 434-924-3023

Web: http://archives.law.virginia.edu/

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Sara Garcia-Pretelt

Sara Garcia-Pretelt is an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia studying French and Sociology. She currently works as a Special Collections Assistant at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library.

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Women’s Legal Rights in UVA’s First Law Library: Baron and Feme

In honor of Women’s History Month, this post by Kelly Fleming discusses the history of women’s legal rights as reflected in the 1828 Catalogue of the Library of the University of Virginia. Kelly is a PhD Candidate in the English Department at UVa, where her research focuses on women’s property rights and political participation in eighteenth-century British novels. She is assisting the Law Library with its 1828 Catalogue digitization project.

Of the 369 law titles in the 1828 Catalogue of the Library of the University of Virginia, only one was explicitly dedicated to the legal status of wives, Baron and Feme: A Treatise of Law and Equity, Concerning Husbands and Wives (U.K. .46 .B265 1738). In fact, it was the first known English legal treatise to focus solely on the laws concerning husbands and wives.[i] Penned by an anonymous author, Baron and Feme was first published in London in 1700 by John Walthoe. It was published again in 1719 by Walthoe and in 1738 by T. Waller, also in London. The university had acquired the 1738 edition for its first library. While the Catalogue entry for Baron and Feme dates the book to 1788, other nineteenth-century catalogues confirm that the original UVA library contained the 1738 edition.

Baron and Feme’s importance as a legal work stemmed from its discussion of the precedents that defined married women’s legal rights in the eighteenth century. In England, married women’s legal rights were defined in common law and equity courts, likely resulting in confusion about what women’s rights actually were. Books such as Baron and Feme consolidated such precedents and made them available for both men and women as a practical litigation guide. Since, like England, Virginia had both common law and chancery courts, Baron and Feme’s discussion of precedent would have informed the way UVA students and local lawyers understood marriage settlements and argued women’s property rights in court.[ii]

Baron and Feme took up the doctrine of coverture from the perspective of both men and women, but with substantially more attention to the legal ramifications of women marrying. A relic of the Norman Conquest, the legal fiction of coverture declared that, after marriage, man and wife were, legally, one person, with the husband acting as representative for both. After marriage, a woman became a feme covert, a “covered woman” wearing the shadow of her husband’s legal existence. Feme coverts were unable to convey property, sign a contract, or execute a will on their own. One of the first chapters describes the unique position feme coverts held in English (as well as early American) law by differentiating them from infants (women and men under the age of 21). Like feme coverts, infants were “disabled by the law,” meaning they were not recognized as persons under the law.[iii] The difference, the anonymous author argued, was as follows: infants were not yet considered persons under the law, but they could perform “any Act for [their] own Advantage,” including binding themselves in a contract.[iv] Feme coverts were not persons and could only legally bind themselves with their husband’s consent.

A vignette of a man and woman exchanging a glance beside a crib.
A depiction of family life from
Godey’s Lady’s Book (1851).

Complicating this comparison, the author did not distinguish between male and female infants despite the legal difficulties female infants would have encountered on account of their gender. While Sir William Blackstone may have famously called women the “favourites ”of the law, the privileges they received were restricted by their ability to negotiate patriarchal family dynamics.[v] In both England and colonial America, patriarchal hierarchies and codes of behavior structured family life. Female infants, despite their ability to contract, were likely to be controlled by a father or male family member who would frustrate any attempt to make legal decisions without his consent. In fact, even their ability to contract was up for question: English courts debated the legality of female infants consenting to a marriage settlement that barred dower in favor of a jointure.[vi] Moreover, daughters who became feme soles (unmarried women) and could own property when they came of age were unlikely to possess it because families typically planned on using the daughter’s inheritance as her marriage portion.[vii]

In the hopes of protecting women from cruel husbands, debauched husbands, and their husband’s creditors, English courts developed precedents over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to counteract the potentially harmful effects of coverture. These precedents specified property rights for married women and addressed questions about their ability to legally consent during marriage. Baron and Feme dedicated entire chapters to these rights in an effort to help readers negotiate the complex obstacles of coverture, such as dowers, jointures, separate estates, and separate maintenances in case of abuse or divorce. Most importantly, the author included a chapter that specified what wives got out of coverture, “What Contracts of the Wife Shall Bind the Husband,” which rehearsed the arguments for and against the law of necessaries (the right a wife has to charge things to her husband’s account or in her husband’s name) in exhaustive detail. Regardless of the author’s thoughts on the law of necessaries, there were documented cases of women charging extravagant items to their husband’s accounts and getting away with it in England.[viii] My own work, which examines women’s property rights and political participation in eighteenth-century British novels, hopes to show how coverture went both ways. The legal tools necessary to mitigate, if not negotiate, patriarchal family dynamics were already in women’s hands.

The Law Library’s copy of Baron and Feme was a gift Gerard Banks Esq. gave to William Waller Hening, as the handwritten note on the title page documents. Hening, a prominent Virginia jurist, may have read Baron and Feme as research for his legal handbook, The New Virginia Justice (1795). The handbook includes a conveyancing appendix with a sample marriage settlement that created a separate estate for the wife, one of the recommended methods for alleviating the legal austerity of coverture.


[i] Lynne Greenberg, ed. Baron and Feme: A Treatise of Equity, Concerning Husbands and Wives, The Early Modern Englishwoman: A Facsimile Library of Essential Works (New York: Routledge, 2005), 3:xlviii.

[ii] Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 82.

[iii] Baron and Feme, 8.

[iv] Baron and Feme, 8.

[v] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1765), 1:433, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online.

[vi] Susan Staves, Married Women’s Separate Property in England, 1660–1833 (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1990), 119–126.

[vii] Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (New York: Routledge, 1993), 83.

[viii] For a sampling of these cases, see Margot Finn, “Women, Consumption, and Coverture in England, c.1760–1860,” Historical Journal 39, no. 3 (September 1996): 703–722.

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Kelly Fleming

Kelly is a Curatorial Assistant at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library Special Collections. She is also a Lecturer in the English department at the University of Virginia, where she earned her PhD in 2019. Her research focuses on the relationship between eighteenth-century British literature, women's property rights, politics, and material culture.

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Law School Participates in ‘Everyday People’ Exhibit

Eric Williamson
Associate Director of Communications and Senior Writer

The University of Virginia School of Law is presenting an exhibit of 100 images featuring black Law School life as part of a cross-Grounds exhibit, “Everyday People.”

Curated by the Arthur J. Morris Law Library, the UVA Law exhibit will be viewable on the second floor of the Law Library throughout February, which is Black History Month.

The images include numerous candid and historical moments — spanning from UVA’s and UVA Law’s first black student, Gregory Swanson, to the students, alumni and faculty of the present.

“This is an important legacy for our institution to honor,” said Special Collections Librarian Randi Flaherty, who led the installation. “We are grateful to have a photo archive, which includes contributions from student groups like BLSA, that makes this exhibit possible.”  

The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library and the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library will also host similar exhibits.

Reposted from the University of Virginia School of Law’s News and Media site.

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Arthur J. Morris Law Library

The Arthur J. Morris Law Library is the home of research for students and faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law.

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Get Ahead of the Curve for J-Term and Spring

“Hey, you’re in law school—what do you think about the Supreme Court?” Chances are you fielded a version of this question from relatives and friends over break. If your response started with “well, in 1945 in International Shoe…” or “Erie says…,” keep reading to find out how to update your discussion points to the current Term’s cases in time for your J-term and Spring classes.

Here are some SCOTUS cases to be ready to raise your hand about in class this semester:

  • First-years, when the Court hears arguments in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association on February 27, you’ll be a month into Constitutional Law and ready to debate whether the four-story cross-shaped memorial on a Maryland-owned median violates the First Amendment. (This is one to follow also if you’re taking Professor Armacost’s Constitutional Law II: Religious Liberty.)
  • Ahoy! For Professor Rutherglen’s Admiralty J-term course, get on board with the issues raised in Air and Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries, docket no. 17-1104, about products liability for exposure to asbestos in ship equipment.
  • Show off what you learn about tax exemptions and the Railroad Retirement System in Federal Income Tax with Professor Yin or Professor Hayashi and Professor Doran’s Employee Benefits Law after taking a look at BNSF Railway Co. v. Loos, no. 17-1042.
  • Come into Professor Nachbar’s J-term course with a prime example of The Firm and Cyberspace from Apple Inc. v. Pepper, no. 17-204.
  • Assess the Southern Poverty Law Center and Cato Institute’s amici arguments about the impact of fines, fees, and forfeitures on the criminal justice system in Timbs v. Indiana, no. 17-1091, and share with your classmates in Professor Harmon’s Criminal Procedure Survey and Professor Shin’s Law and Public Service.
  • Get a preview of Wildlife Law the week before Professor Hynes’ J-term course by listening to the parties in Herrera v. Wyoming, no. 17-532, argue whether Crow Tribe members have treaty rights to hunt for food in the Bighorn National Forest.
  • Brief yourself on the circuit split over suits against companies for misstatements in tender offers before the Court and your Securities Regulation classes with Professor Kitch and Professor Vollmer address it in Emulex Corporation v. Varjabedian, no. 18-459.  

There are many resources available to help you get up to speed on these cutting-edge legal controversies. Apply your lawyer-in-training analytical skills directly to the case filings and lower court’s opinion—filings submitted after SCOTUS went electronic in November 2017 are on the Court’s website; for earlier filings go to SCOTUSblog. Also head to the Court’s site to follow oral arguments in audio (posted the Friday after) and written transcript (posted the same day). Find and track what experts say about the case through Google News, blogs like SCOTUSblog, and practice-area blogs discoverable in Justia’s BlawgSearch.

You can also head to our subscription databases for news on SCOTUS cases (and any lower court cases that interest you). Bloomberg Law is a one-stop-shop for learning about current cases. If you haven’t already registered, use the link in our list of databases. Its news is written for lawyers, covers cases in depth, and is updated frequently. Browse news specific to practice areas and set up alerts to receive headlines or keyword-specific results by going to Browse > News > Bloomberg Law News. To stay on top of the major federal and state cases across practice areas, head to U.S. Law Week. Lexis’ Law360 similarly specializes in legal news and is available in the Lexis database and in a browsable interface via LawWeb.

To find articles about your case, try keyword searching party names, terms like “court,” “judge,” or “justice,” and issue-specific words. Keep in mind that you know more about the law than the general public, so non-law news outlets’ articles will not have legal terminology. When your search in a subscription database generates a set of relevant articles, schedule email alerts of future articles with your keywords by clicking the bell symbol at the top of the results page. Are you getting hundreds of results? Narrow to the most relevant ones by using Boolean terms and connectors in your search—click the question mark in Bloomberg Law’s searchbox for a list of them and head to Westlaw and Lexis’ advanced search screens for guided forms. If you have questions about the databases, stop by or email us at refdesk@law.virginia.edu.

Photo: Inside the United States Supreme Court by Phil Roeder used under CC BY 2.0 / Resized

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Kristin Glover

Kristin Glover is a Research Librarian at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library.

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