David Hoffman and the Science of Jurisprudence


Cordell's History of the University of Maryland

Davidge Hall The following excerpt comes from Eugene F. Cordell's "Official" history of the University.

Eugene F. Cordell. University of Maryland, 1807 - 1907: Its History, Influence, Equipment and Characteristics, (New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1907).


THE Faculty of Law, consisting of a Professor and six members all leaders of the Bar, their names have already been given was annexed to the Faculty of Physic on January 6, I8I3. The Board of Regents, composed of the four Faculties, organized on April 22 following. David Hoffman, Esq., was chosen the first Professor of Law.

There was no immediate attempt to found a School of instruction, but Professor Hoffman constantly cherished the hope of doing so, and his thoughts, his studies and his writings all tended towards that result. In 1817 he published in Baltimore a memorable work entitled: "A Course of Legal Study addressed to Students and the Profession generally," the first of the land in the United States, and treating the subject in a manner entirely unique. The object of this treatise was not itself to teach, but merely to point out the method of acquiring a knowledge of the great Science of Law. In a subject of such vast extent, the necessity of system and economy of time is imperative. Beginning with general considerations, the student was here led on by a masterhand through all the mazes of the intricate course, directing him what authors to read, and accompanying the directions with notes composed in the broadest philosophical spirit, and abounding in just and discriminating criticism and in precepts calculated to elevate the moral as well as intellectual character. The following extract conveys an idea of the author's object in preparing the treatise: "If a man should calculate on living to the age of sixty years, and should appropriate forty of them to the study of books, the most that could be accomplished in this time would be the careful study of about sixteen hundred octavo volumes of five hundred pages each. What is this number compared with the millions out of which he has to select? How important is it, therefore, that the choice should be judicious, and, that after it is made the whole should be studied with method. We are aware that such calculations cannot be made with mathematical accuracy, but an approximation is sufficient for our purpose, which is to illustrate the great importance of system and judicious selection, in the attainment of knowledge through the channel of books."

Mr. Hoffman realized that the course which he recommended, requiring, according to his estimate, six or seven years, nearly double that usually allotted, to accomplish, was an ideal one, which for various reasons: lack of means; age; deficient zeal; or industry; etc., many would find impracticable, provided by marks the means of shortening it to three or four years, although still insisting that the residue should be completed later on in professional life.

This work elicited the highest encomiums from legal authorities throughout the country. It at once gave its author a national reputation, and later led to the highest foreign honors. It elicited from the North American Review, a review of thirty-three pages, in which it was pronounced to be "by far the most perfect system for the study of the law which has ever been offered to the public-a model for the direction of students." Chief Justice Marshall said that it was "calculated to elevate and dignify the profession;" Judge Story pronounced it "an honor to the country;" Hon. Chancellor Kent wrote To the author: "Whoever follows your directions will be an accomplished and well-read lawyer;" Hon. De Witt Clinton characterized it "as an invaluable guide to legal knowledge;" Associate Justice Duvall added his commendation.

In April, 1821, he embodied this course in a "Syllabus of a Course of Lectures on Law proposed to be delivered in the University of Maryland addressed to the Students of Law in the United States." This syllabus provided for three hundred and one lectures, "embracing every title known to the great body of law, viz.; Ethics, commercial, statute, national, Roman, Admiralty, mercantile and constitutional law," and occupying an hour every day for ten months in the year.

"Whoever looks on the numerous volumes of Institutes, Abridgments, Digests and Reports, will see the benefit of possessing some summary of principles, of distinctions and of topics, which, however imperfect in itself, may show him the points which are to be sought over this wide surface, the train of investigation which is to lead him to each and the order in which they are to be pursued." In providing for this want, the author "expects to treat in order all the important topics of the law with a minuteness which will give students a knowledge of them that will leave few difficulties in their private studies."

As for the inauguration of a Department of Law in the University, he says that it ought to constitute a part of the instruction there. It has from the beginning been taught as an important branch of learning, and was then so taught in most European countries, lectures being delivered and degrees being conferred, as in other departments of knowledge. The reasons which have made it to be considered worthy of a place in the university education of other countries are of yet greater weight in a nation whose fundamental principles of government invite all, without distinction of rank, to the participation of political power, and to the administration of laws. He proposed to treat every branch of law and in detail, and, however laborious and responsible the enterprise might prove, it would be prosecuted with all the industry and zeal the author could command, provided it should meet with encouragement sufficient to compensate him for the sacrifices inevitable to so great an undertaking. He declared that he was prompted to the task by no pecuniary necessity and by no want of extensive practice, his chief motives being a fondness for these subjects and the desire of being useful. To these he looks for support and cheer in the many hours of exhaustion incident to his enterprise.

He alludes to the condition of the University, the only institution in the country professing to teach through the medium of lectures exclusively. There were already fourteen professorships and two lectureships, eight of which were in operation under circumstances of rare and great promise and several others were in contemplation in the ensuing fall. As a School of Medicine, none in the country offered such numerous facilities for the acquisition of learning. No expense had been spared in the erection of buildings and in providing necessary accommodations. The chemical apparatus was more modern and extensive than any in the country, and was being annually augmented by importations from Paris under the direction of the able Professor of Chemistry, Dr. Butts. There was an extensive museum, the specimens of which, illustrative of morbid anatomy, were among the most valuable of the kind in the world, having been collected with great care and expense. The mineralogical department was respectable and growing. From the extent and perfection of the philosophical apparatus and the learning and zeal of the Professor, much was to be expected from that department.

Botany languished from want of a botanical garden, etc., but as the pecuniary resources of the University were augmenting, and the Regents intended to fill all the chairs and to furnish them with the requisite means of instruction, it was hoped that this subject would receive due attention. He had hoped to have it in his power to say with certainty that his own lectures would commence in the following October, but was prevented from doing so by the extensiveness of the scheme of instruction and the imperfect state and deficient funds of the University. However, through the liberal patronage of the State, the accommodations for students having been greatly increased and improved, and the extensive original plan being likely to be completed during the summer, the medical Professorships being filled by men of well known talent and acknowledgment and the prospects of the University from these advantages, its situation and the increase of students during the previous session being on the whole extremely flattering, there was every encouragement to look forward to a fulfillment of his hopes.

It is seen from the above what stress Professor Hoffman laid upon instruction by lectures. He even thought that this method was made compulsory to the exclusion of all others, by the charter, and at a meeting of the Regents, held September 28, 1821, he called attention to a syllabus of a course of study in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences which he said he was sure had never been contemplated by the founders of the University. The matter was discussed, but no action was taken upon it by the board.

In 1822 he gave notice in the newspapers of his intention to begin lectures. It was not until 1823, however, that he was able to realize the fruition of his long delayed hopes. The sudden death of Judge Dorsey on the 1st of August of that year favored his plans by leaving the field vacant for him and the large and successful law school conducted by the former without a head. At this date the Faculty of Law consisted of Professor Hoffman, William H. Winder, Nathaniel Williams, George Winchester, Jonathan Meredith and William Frick, with one vacancy.

We have in print, bearing date October, 1823 Professor Hoffman's "Introductory to a Course of Lectures now Delivering in the University of Maryland Published at the request of the Faculty of Law." It contains seventy-six pages. The following year his school assumed the designation of the "Maryland Law Institute," and was opened "in a spacious and commodious building on South street, near Market street," where "apartments were handsomely fitted up and arranged in every respect for the accommodation of students," including a large law and general library.

Professor Hoffman soon realized the impracticability of the far-reaching plan which he had outlined in his Course of Legal Study in 1817 and his Syllabus of 1821, and which was to embrace every branch of jurisprudence in any degree appropriate to the United States, or which might be useful to the American student of law. He was attempting to do what had not yet been attempted in this country, if, indeed, in England, and the greatness of his ideals as well as the deficient pecuniary backing which the University was able to give him, was embarrassing him. We find him, therefore, modifying his views as he proceeds. In the Introductory of 1823, for example, he speaks of the whole course occupying at least eighteen months and more probably two years in the delivery students to be admitted at any time according to advancement. Indeed, at this time the course as laid out in his mind was not complete, and he contemplated adding to it from time to time by founding a Moot Court and Debating Society, and by institution of medals and prizes, oral and written discussions, colloquial examination, etc. He expected his chief patronage from the South and West.

The following were the fees as published in 1824: Per annum, $100; four months, $50; public lectures to law students, $30, to others, $I5; moot court (optional), $20; moot court and public lectures, $40. His advertisement of October 1, 1824, contemplates a two-year course of ten months each with daily lectures.

His second and third Introductories are also extant, the former bearing the title: "The Law of Personal Rights and Personal Remedies." In the latter occur the following words: "The sacrifices I have been thus far subjected to must be obvious to all; but I trust my zeal has not abated, tho' I have had from my brethren so little to enliven and encourage me." The advantages and details of a Moot Court were again dwelt upon, but in a "N.B." added April, 1826, we are told, "The Moot Court, on the extensive plan delineated in the foregoing lecture, has not gone into operation, and probably will not unless a more ample zeal and encouragement on the part of those to whom it was tendered should be manifested. But a Court of less pretension is in operation, and, when time and circumstances will justify it, that one may probably mature into the one originally contemplated, tho' it is not very probable, as students of law (as far as we can perceive) have not generally that zeal for availing themselves of facilities in study which seems to mark the students of medicine and theology. Whether the whole of our plans in regard to the Law Institute and Scheme of lectures is to be eventually defeated by the want of suitable encouragement is yet uncertain.

And as late as 1831 we still find that "the expenses of the establishment" are "so very considerable" as to "forbid the hope of accomplishing the delivery of the entire course, until the permanent class shall be much enlarged" beyond its then or previous number.* There were about thirty students attending lectures at this time.

The Law Institute continued in successful operation until 1836, receiving during its career students from eleven of the States of the Union and from two foreign countries. About 1831 it was located on Courtland street, convenient to the courts we do not know of any records giving names and numbers of students, etc., and we have not been able to learn with certainty whether any degrees were given or, if so, to whom. The late Hon. George W. Dobbin and I. Nevitt Steele, of Baltimore, were pupils of Professor Hoffman, and, according to Lamb's Biographical Dictionary, the former "graduated." The general statement was made by Professor John P. Kennedy, of the chair of History, at the opening of the School of Arts and Sciences, January 3, 1831, that "the degree of B. L. was conferred after three years' study in the Institute and a successful examination by three gentlemen of legal science appointed for that purpose.

Professor Hoffman took an active part in the affairs of the University during the government of the Regents. He was opposed to the action of the State in assuming control of the University in 1826, and, like Professor Potter, of the Faculty of Physic, his relations with the Trustees were far from being friendly. The Legislature, however, seemed to be disposed to be fair and even generous in the disposition of the funds, and in the division of the balance of the $140,000 authorized by the Lottery acts, appropriated $14,200 to the Department of Law, that sum being considered a due proportion of the whole amount. Of the $14,200, $5,000 were paid to Professor Hoffman for his law library, and the balance was invested with a view to the subsequent erection of necessary buildings. Meanwhile a building was secured for temporary use at a rental of $400.

According to the Minutes of the Trustees, Professor Hoffman paid no attention to the regulations regarding the Library and furniture (which had been included also in the purchase), and on April 16, 1833, proceedings were brought against him for their recovery, but he gave bail and departed for Europe without delivering either. It is said in the Minutes that he ceased to lecture before January 1, 1833; his own statement, already recorded, was that he continued to lecture until 1836. On the restoration of the property of the University to the Regents, in April, 1839, there is mention of "unsatisfied judgment against David Hoffman, Esq., in the Baltimore County Court, held by the Trustees."

Professor Hoffman gives the following account of the suspension of his Institute in 1836: "Owing to the pressure of an extensive practice, with the duties which the Institution involved, I resolved in 1836 to abandon, not only the practice of my ever and long-cherished profession, but also the Law Institute, and for health and ease sought the more genial climates of Europe."

He did not take any further active part in the affairs of the University, and he resigned his position on the Board of Regents on October 9, 1843 after having determined to open a law school in Philadelphia. As according to his own statement he received his appointment as Professor of Law in 1816, his connection with the University is thus seen to have extended over a period of twenty-seven years.

David Hoffman was born in Baltimore on December 25, 1784. He was surrounded by influences of literary culture from his birth, and at a very early age began the study of law. He quickly took rank as a scholarly lawyer-one devoted to his profession and to the elevation of its practice. In 1816 he began practice in Baltimore and the same year was appointed Professor of Law in the Law Faculty of this University. He actively discharged the duties of that position from 1823 to 1836. In the latter year he abandoned teaching and spent two years in Europe. On his return he became a Presidential Elector for Maryland in the Harrison campaign.

In 1843 he removed to Philadelphia, with the design of reviving there his Law Institute. In a circular addressed to students of law in the United States, and dated Philadelphia, December, 1843, he says: "Finding at this time my health perfectly restored, and with it no abatement whatever of my zeal and devotion to that great science which in this country of all others needs to be methodical and carefully studied, and seeking, moreover, industrious and continual occupation so essential to happiness in a land that knows of no idlers, I resolved to reestablish the Law Institution, and have selected Philadelphia as the place of its location." He adds that his school is located in a spacious and beautiful building, No. 117 South Fifth street, with accommodations for about sixty students. The result of this project is not known. He also devoted himself to the practice of his profession in Philadelphia.

In 1847 he went to England to complete his history of the world. He returned to America in 1853, and applied himself to straightening out his private affairs, and never was able to resume his literary work. Professor Hoffman was an inspiring, accurate, laborious, learned and lucid teacher. His achievements as a scholarly and brilliant writer secured for him the degree of LL. D. from the Universities of Maryland and Oxford, and that of J. U. D. from the University of Göttingen, and also membership in many learned societies at home and abroad. He died from a stroke of apoplexy while on a visit to New York City, November 22, 1854.

There was no attempt made to resume the lectures of the Law Department by Professor Hoffman, or to supply his place in that Faculty, upon his resignation in 1843. The members of the Faculty of Law, at the reorganization of the Regents on September 18,1837, were David Hoffman, Dean and Professor, and Messrs. Meredith, Winchester, Mayer, Evans, Hall and l*****.

The School of Law was revived in 1869 upon the initiative of Professor Christopher Johnston, of the Faculty of Physic.


*MS. Records of University. Joint Mem'l of Trustees of Univ. and Baltimore College to the Legislature, 1830. Regents' Min. Bk.

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