Friday, July 1, 2011

Julius Goebel, Jr.

[This is the second in a series of posts entitled "Malcolm Mason, Julius Goebel and the "Control of Business" Project: A Dispatch on the DLI School in the 1930s."  The series begins here.]

That Mason did so ought to have appealed to Julius Ludwig Goebel, Jr. (1892-1973), for he once called upon lawyers to "cherish writing as the exercise of an art."  Goebel was the descendant of Germans who emigrated after the revolutions of 1848 and the son of an eminent philologist, co-founder of the Modern Language Association, and professor at the University of Illinois.  The philologist apparently set a high scholarly standard for his son: Mason reports that every morning when he arrived at work and every evening before leaving, Goebel "opened the middle drawer of his desk and looked in.  It was said he was looking at a photograph of his father."  He received a classical training at Cambridge Latin.  At the University of Illinois he took a bachelor's and master's degree.  He spent one year at Illinois's law school but was more interested in political science.  He earned his Ph.D. at Columbia in 1915 with the dissertation, "The Recognition Policy of the United States."  (He found time for an early encounter with legal realism in a torts course taught by Robert Lee Hale.)  For a few years thereafter, on a Columbia fellowship, he researched what became a definitive work on the diplomatic history of the Falkland Islands.  He practiced international law in Washington, D.C. until 1921 and returned to Columbia as a lecturer and then an associate in international law in the political science department.  In 1923 he finally received his LL.B., after studying classes in the summer schools of the University of Chicago and Columbia.  In 1925 he transferred to the School of Law.  When the dean then asked him to survey New York's court records, Goebel relished the new field of endeavor and shifted the focus of scholarship from international law to legal history.  In 1928 he inaugurated his great course, the Development of Legal Institutions.

Goebel was not physically imposing–Mason described him as "slight, a very pale blond," who habitually chewed his "very pale mustache"–but he taught DLI in an in terrorem fashion that gave rise to "more apocryphal stories in student circles" than any other course in the law school.  "Classroom recitations, with the hapless student called upon to stand in front of the class and to be subjected to relentless questioning from Professor Goebel . . . were a traumatic experience for many."  Students who unwittingly took an aisle seat "always feared the heavy hand clamping a shoulder and a sharp, probing ‘Is that right?'" Even the diligent might deny any knowledge of the day's topic "rather than face the grilling" that would follow an admission of some acquaintance with it.  No wonder a eulogist recalled sitting in DLI "sometimes in amusement, sometimes in amazement, sometimes in sheer terror."  Warner Gardner, who rather liked the course, remembered Goebel announcing, at the end of the second or third class, "Don't crowd around this desk so that I have trouble getting out.  And don't come around to visit me in my office.  I am a legal historian and not a god damned scout master." 

Columbia's female law students had a special horror to endure, Goebel's version of "Ladies Day":
The first damsel arose and faced the class.  The good professor retired to the rear of the class and posed his first question . . . as abstract as usual.  Our heroine was stumped.  Hushed whispers were heard as attempts at aid were begun.  From the back of the room came, in gravel-like tones: "I hear some whispering.  If necessary, I'll clear out that front row and put all married men there . . . so there'll be no helping hands."
No movie mogul would have "cast Julius Goebel for the role of Mr. Chips," a colleague conceded.  Another observed, "Memorable teachers, like great delicacies, are not to everybody's tastes."

Among those who spat out DLI was Walter Gellhorn, to whom Goebel awarded a C- for his performance on the exam after the inaugural offering of the course.  Decades later, as Goebel's colleague on the Columbia law faculty, he still could not understand what "that damn course" was doing in the first-year curriculum.  "You studied the chamber pot, but you didn't learn anything about plumbing," he complained.  "I was interested in plumbing."  But Mason dared to engage Goebel on his own terms and got on well with him.  He recalled Goebel as "a great historian and a great teacher" who conveyed "a sense of relevance of the historical processes involved."  Goebel's detractors were "terre-a-terre students" or "just didn't have much brains"–neither a very apt characterization of Gellhorn!  He also found Goebel to be "a very easy guy to work for" as research fellow.  The historian "had very high standards, but he was generous in his treatment of people," Mason told me in 2005.

Goebel developed DLI in a revolt against a field that, in his judgment, reduced the history of law to the "history of cases."  His predecessors had been content with the "grisly skeleton" of the law, Goebel scoffed.  The goal of the DLI course was to "cover this frame with muscle and infuse it with the breadth of life."   One could not do the job properly by staying within the "law box."  "Only by a consideration, on the best available knowledge, of all the factors that have entered into the development of a legal institution or legal rule can we be said truly to reconstruct the past."  Thus, Goebel claimed that the Supreme Court considered "economic reasons" and "the election returns" when it decided the Insular Cases.  Moreover, "politics and political machinery" influenced the rise of the judiciary in England and the United States."   And the concluding section of the 1931 edition studied the "growth of the corporate idea" as an illustration of "the influence of intellectual, social, and economic factors on legal rules."  Of course, the law of the corporation had its "autogenetic properties," Goebel allowed, but "to the historian intellectual change is something more profound than even the creative use of precedent."

[The series continues here.]