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Harold Berman, RIP:

I just learned that the extraordinary legal historian Harold Berman just passed away. The New York Times obituary is here. Donald Boudreaux's thoughtful appreciation is here. Berman's magnum opus Law and Revolution was one of a handful of books that truly transformed my thinking about law. It is one of those books that once you read it, it is almost impossible to ever again think about law and especially legal history the same. His insights about the nature of the common law and the spontaneous emergence of the rule of law and personal liberty from the polycentric legal order of the Middle Ages exerted an immense influence on my own scholarship (as probably most evidenced in my article on the "Rise and Fall of the Efficiency of the Common Law"). His work on the intellectual history of the common law is quite extraordinary as well.

One remarkable personal story involving Professor Berman. During the Fall 2001 semester Peter Boettke and I co-taught a class on "The Rule of Law, Freedom, and Prosperity." Professor Berman guest lectured in our class on September 10, 2001. He gave a great lecture and we had a truly memorable conversation over dinner that evening at a now-defunct Vietnamese restaurant in Clarendon (The Queen Bee). He told some fascinating stories about his experiences in the Soviet Union and some of the GMU Economics grad students scandalized him with radical interpretations of his work. An amazing evening. Then we all woke up the next morning to the tragedy of September 11. I believe that Professor Berman finally hired a driver a day or two later to drive him to Richmond, where he and his wife eventually caught a train to Atlanta, finally arriving home three days later. An amazing story.

A true gentleman and an extraordinary scholar. Men (and scholars) like him come along rarely, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to meet him and to learn from his work.

Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
I look forward to reading his work. Though I don't agree with the "Christian America" thesis (there are many non-academic types who push it with shoddy scholarship) Berman is one of the bona fide scholars who stress religious influences in law.

Though in reading he joined Pat Robertson in defending a public display of the Ten Commands in Texas and noted they are foundational to Texas Law, he sounds a little kooked out. But I'd like to see his brief.
11.18.2007 8:27pm
MarkField (mail):
Additional obituaries can be found here.
11.18.2007 9:13pm
Scott D (mail) (www):
Prof. Zywicki, thanks for your reflections on Sept 10 &11, 2001 with professor Berman. Can you say more about the "radical interpretations" and his responses please?

For those interested in resources on Berman's mentor, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy or a collection of obits I'm building, see my site here.
11.18.2007 9:29pm
Reinhold (mail):
Professor Berman's death is unfortunate. I read Law and Revolution I and II last summer. I was hoping Volume III would come out soon.

I met Professor Berman at a symposium at Regent Law School last spring. He was very gracious.
11.19.2007 12:17pm
Scott D (mail) (www):
Volume 3 was to explore the French and American Revolutions. Like the other volumes it would identify the legal changes instituted to ground the values carried by the revolutionaries, usually in the 3rd generation. The theory is that the Western Revolutions brought forth new ideas of community, individuals, responsibility, punishment, etc. Once a revolution like these takes place, its progress is available to the world community.

This would be fascinating b/c we know these revolutions better than the Papal, German, or English and are closer to the values fought for. Berman's mentor, Eugen Rosenstock in his OUT OF REVOLUTION: The Autobiography of Western Man identifies the American Revolution as in-between the English and French values, as did Daniel Elazar. So I'd be interested how Berman would trace this dynamic in US case law.

I haven't heard anything about Vol. 3's status. It would only be four years in progress and volume 2 took 20 years. But he had research assistants and I believe the folks at the Center for the Study of Religion will be able to gather money and interest to continue the themes, if not publish in some form what had already been done.
11.19.2007 12:34pm