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Transylvania once had the nation’s most important law department

Transylvania University’s pioneering nineteenth-century law department was a national leader in the development of university-affiliated legal education during its 1799-1859 life-span. At one point, it was the nation’s largest law department, and is credited with giving birth to law programs at Indiana University (1842), the University of Louisville (1846), the University of Louisiana/soon to become Tulane (1847), and the University of Mississippi (1854).

“There was but one program of higher education in law that enjoyed genuine success in the antebellum years,” wrote Duke University law professor and legal historian Paul Carrington. “That program was an intellectual offspring of William & Mary, the law department of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.”

Carrington penned those words in his presentation titled “Teaching Law and Virtue at Transylvania University: The George Wythe Tradition in the Antebellum Years” given at Mercer University Law School as the 1989 Carl Vinson Lecture.

In his paper, Carrington documents the fact that the four professors in Transylvania’s law department in 1840 made it the largest law faculty in the nation. Enrollment in the department had reached 40 by 1822 and varied between 30 and 70 for the next three decades, making the student body also among the nation’s largest.

In a 2010 interview with Transylvania magazine, Carrington said that the connection between Transylvania’s law department and statesman Henry Clay, who taught in the law department from 1805-07 and was a Transylvania trustee, was a key factor in burnishing the school’s national reputation.

Clay’s life of public service was a shining example of a primary purpose of legal education in the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, who felt that legal education would prepare men for public service and help secure the integrity of public institutions.

“Part of Transylvania’s success lay in its connection with Henry Clay,” Carrington said. “The message was that if you wanted to be a politician in America and you wanted to get somewhere as Clay did, and you were living in the western half of the United States, then the place to train yourself in the law and qualify yourself is by talking to and learning from the judges who were teaching at Transylvania. In the 1840s it was the most important law school in the nation and had the most demanding curriculum.”

Although Transylvania no longer has a law department, graduates of the university win acceptance to many of the nation’s leading law schools, including Harvard, Cornell, Duke, and Stanford. Students recommended by Transylvania enjoy a 100 percent acceptance rate.

For a video of an interview with Transylvania President R. Owen Williams by John Harwood of CNBC and The New York Times on Henry Clay, his role as Speaker of the House, and his ties to Transylvania, go to: http://bit.ly/harwood_williams.

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