Roscoe Pound was a towering figure in jurisprudence during the first half of the 20th century. Pound was the son of a Nebraska judge. Although his father wanted him to follow a career in the law, the young Pound was originally more interested in botany and even completed a monograph on Nebraska plant life before attaining his fame as a legal educator. A talented and brilliant lawyer, Pound had some judicial experience as commissioner of appeals for the Nebraska Supreme Court and served as a commissioner on uniform state laws for Nebraska from 1904 to 1907. He taught law at the University of Nebraska and then moved on to teach first at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago and then at the University of Chicago. In 1910, Pound became Professor of Law at Harvard and proceeded to serve as the dean of the law school for two decades, from 1916 to 1936, giving him the then most prestigious podium in the legal academy. Pound’s early botanical work influenced his theories about the nature of law, and he never abandoned the idea that law developed organically, as social needs changed. He was an astonishingly prolific scholar, and his two masterpieces were a five‐​volume work titled Jurisprudence, which surveyed the history of the subject in a dazzling comparative treatment of European and American law, and a shorter monograph called The Formative Era of American Law, in which he explored the manner in which 19th‐​century American judges had altered the English common law to meet the needs of a young commercial and industrial republic.

Pound was the intellectual father of what he called “sociological jurisprudence,” designed to clear away outdated legal rules to make the law more efficient and to make “the law in the books” come closer to what was actually being done by “the law in action.” Pound’s early efforts to reform the law and its procedures were widely regarded as progressive, perhaps even radical in nature, but his defense of the inherent wisdom and fairness of American contract and commercial law in the 1930s made him a target of more radical academics in the late 20th century. Toward the end of his life, he wrote passionately in defense of the received wisdom in the common law, and its furthering of human liberty, and against those who sought to dismantle its ancient doctrines and institutions. He believed in the wisdom of systematically undertaking research on how the law worked and could be improved, but never lost his disdain for those who would replace the legal rules that favored private property, commerce, and freedom of contract with socialistic schemes of regulation and redistribution.

Further Readings

Hull, N. E. H. Roscoe Pound and Karl Llewellyn: Searching for an American Jurisprudence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Pound, Roscoe. The Formative Era of American Law. Boston: Little, Brown, 1938. ———. Jurisprudence. 5 vols. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1959.
Stephen B. Presser
Originally published