David Hoffman and the Science of Jurisprudence

Biographical Sketch of David Hoffman

From the Dictionary of American Biography©

David Hoffman (Dec. 24, 1784 - Nov. 11, 1854), lawyer, teacher and historian, was the eleventh of the twelve children of Peter and Dorthea Stierlin (Lloyd) Hoffman. He was born in Baltimore, Md., where he was also educated, attending St. John's College, of which he was later patron, visitor, and governor. He early became one of the prominent members of the Maryland bar. In 1816 he was appointed professor of law in the University of Maryland, the establishment of which he had been very active in promoting, but he did not begin to lecture until 1823. Meanwhile, he published his Course of Legal Study, which was designed to show the interrelations of the departments of the law, with bibliographies and historical aids for each. Judge Joseph Story pronounced it "by far the most perfect system for the study of the law which has ever been offered to the public" (North American Review, November 1817, p.76). His university lectures, which continued daily until 1832, followed the same generous plan. The course, however, was poorly patronized.

Hoffman's views upon legal education were notable for the background of social and out laying legal knowledge which he advocated: his insistence upon study of statutes and of legal forms and pleadings; his appreciation of Bentham and codification; and his strong recommendation of genuine practice courts in place of the less effective moot courts of his day. Such ideas were far in advance of the practice of his time. His Course seemingly gave overwhelming emphasis to reading and knowledge, but in fact he disparaged any dependence upon memory and insisted upon the importance of "the general and pervading principles of the science." His bibliographies, showing extraordinary knowledge of foreign literature, were designed, primarily, to insure systematic reading. He emphasized also the ethics of the profession, and his "Resolutions in Regard to Professional Deportment" anticipated most of the present canons of conduct of the American Bar Association.

When Hoffman began teaching his practice was large and remunerative; but it suffered greatly. According to him, while he received no salary whatever for four years, he had paid various debts of the university and had invested in the law school alone $20,000. When he refused to relinquish his library and furniture, which he had sold to the university but which had not been paid for, an acrimonious dispute resulted and he suspended his course and went to Europe (1833-1834). In 1836 he offered his resignation and although it was not accepted by the trustees, he returned for another two years to Europe. His teaching ceased in 1839. When he finally resigned, in 1843, he received the thanks of the trustees for his services. He then removed to Philadelphia and was admitted to the bar at the end of that year.

In 1847 he went again to Europe to gather materials for his Cartaphilus, which was intended to be a history of the world in the Christian era. While he was abroad he published in the London Times a series of articles on political, social, and economic conditions in the United States. He returned in 1853 and was on the eve of departing again for England when he died of apoplexy in New York City. At the time of his death he had received honorary degrees from the universities of Maryland, Oxford, and G¨ottingen.

His published works include: A Course of Legal Study (1817 & 1836, 2nd ed. in 2 vol.); A Syllabus of a Course of Lectures on Law (1821); An Address to Students of Law in the United States (1824); To The Trustees of the University of Maryland in Relation to the Law Chair (1826), containing autobiographical material; Legal Outlines (1829), less important than the Course; Introductory Lectures and Syllabus of a Course of Lectures Delivered in the University of Maryland (1837), a collection of previously printed pamphlets; Miscellaneous Thoughts on Men, Manners and Things (1837-1841), by "Anthony Grumbler"; A Peep into my Note-Book (1839), a discussion of law, religion and literature, criticizing American radical tendencies; Legal Hints (1846), on professional deportment; and Chronicles Selected from the Originals of Cartaphilus, the Wandering Jew (3 vols., 1853-1854).

Hoffman was married on Jan. 8, 1816, to Mary McKean of Philadelphia, grand-daughter of Gov. Thomas McKean, and a woman of beauty and charm. She bore him three children of whom a daughter survived him.

©The Dictionary of American Biography is owned by the American Council of Learned Societies which has granted permission for the reproduction of this biographical sketch. Permission to retransmit, copy, or reproduce in any format, in whole or part, must be sought from the ACLS.

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