Harvard Law School Finally Finds a Seal Bland Enough for 2021 | National Review

Harvard Law School Finally Finds a Seal Bland Enough for 2021 | National Review

On the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

Dear Reader, you will doubtless be relieved to learn that one of the great problems of American society has finally been solved: Harvard Law School has a new seal. Five years ago, the oldest continually operating law school in the United States law school — founded in 1817 — scrapped the seal it has been using since 1936. The old seal’s design was, as you can see, entirely inoffensive in and of itself:

The grievance that led to “protests and sit-ins” in 2015-16 was that the crest was originally adopted because it was the family crest of Isaac Royall, who left a bequest at his death in 1781 to Harvard to establish its first professorship in law. The Royall chair was established in 1815 and filled by Isaac Parker, a Chief Justice of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the law school’s founding figure.

Royall was an exemplar of the grand tradition of shady figures who used university donations to rehabilitate their images. He had made his fortune with plantations in Antigua, and was a significant slaveowner who brought slaves with him back to Massachusetts (slavery was abolished there by the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780; the SJC confirmed this in a ruling in 1783). In his own day, Royall was considered at best a coward and at worst a Loyalist because he fled the state on news of the outbreak of war at Lexington and Concord in 1775, and died in exile in England. The bequest motivated Harvard to hire lawyers to clear the title to Royall’s property, which (appropriately enough) remained mired in litigation for years. Harvard had to hire a state-court judge because even after three decades, the bequest wasn’t enough money to hire a full-time professor or entice a federal judge off the bench. Parker himself might be seen as problematic today, having ruled in 1823 that the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 allowed a Virginia slave catcher to recapture a fugitive slave in Massachusetts without a warrant even in spite of the state’s own law that a slave became a free man upon setting foot on Massachusetts soil.

By now, nobody associates the seal with slavery unless they are really suffering a racism deficit and in need of something to be mad about, but out went the old seal, and for five years, even through the law school’s 2017 bicentennial, there was no seal. In 2019, the dean finally established a “working group” headed by history professor Annette Gordon-Reed; the group naturally included a “Staff Attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union’s Racial Justice Program” just to be sure that even Gordon-Reed — an African-American professor known for her writings on Sally Hemings, Juneteenth, and Reconstruction, among other topics — would not somehow accidentally prove insufficiently . . . reliable (Gordon-Reed, after all, once compared the cancellation of Thomas Jefferson to the Soviet Union).

In an email this morning, the Law School announced that years of effort had produced . . . this:

It appears to be a wall-mounted light fixture. Gordon-Reed claims that the design “represents the far-reaching nature of the school. The radiating lines suggest a projection to the outside world. We have graduates everywhere, doing all kinds of things. The HLS sphere of influence is so widely spread. Actually, I think it’s suggestive of a jewel, as well.” The new seal carries as a motto Latin phrase lex et Iustitia, meaning “law and justice.” The press release states that “Three themes came to the fore in every conversation, according to the HLS Shield Working Group’s final report,” which it lists as “1. A Diverse and Pluralistic Community,” “2. Leadership that Changes the World for the Better,” and “3. The Fundamental Pursuit of Law and Justice.” I suppose it should be encouraging that they managed to mention law, even if it had to share partial third place on the list.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.