I met John Mansfield in 1968 at the house of a mutual friend. A few months later I started Harvard Law School and was pleased to find I had been assigned to his section of Torts. I had some pretty good teachers that year - Lon Fuller for Contracts, Lloyd Weinreb for Criminal Law, and the great Jack Dawson for Development of Legal Institutions - but I think John was the best of them. (Right up there with Dawson, anyway.) His method was not like anything I had expected from law school. He would have us look at a case one or two pages long and examine every sentence of it, teaching us patiently, by trial and error - mostly error, as it happened - to speak precisely when we spoke, to make sure we got the meaning, or the range of possible meanings, exactly right. I was initially baffled by this method because my interest in law was, and remains, primarily sociological and historical: I want to know what causes legal change, and what happens in social life as a result of that change. John's internal point of view and exacting textual and logical approach to legal doctrine struck me as awfully dry and rather alien. One of the best decisions I ever made was not to fight the approach but to swim along with it and learn to practice it. I never got to be as good at it as John was, but I still hear his voice speaking through mine when I teach first-year Contracts and ask students for better and sharper approximations of what they are trying to say. What John's example taught was to look at every recital of facts, every statement of a legal premise or conclusion, every policy judgment, with fresh eyes - even if one has seen it a hundred times before and thinks he knows what it means. Nothing was too familiar, banal, seemingly obvious, or seemingly absurd to escape that gimlet gaze and probing scalpel. I worked as his research assistant in the summer after my first year, helping him put together historical materials for what became his course on Church and State: he gave me a lot of rope and was fascinated by everything we found. With John one learned what it means to recover "radical innocence" as a state of mind before an idea or a text.
Date of Authorship for this Version
Gordan, Robert W. and D'Amato, Anthony, "In Memoriam: John H. Mansfield" (2014). Faculty Scholarship Series. 5198.