A trophy of the War of 1812

August 24, 2012

Earlier this week – August 19, to be exact – was the 200th anniversary of one of the U.S. Navy’s most famous battles, the victory of the U.S.S. Constitution over the H.M.S. Guerriere in the War of 1812.

A trophy from that battle resides in the Yale Law Library’s Rare Book Collection. The trophy is the 11-volume collected works of the German jurist Johann Gottlieb Heineccius, published in Naples 1759-1777. The note at right, written on the flyleaf of Volume 1 by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845), gives the extraordinary story. Here is a transcription of Justice Story’s note:

“These volumes were ordered by J. Story from Italy. On their passage to the U.S. they were captured by the British Frigate Guerrière & afterwards recaptured in the memorable engagement with the American Frigate Constitution commanded by Capt. Hull – 19 of August 1812. By the politeness of Capt. Hull I received them on his victorious return to the U.S.”

Below this note, Story copied a brief passage from Sir James Mackintosh’s Discourse on the Study of the Law of Nature and Nations (London, 1799): “It is hardly necessary to take any notice of the text-book of Heineccius, the best writer of elementary books with whom I am acquanited on any subject.” Heineccius was a law professor at Halle and a prolific author, described by the Oxford Companion to Law (1980) as “a great expositor who tried to treat law as a rational discipline and not merely an empirical art.”

The title page of the volume, shown below, shows that the set of Heineccius was once in the collection of the Harvard Law Library, where Story was law professor from 1829 until his death in 1845. The set was among the many duplicates that the Harvard Law Library sold off in the late 19th century. My guess is that Story’s inscription was overlooked when the set was put up for sale. Happy accident for Yale!


Rare Book Librarian

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