By Jim H. Smith
In the spring of 1971, Arthur Vanderbilt II ’72 was a Wesleyan junior trying to decide on a topic for his senior thesis. Vanderbilt’s father was a lawyer and his grandfather had been one, also, and both graduated from Wesleyan. Vanderbilt planned to follow in those footsteps and was already applying to law schools.
“I decided to write about my grand-father,” he recalls. “I thought maybe I could learn something about him while learning about the law. I was 7 when he died, so although I had known him when I was a little boy, I really knew almost nothing about his career. Once, when I was a junior or senior in high school I found a long entry about him in Current Biography and I was amazed, although even then I really didn’t understand what he had done.”
Arthur’s grandfather and namesake, Arthur T. Vanderbilt ’10, was not just a lawyer. He was a distinguished alumnus of Columbia Law School who, from 1913 to 1947, practiced corporate law privately. He also taught night school classes at New York University and, from 1943 to 1948, served as dean of the law school. In the autumn of 1947 he was confirmed as chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, a post in which he served until his sudden death in 1957.
For his senior paper, Vanderbilt planned to talk with his father and, perhaps, a few other people who had known and worked with his grandfather. But he imagined he would need to rely mostly on secondary sources.
Then he discussed the project with his thesis adviser, the eminent constitutional law scholar and late John E. Andrus Professor of Government, Clement E. Vose. “Professor Vose and I hit it off right away,” recalls Vanderbilt. “I told him about my plan and he asked me, ‘Where are your grandfather’s papers?’”
Vanderbilt had no idea. But when he called his father, William R. Vanderbilt ’42, he learned that his grandfather’s papers—a whole lifetime’s worth of documents stretching back as far as the elder Vanderbilt’s undergraduate years at Wesleyan—had been packed in boxes after his death. Those boxes filled a couple of rooms in a storage facility near his Summit, N.J., home. They had remained there, all but forgotten, for 14 years.
Vose was profoundly interested. Beginning in 1970, he collected an immense amount of material about legal reform. It informed his courses at Wesleyan and became the core of the University’s Collection on Legal Change. Vose conceived that collection as a repository of documents by and about individuals and organizations that significantly influenced the shape of public policy. He knew that Judge Vanderbilt had played a very important role in changing the law, and he guessed Vanderbilt’s papers would enrich what was still a small collection in 1971.
So, that summer Vose and William Vanderbilt talked several times and eventually came to an agreement whereby the Arthur T. Vanderbilt papers would become part of Wesleyan’s legal change collection. That September, Arthur Vanderbilt II and Clement Vose stood outside the Science Building one warm, sunny morning, and watched a moving van back up to a basement door. The driver rolled open the truck’s tailgate and revealed, to their astonishment, a floor-to-ceiling cargo of cartons containing some 11,000 pounds of documents and artifacts.
Vanderbilt and Vose began sorting through the boxes that very day. “Clem and I were like kids in a candy store,” says Vanderbilt. Painstakingly cataloguing the trove of materials would occupy them for most of the next year.
“It gave me an opportunity to meet the real man,” says Vanderbilt. “In the process, my grandfather became my mentor and role model. He is to this day.”
What most impressed the young scholar was his grandfather’s commitment to legal change. “Early in his career he saw how the New Jersey court system was incredibly antiquated and increasingly unworkable in the 20th century,” says Vanderbilt. “He set out to modernize it, but his work was opposed by every judge in the state except, literally, one or two, and was opposed by every bar association. An unpopular cause, to be sure.”
Judge Vanderbilt’s quixotic effort to change New Jersey law took 17 years, but he was indefatigable. In the end he succeeded in getting a referendum item on the ballot in the elections of 1947, enabling New Jersey residents to overwhelmingly support a new constitution. “It revamped the state court system from the bottom up,” Arthur writes. “When my grandfather reflected on such things, he would trace his beliefs in what it means to be a public servant to his days at Wesleyan, which seem to have had a profound and abiding influence on who he was.”
Among the documents delivered to Wesleyan on that September morning were 17 boxes of research Judge Vanderbilt had compiled for a biography he had planned to write in his retirement. The subject was another advocate for legal change, the 18th-century British barrister, politician, and judge, William Murray, first earl of Mansfield. Generally known as Lord Mansfield, he is widely considered to be the most powerful British judge of his time.
“My grandfather saw Lord Mansfield as a kindred spirit, championing the modernizing of law,” says Vanderbilt. “He admired Mansfield immensely.” Neither Arthur nor Vose had the time nor inclination to complete the senior Vanderbilt’s retirement project, however. It would be three decades before a Mansfield biographer arrived to put Judge Vanderbilt’s Mansfield collection to its intended use.
After graduating from Wesleyan, Arthur II enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law. He graduated in 1975 and began his legal career as a clerk to Judge Herman D. Michels of the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. His much expanded senior thesis, which drew heavily from his grandfather’s papers, became a book, Changing Law: A Biography of Arthur T. Vanderbilt (1976, Rutgers University Press), which won an American Bar Association award for the best book about the law published that year.
Time passed. Vose continued to expand the Collection on Legal Change. As Suzy Taraba ’77, Special Collections and Archives librarian at Olin Library, wrote in 2010, “Under [his] tutelage, the Collection on Legal Change spawned several undergraduate theses, and numerous other students gained a deep understanding of the intellectual and historical value of primary sources and the principles of their organization through direct involvement in arranging and describing these complex groups of papers.”
Vose passed away in 1985. His collection remained as a monument to his scholarship.
One day in 2006 it was discovered by Norman Poser, an emeritus professor from Brooklyn Law School who was conducting research for his own biography of Lord Mansfield. In the early summer of 2007, Poser visited the Olin Library for the first time. He would return nearly 20 times over the next two years.
His book, Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason, was published in 2013 to widespread critical acclaim. In it, he acknowledged the assistance of Taraba and Valerie Gillispie, another librarian, “who for 18 months greatly facilitated my research into the Arthur T. Vanderbilt Collection of Mansfield papers” and Arthur T. Vanderbilt II, who read his entire manuscript and offered constructive feedback. Judge Vanderbilt’s collection “was enormously useful,” Poser says. “It would have taken me several years to track down everything (he) had gathered.” The book is dedicated to Judge Arthur T. Vanderbilt.
“To this day, with everything I experience in my own life, who my grandfather was and how extraordinary he was—not only in what he accomplished, but perhaps even more important in how he accomplished it—becomes clearer and clearer to me,” says Vanderbilt. “More and more I stand in awe and respect, and wish others could see and understand his story.”— Jim H. Smith