The Jurisprudence of Courthouses

sct1.jpgI have a theory about English and American courthouse architecture, which is interesting but probably wrong. I start out by noting that the most prestigious courthouse in the United States — the U.S. Supreme Court building — is a quintessential example of classical architecture, self-consciously modeled on the buildings of ancient Rome. The classical model, of course, has been hugely influential in American civic architecture. In contrast, the most prestigious courthouse in the United Kingdom — the Royal Courts of Justice in London — is a sterling example of neo-gothic architectures, self-consciously modeled on the buildings of the Middle Ages. The neo-gothic model, of course, has been very important for English civic architecture, most notably perhaps in the Houses of Parliament. Why did Americans go for Rome and Englishmen for the medieval?

royalcourts.jpgThere are lots of possible answers: America is a republic, and hence Republican Rome is a natural source of inspiration, while England is a monarchy whose legitimacy rests of long-established practice. The French Revolution is another possibility. Having spent twenty or so years fighting first Revolutionary France and then Bonaparte, nineteenth-century Englishmen were disposed to think of neo-classicism as a precursor to chaos, war, and tyranny. Revolutionary iconoclasts smashed the sculpture of St. Denise, self-consciously desecrating the medieval symbolism of the French state. The English responded by valorizing their medieval roots. Hence the Royal Courts of Justice. Let me suggest, however, that there is also a jurisprudential angle.


The defining theorists of the English common law tradition were Coke, Hale, and Selden. All of them were historians of one sort or another, and all of them located the well-springs of legal legitimacy and English liberty in the immemorial customs and laws of the realm. Tellingly, one of Coke’s greatest works — Commentaries on Littleton — is not a treatise at all, but rather an exposition of a medieval law book of feudal tenures. In a sense, the Royal Courts of Justice are the architectural instantiation of this legal world view. The neo-gothic courthouse is not simply an exercise in nineteenth-century Romanticism, or English Francophobia. It is Coke’s artificial reason of the law incarnated in brick and mortar.

American jurisprudence, in contrast, is less obsessed with history and much more friendly to notions of natural law. The primal document of English law is the Magna Charta, shaky deal struck between barons and a hated king over the intricacies of knights service and fishing rights on the Thames, transformed by centuries of veneration into a fount for the historic rights of Britons. In contrast, the primal document of American law is the Declaration of Independence, which invokes abstract and self-evident rights that come not from history and custom but direct from nature and nature’s God. On this view, the classicism of the Supreme Court building is less about invoking an ancient republican ideal than it is about the negation of history. What we see in marble before us is not the rebirth of the republic on the Tiber, but that abstract forms of inalienable rights. It is less Roman than Platonic.

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11 Responses

  1. Milbarge says:

    But courthouses aren’t built in vacuums. The design of the Supreme Court building took place during a boom period in classical architecture in government buildings. That doesn’t make your theory wrong — the Lincoln Memorial, for example, could stand for many of the same things — but I think it means it’s not *only* about the jurisprudence of an architectural style. Neat idea, though.

  2. John Jenkins says:

    My new goal is to work “architectual instantiation” into a conversation sometime. I wish *I* had thought of that.

  3. jeanneret says:

    The architectural style of the buildings owes much more to what was au courant at the time it was built as opposed to jurisprudential reasons. The US Supreme Court building was constructed at the tail end of the Beaux-Arts period, which generally began at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Why Beaux-Arts (as its adoption of neo-classical elements), as opposed to neo-gothicism, became au courant for American civic buildings during that time is a much broader, and more concrete, issue than macro-views on law. But, as they saw, if you’ve got a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail 😉 .

  4. jeanneret says:

    Ironically, Nate, King John — signer of that “shaky deal” called the Magna Carta — is actually immortalized in the frieze of the Supreme Court building itself. Blackstone’s up there too (but not Coke — maybe your thesis has legs after all…).

  5. Nate Oman says:

    In my defense, I would point out that classicism was popular in American civic architecture long before the Beaux-Arts movement. I for one assume that architects spend virtually all of their spare time studying out the relative merits of Coke, Selden, Mansfield, and Story. Indeed, I suspect that this is mainly what they talk about around the water cooler.

  6. Anglophile says:

    Architectural fads are different on the two sides of the Atlantic, though. You will rarely see American civic buildings in the neo-gothic style that characterizes not only the Houses of Parlaiment (Palace of Westminster) and the Royal Courts of Justice, but many town halls and local courts and the like throughout England. Maybe the Brits rejected the French, but I also think the Americans self-consciously rejected the Brits.

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