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January 10, 2012

George Dargo

At a time when many academics are winding down, my colleague George Dargo, who passed away last week, became enviably prolific.

Before joining the New England Law faculty, back when he was a professor of history, George wrote a number of important books about legal history, including Roots of the Republic: A New Perspective on Early American Constitutionalism (1974), Law in the New Republic: Private Law and the Public Estate (1983), and, in between, Jefferson’s Louisiana: Politics and the Clash of Legal Traditions (1975). Jefferson’s Louisiana has been called “undoubtedly one of the most important studies ever of the Louisiana Purchase and its impact on the politics and legal culture of Louisiana.”

After he joined the New England Law faculty in 1983, George continued writing about legal history; his work in this time included A History of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (1993), and an article on the famous Sarah Roberts case, which appeared in 1997 in the journal of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Historical Society.

For nearly a decade thereafter, George focused his energies on the classroom. He taught courses in constitutional law, administrative law, freedom of expression, and law and literature, and he earned a reputation as a superlative classroom teacher. During this time, his writing consisted primarily of sharp letters to the New York Times about events of the day (some more recent examples of which can be found here).

In 2006, I asked George if he would be interested in contributing an article to an issue of the New England Law Review devoted to faculty scholarship. In short order he produced an essay on the Book of Ruth, “Deriving Law from the Biblical Narrative.” It was a gem, and George must have enjoyed the experience of putting it together more than he thought he would because there followed a study—the first by a law professor—of Franz Kafka’s legal writing, “Reclaiming Franz Kafka, Doctor of Jurisprudence” (2007) and a return to the area of his doctoral expertise, the Louisiana Purchase, in “The Digest of 1808: Historical Perspectives” (2009).

And that was not all. With the help of his son, Stephen, George turned his attention to Melville’s famous scrivener, Bartleby, in an interdisciplinary essay about the connections between law and architecture. And he began work on revising Jefferson’s Louisiana; the new edition would become the centerpiece of a program devoted to his work at the American Association of Law Schools 2010 meeting in New Orleans. Finally, just weeks before his death, George finished From Colony to Empire: Episodes in American History, which will be published in 2012 by the Lawbook Exchange. Episodes collects George’s fugitive legal history pieces, with new introductions and supporting materials.

Nor was George a selfish scholar. He always inquired about my projects and was instrumental in helping me to think through a piece on the Massachusetts Constitution. We spent even more time discussing our shared fondness for Melville: I read his take on Bartleby, he read mine on Billy Budd, we talked often of Ahab’s quest for the white whale.

All of us should be so productive and generous, our writing so thoughtful and polished. We at New England have lost a great comrade and teacher; the world has lost a great scholar.

Lawrence Friedman


  1. I miss him very much. He undoubtedly gave me one of the most simple and evident lessons in law: Seek beyond the obvious! I shall Dargo. I am; because of you.

  2. As a former student of Professor Dargo's at NESL from 2003-2007, I am greatly enriched by having gleaned his insights into the areas of Constitutional law, Administrative law, and Law and Literature, and vastly increased my understanding of these areas as a result of having studied under his dedicated leadership. He was a keen reader of many subjects and he helped me to develop an interest in the life of Franz Kafka as well as an abiding interest in the area of Administrative Law which I have made my concentration. I am greatly enriched by having known Professor Dargo and enjoyed his wonderful sense of humor and unique perspective on all things related to the law and to becoming a lawyer.