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by R. Bruce Craig

The Apprenticeship of Alger Hiss


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In mid-September 1926, after his graduation from Johns Hopkins University in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, Alger Hiss arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to begin his freshman year at Harvard Law School. The years Hiss devoted to the study of law were exciting and arguably represented the most formative period of his life. At Harvard he gained far more than a legal education. His association with some of the legal giants of the era, among them Felix Frankfurter, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Louis Brandeis, had a profound effect in shaping his political philosophy and ideological beliefs. Perhaps more important, his legal education channeled his embryonic and uninformed liberal leanings, giving them greater focus and maturity.

When Hiss entered law school, Harvard’s president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, was in the process of transforming a highly regarded provincial college into the nation’s preeminent research university. Roscoe Pound, dean of the law school for ten years, had done his part to raise Harvard Law’s reputation by bringing a sense of vigor and vitality to the deanship. Hiss seemed unfazed by the law school’s reputation of failing one-third of the entering class by the end of the first year. It had been customary for Professor Edward “Bull” Warren, on the first day of classes, to greet the freshmen with an ominous prediction: “Gentlemen, look at the man on your right and the man on your left. Next year, one of you three will be gone.” Like the other 674 freshmen in his class, Hiss enrolled in the five foundation common law courses: Civil Procedure, Contracts, Torts, Criminal Law, and Property.

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