Minor, John B.
John Barbee Minor taught law at the University of Virginia for fifty years. His students became eminent professionals and politicians. Some referred to his teaching career as not only the longest but the ablest known to Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. One even declared that “he has exerted, and still indirectly exerts, a wider influence for good upon society in the United States than any man who has lived in this generation.”
Born in Louisa county, Virginia, on June 2, 1813 to Launcelot and Elizabeth Minor, John was a frail youngster. At sixteen, though, he began a long, horseback journey through the state as a newspaper agent and collector and then walked to Ohio, where he entered Kenyon College. Two of his classmates there became famous: David Davis became United States Senator, United States Judge, and administered the estate of President Lincoln; and Edwin M. Stanton became Secretary of War under Lincoln. Afterwards Minor walked through Ohio and New York, for health and recreation, and, having reached home, entered the University of Virginia in January, 1831. There he studied for three sessions, “graduating in several schools”, and received the LLB in 1834, at twenty-one. He later married the daughter of his law instructor, Professor John A.G. Davis, in whose home he had tutored while pursuing his own studies. He had so overcome his physical weakness that he could endure almost unlimited labor, and developed “an impressive stature and presence.”
Minor began to practice law at Buchanan, in Botetourt county, and after six years moved to Charlottesville, where he formed a partnership with his brother Lucian, who later became Professor of Law at William and Mary college, Williamsburg. In 1845, when thirty-two years old, John B. was appointed Chair of Law at the University of Virginia succeeding H. St. George Tucker, and remained the only instructor in that department until 1851. Upon the appointment of James P. Holcombe as Adjunct Professor of Constitutional and International Law, Mercantile Law and Equity, Minor’s subjects became Common and Statute Law, in both of which he became an authority. Of his monumental Institutes of Common and Statute Law, Senator Daniel said: “It cannot be surpassed as a vade mecum of the law; it is like a statue, solid, compact, clean cut; it contains more law in fewer words than any work with which I am acquainted.” The first and second volumes were published in 1875, and the fourth volume in 1878, while the third, which had long been used in pamphlet form by his pupils, was first published in complete form in 1895. In 1870 the professor began a summer course of law lectures, and his is believed to have been the first summer law school in the country. This became widely popular, enrolling more than a hundred students. As a teacher Minor was regarded with peculiar affection. Taking a personal interest in his pupils, he endeavored to develop their character as well as their minds. He continued to inspire and impress for fifty years until his death, July 29, 1895.
In addition to his Institutes, Minor published in 1850, The Virginia Reports, 1799-1800, and in 1894, the elaborate Exposition of the Law of Crimes and Punishments, which long remained in general use. For his last forty-two years he was an Episcopalian. His religion “was the master chord in his life, the source of that rare union of sweetness and dignity, of gentleness with firmness, that helped to make up his charming personality.” For many years he superintended a Sunday school for slaves and also taught a Sunday morning bible class composed of students, whose last meetings were in their revered teacher’s study, after he was unable to walk to the lecture room.
For his eminent attainments, Minor received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from both Washington and Lee and from Columbia. On the fiftieth anniversary as a teacher of the law the University Law Alumni presented him with a life-size marble bust, mounted upon a polished pedestal bearing these impressive words: “He taught the law and the reason thereof.” James Russell Lowell wrote his obituary, claiming Minor had signed more law diplomas than anyone in the country’s history. Minor Hall, occupied by the law school from 1911 to 1932, was named after him. Legend has it that he rode across the lines to warn the Yankee general who was about to attack Charlottesville not to harm Mr. Jefferson’s masterpiece, the Rotunda.