Francis (nee Franz) Lieber's early life reads like that of a Byronic hero of the Romantic era. Born in Berlin, Prussia, Lieber's father was a merchant who had been ruined during the Napoleonic wars. At the tender age of fifteen, Lieber interrupted his medical studies at a gymnasium in Berlin and joined his two brothers in enlisting in the Prussian army. Lieber fought in the final great battles of the Napoleonic wars, and was twice wounded. After the war, Lieber resumed his studies in Berlin, but they did not last long. Politically active in the student liberal movement, Lieber was arrested in 1819 by the Prussian authorities and barred from studying at any university in Prussia. As a result, Lieber skipped over the border and enrolled at the University of Jena (in Saxe-Weimar), obtaining his doctoral degree in 1820. He attempted to continue his studies in Halle (Prussia), but tight police surveillance led him to take refuge in Dresden (Saxony) instead. But he did not stay long there.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Greek Revolt in 1821, Lieber set off for Marseilles, to join a company of Philhellenes for Greece. Lieber stayed in Greece for the early months of 1822 (Lieber's recollections of his time in Greece would be published in 1823 Tagebuch). Escaping from the Turkish siege of Missolonghi, Lieber secured passage to Italy, and eventually found his way to Rome. He spent the remainder of 1822-23 in Rome, Italy, employed as tutor to the son of the ancient historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr, then serving as Prussian ambassador to the papal court. After Niebuhr's tenure ended in 1823, Lieber returned to Prussia, under a promise of protection, and enrolled again at the University of Halle. But again that did not last long, and he was soon arrested again in 1824. While imprisoned at Köpenick, Lieber wrote a short book of poems under a pseudonym.
After his release, having had enough of the obnoxious Prussian authorities, Lieber moved to England in 1825. Lieber spent nearly two years in England, subsisting as a tutor and contributing to German-language periodicals. Lieber fell in with the philosophical radicals in London, meeting Jeremy Bentham and befriending the young John Stuart Mill. Nonetheless, Lieber failed to obtain the professorship of German at the newly-created UCL in 1826.
Disappointed, Francis Lieber immigrated to the United States in 1827. Armed with letters of introduction from Niebuhr, Lieber settled in Boston, and spent some time lecturing on history in the public hall circuit. It here that Lieber undertook the monumental job of editing of the Encyclopaedia Americana, a thirteen-volume work put out in 1829-33, modeled after Encyclopaedia Britannica and the German Conversations-Lexicon of Brockhaus. Lieber undertook many of the articles himself (notably on Greece, Grotius, Machiavelli and Montesquieu, political science and prisons). Lieber also undertook translations of several German and French works. The Encyclopaedia made him a minor celebrity in American intellectual circles. In 1833, Lieber moved to Philadelphia, where he was placed in charge of setting out the education plan for Girard College, a philanthropic school founded by Stephen Girard, a wealthy Philadelphia banker.
In 1835, Francis Lieber was hired as professor of history and political economy at South Carolina College (future USC) in Columbia, SC. South Carolina had been in disarray since Thomas Cooper resigned in 1833, .and the trustees were looking to rebuild the academic program. Lieber came in as a compromise candidate. His ardent embrace of free trade was welcome in South Carolina, but there were suspicions about his religious ambiguity and his stance on slavery, and Lieber had to issue a statement assuring them he was not an abolitionist. He finally joined the faculty in October, 1935.
Lieber's economics lectures at South Carolina initially departed little from Cooper's, indeed for several years, he used Cooper's 1826 textbook, with its solid diet of British Ricardian economics. But Lieber himself was not an orthodox Ricardian, deploring the labor theory of value, and preferring the supply-and-demand approach of Jean-Baptiste Say and the French Liberal school. By 1840, Lieber had dropped Cooper's textbook and began using Say's Treatise for his course instead. It was supplemented by Lieber's own Essays (1841).
Nonetheless, Lieber's passion and principal claim to fame was in political science, which he sought to separate from the other social sciences, as a discipline in its own right. He wrote several pioneering works in the field - Manual of Political Ethics (1838-39), Legal and Political Hermeneutics (1839) and Civil Liberty and Self-Government (1853).
Lieber was granted a pardon from Frederick William IV of Prussia in 1842, and undertook a sojourn to Europe in 1844. He revisited Berlin, and met with the king himself. Lieber was offered a position in the Prussian civil service as a prison inspector and university lecturer, but turned it down, finding the political atmosphere in Prussia to be too depressing. Lieber undertook a second trip to Germany in the Summer 1848, unable to resist the Springtime of the Peoples, and sought to make himself useful to the Frankfurt assembly. But sensing civil war, Lieber predicted it would end in disaster, and returned to the United States in September, 1848.
The political atmosphere in the Antebellum South was hardly more inviting, particularly after Lieber published an 1851 address against secession, which scandalized many locals. Lieber repeatedly tried to secure a position in a Northeastern university, but they bore no fruit. In 1855, South Carolina College president James H. Thornwell announced his intention to resign. A majority of trustees, and many alumni, nominated Lieber to replace Thornwell. But being a public position, Lieber's candidacy was mired by strong opposition from the state's Presbyterian faction, and much hay was made in the public press. In the end, Lieber was passed over in favor C.F. McCay. Exhausted and embittered, Lieber resigned from South Carolina College in December 1856, and moved to New York City.
Francis Lieber promptly took up an appointment as professor of history and political science at Columbia College in New York in May 1857. Lieber was an enthusiast for the German-style university curriculum, with its focus on modern sciences. Lieber had been one of the moving figures behind the foundation of NYU in 1831, and had been repeatedly consulted by Columbia in 1853-56 in its own curricular reform efforts. Although the Lieber plan was not adopted in its entirety,. Columbia created the chair especially for him. Lieber taught modern history, political philosophy, political economy, international law, civil and common law for the senior students, and ancient and medieval history for the junior students. Lieber continued to use Say's Treatise for his senior economics section, and greatly expanded the number of course hours dedicated to economics.
The run-up to the Civil War energized Francis Lieber, and he founded the Loyal Publication Society, to put out tracts for the unionist cause (authoring several of them himself). After the war broke out, Lieber was frequently consulted by the War Department in Washington DC on matters of the laws of war. In 1862, Lieber wrote out a brief on guerilla warfare, and in 1863, composed the code of war that would be adopted as General Orders No.100 (Apr 24, 1863) by the United States Army. Nonetheless, the US Civil War was personally tragic - while his two younger sons had fought in the Union army, Lieber's eldest son fought for the Confederacy (and died in battle).
In the meantime, things were not going well at Columbia. Traditionalists found the changes all very dizzying, soon began to roll back the curricular reforms. In 1865, incoming president Barnard finally abolished Lieber's chair, and subsumed history and political economy back with English literature and philosophy. Lieber stayed on, but was moved to the Law School as professor of constitutional history and public law. The strictures of the Law School curriculum gave him some room to insert political science in his course on US government and history, but there was no longer any scope for economics.
The US Secretary of War, in gratitude for his wartime work, had tried to secure a chair in law at West Point academy for Lieber in 1865, but was unable to secure the appropriations. Nonetheless, Lieber served for a while in the War Department, helping organize captured Confederate archives. From July 1869, Lieber served as umpire on the board of commissioners set up by the US and Mexican governments in 1868 to sort through remaining unresolved claims still lingering from the Guadalupe-Hidalgo treaty of 1848. Lieber would remain in this position until his death.
Lieber died in October 1872. At the time of his death, Lieber was planning a monumental work on the US Constitution, but only fragments remain. Lieber's chair at Columbia Law was held by a succession of temporary appointments, until 1876, when John W. Burgess was elected to fill a new chair in history, political science and international law. Burgess would take up and complete the reforms that Lieber had begun, by launching Columbia's School of Political Science (SPS) in 1880, with the blessing of the now-repentant president Barnard.
Major Works of Francis Lieber
Resources on Francis Lieber
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