The Penn event that brought together a Supreme Court justice, a future President, and dozens of legal scholars in 1900

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Portrait of John G. Johnson, 1917. by Conrad F. Haeseler.

On Feb. 22, 1900, 611 dignitaries assembled at Philadelphia’s Horticultural Hall for a remarkable turn-of-the-century dinner. The event — scheduled to coincide with Washington’s birthday — was the Bar Dinner celebrating the opening of the new quarters of the University of Pennsylvania’s law school at 34th and Chestnut Streets.

On hand for the gala — sponsored by the Law Association of Philadelphia (the predecessor to the Philadelphia Bar Association), the Lawyers’ Club of Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Bar Association — were hundreds of the nation’s most prominent lawyers, jurists, and law professors. The host was university provost Charles Harrison, who gathered no fewer than 29 college presidents and chancellors, and the deans of 16 law faculties, including Harvard’s James Barr Ames, perhaps the most accomplished legal scholar of the day.

The guest of honor was U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, who was joined by seven justices of state supreme courts and president judges from 34 of Pennsylvania’s county Courts of Common Pleas. Also attending were the attorney general and the solicitor general of the United States and the president of the American Bar Association. Some of the guests, already well-known, would rise to greater heights: George Wharton Pepper of Philadelphia, for example, would become the senator from Pennsylvania 22 years later. As they feasted on blue point oysters and roast loin of mutton, washed down with copious amounts of Chateau Lucerne and champagne, few could have imagined  that the lawyer representing Ohio, former state Circuit Justice William Howard Taft, would in eight years be elected president of the United States, and later become the chief justice of the United States.

Most of the seating in the massive hall was at seven long tables accommodating 77 diners each, with only 32 guests — clearly the most prominent — sitting at the head table, allowing them to view all the attendees. Ambassador Wu Ting Fang of China, who gave the keynote address at the law school’s dedication ceremony earlier that day, sat next to Harrison and Harlan.

Two men, each 58 years old, sat nine places from each other at the head table, and one wonders if they knew each other or otherwise got the chance to meet. One was Oliver Wendell Holmes, representing Massachusetts as a justice of that state’s Supreme Court. The other was John G. Johnson, the prodigious Philadelphia lawyer who represented the city’s great companies of the time, including John Wanamaker and the Stetson Hat Co. Just as one could not have predicted what lay ahead for Taft, little could anyone know that, in four years, Holmes and Johnson would be in a courtroom together for one of the most famous cases in American history — the Northern Securities case, with Holmes sitting as a newly appointed associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and, representing the trusts, Johnson, who, remarkably, argued 168 Supreme Court cases. President Theodore Roosevelt was determined to break the trusts, and he appointed Holmes to the court under the impression that he would cast a sympathetic vote.

Although the case went as Roosevelt wanted, with Johnson on the losing side, the president was dismayed to find Holmes a dissenting voice. In his dissent, Holmes wrote, “Great cases, like hard cases, make bad law,” one of the most famous lines in American jurisprudence. Though we don’t know if Holmes and Johnson met at the Bar Dinner, we do have a pictorial record of their meeting during the Northern Securities case: a lithograph of Johnson’s argument hangs in the law offices of Saul Ewing in Philadelphia.

Holmes would serve on the Supreme Court for 30 years, nine of them with Chief Justice Taft. Johnson, who had already started to amass the great collection of European art now housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, continued to practice law at the highest levels for the next 17 years. When he died in 1917, the New York Times wrote that Johnson “was the greatest lawyer in the English-speaking world.”

It’s not surprising that in Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, E. Digby Baltzell, the great Penn sociologist, characterized the intellectual Holmes, the brahmin son of a scholar, and the industrious, practical Johnson, whose father was a blacksmith, as the very men who best personified 19th-century Boston and Philadelphia, respectively. Both, of course, knew that they were in great company that night in Horticultural  Hall, but it’s doubtful that either could imagine he and his dinner companion would meet again, so very soon, in much different and historic circumstances.

Frederick Strober is a partner at Saul Ewing in Philadelphia, which traces its roots to John G. Johnson. FStrober@saul.com.