Alexander Buchanan (1798-1852) and His Books: Part 2: Early Canadian Legal Education

In my previous post, I talked about Alexander Buchanan, his place in Canadian history, and his library. In this post, I’d like to talk about one specific book from Buchanan’s collection, it’s special place in Osgoode’s Balfour Halévy Special Collections library. Also, I’d like to discuss a singular and exceptional document from Buchanan’s hand and its significance as a relic of early Canadian legal education.

The very first book on the shelf in our in our rare book room – with the appropriate call number A-0001 – is Buchanan’s personal copy of the 1809 edition of the Orders and Rules of Practice in the Court of King’s Bench, for the District of Quebec, Lower Canada (Quebec City, 1809). We know this was his personal copy not because the title-page is signed bears Buchanan’s signature, but also because of an inscription that perfectly traces the book’s provenance through four generations of Buchanan barristers:

“This book was given to me by my father Alexander Brock Buchanan. It belonged to his father Alexander Buchanan Q.C. when a student at law in Quebec. And I now give it to my son Erskine Buchanan Advocate. Oct. 28, 1933”.

The author of the inscription never names himself, but we can tell from his father and from his son that he must be Arthur William Patrick Buchanan, KC. It’s satisfying to me to know that he’s the one who wrote this little note because we can clearly perceive his interest in his ancestry, further evidenced by the two family histories he wrote and published for private circulation, The Buchanan Book (1911; available here online) and Later Leaves of the Buchanan Book (1929), both of which are also in our collection. The family tree included in the first volume allowed me to identify him as the author of the inscription, so I thank him for his aid in solving his own mystery.

Being the first book on the shelf in our collection is certainly a distinction; but another Buchanan book occupies an even more prestigious place in our rare book room. For some time now, Alexander Buchanan’s own personal manuscipt Common Place Book (1816) has been a feature in our window display.

commonplace book is a sort of notebook cum diary, a collection of significant or well-known passages that have been copied and organized in some way, often under topical or thematic headings, in order to serve as a memory aid or reference for the compiler. In the days before newspapers, public libraries and large personal libraries, commonplace books served as a means of collecting, organizing and storing information, so that it may be retrieved and used by the compiler, often in his or her own work.

It’s not certain when Buchanan began this commonplace book, but the title page is signed “May 1816”, when he was an 18-year-old student-at-law. In 1814, a year before his death, John Buchanan, Alexander’s father, had apprenticed Alexander to his friend Andrew Stuart, a Quebec City lawyer, who made a contractual agreement to see to the boy’s education for five years and to facilitate his call to the bar. After his father died, Alexander remained with his mentor, who now became his guardian. Having reached his majority in April 1819 and after being called to the bar in May, Buchanan without more ado (and not unlike many recent graduates today) used his inheritance to embark on a long trip that took him to England, Ireland, Scotland, and France. He returned to Lower Canada in the autumn of 1820, and from then on could concentrate on his career.

The Common Place Book includes Buchanan’s own notes and observations on the law, as well as extracts copied directly from the sources, made while he was studying. This latter practice was not uncommon when students could not necessarily afford their own books and if they did not have access to a library; there would in any case have been few printed law books to consult at this time in Canada. Consequently, Buchanan’s manuscript is a singular and valuable document of legal education in Canada 200 years ago.

This astounding document is in excellent condition. The neatness and regularity of Buchanan’s hand mean that it’s easy to read, even for me, who suffers from a severe palaeographic dyslexia. Buchanan numbered all the pages by hand, giving each page a an exact topical header:

 He constructed a detailed index at the rear of the book:

He even planned ahead and left blank spaces and pages in case he needed to add more notes later (a common practice):

When he ran out of room (a common problem), he improvised, using “overwriting”, also a common practice when paper was scarce and expensive, especially in the colonies:

This book’s best feature, in my opinion, is the handwritten Greek epigraph on the title-page:

The commonplace book itself seems slightly alien in today’s digital culture; and for me, these three lines emphasize the absolute disparity between today’s world and the world two hundred years ago, and especially between today’s students and students of Buchanan’s era. It’s a tired theme, but in the age of the microchip, this sort of practice shows exactly how people functioned without personal computers or the Internet. There was no HeinOnline, no Lexis or Westlaw, there was no law library, and there were Google hyperlinks to carry you to a specific document or immediately relevant site in the blink of an eye. One had to work, and work hard, to collect, organize and save for retrieval the information that was necessary for learning and examination.

Still, we shouldn’t presume we’re so very sophisticated with our iPhones and our smartwatches and our Tamagotchis. We think we live in an era of information overabundance, but this problem has always existed; and as Ann M. Blair explains in her excellent Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, our predecessors simply employed different strategies, like the commonplace book, to meet it.

As I noted at the end of my last post, we so often find a bookplate or an inscription with a name that, if followed, will lead to naught. Thankfully, here with Buchanan’s books, the clues lead not to empty ghosts but to a fully fleshed character, a student-at-law and an advocate, progenitor of generations of lawyers, and a part of Canadian history. While these several books may not tell a story in themselves, the web of connections between them assuredly offers an impression of a life lived in the service of his country.