The Origins of Western Law from Athens to the Code Napoleon: An Interview with Constance C. Ecklund

By Iris Doubleday

In 1974 John Ecklund, a graduate of Yale Law School and treasurer of Yale University, met the woman he would marry at the annual Phi Beta Kappa induction dinner held at Yale. Constance Cryer Ecklund, a graduate of Northwestern University, married John Ecklund  the following year, in 1975. After attending Yale Graduate School, she went on to begin a career as a scholar and professor of French. The two Phi Beta Kappa members were married for twenty-five years until Ecklund’s passing in 2000, after which his wife took on the task of editing his two-volume book on legal history. Fourteen years later, the finished product of their labor was finally published in the form of this ambitious, comprehensive history, The Origins of Western Law from Athens to the Code Napoleon (The Lawbook Exchange, 2014). 

Senator Joseph Lieberman and Dean Post, themselves Phi Beta Kappa members, praise the book for its scope and depth. According to Senator Lieberman “this excellent book is a living legacy that, I hope, will educate generations to come about the philosophical and historical antecedents of our system of law which remains one of America’s greatest assets.” Dean Post has called it “the crowning achievement of a remarkable career,” recognizing the dedication and originality that John Ecklund brought to his research and work throughout his life. It is only fitting that this impressive book, the devoted work of two Phi Beta Kappas who were brought together by their mutual membership, should now receive praise from notable members of the same society. 

The Origins of Western Law represents decades of work and commitment, which has finally moved beyond the privacy of writing and editing and into the public sphere as a monumental work on the history of law.


I understand that you are a member of Phi Beta Kappa, as was your husband John Ecklund, whom you met through your connection to the Society and to Yale University.  Can you tell us a little about the influence of your mutual membership, and how it contributed to the creation of this book?

ECKLUND: I smile at the question, because at the defining professional and emotional turns in our lives Phi Beta Kappa was to play a major part for both of us. You might call this interview “A Key Role.” In college we were very grade conscious. Each of us came from families for whom scholarships were the only way to send us to university at all. We knew that a Phi Beta Kappa membership could help open the way to prestigious grants and graduate schools. In my case, at the very ceremony of induction, the speaker was the rather redoubtable Henri Peyre of Yale who told me, “Mademoiselle, do not apply anywhere but to my institution.” It now seems naïve, but I obeyed and that, plus two Woodrow Wilson fellowships, was what brought me from Northwestern to New Haven. John’s Phi Beta Kappa, he felt, had certainly helped him as he moved from Yale undergraduate to Yale Law. As for our meeting for the first time, it was during Phi Beta Kappa’s l974 dinner induction at Yale. I had never attended a meeting before. Here Phi Beta Kappa had actually made an error and not given me a table; I was ready to go home, but it was John who gallantly found me a place.  We often attended this dinner once married. I know that in those earlier days of grinding out the grades we neither of us thought of Phi Beta Kappa as “Some Enchanted Evening.” 

The Origins of Western Law from Athens to the Code Napoleon, as the title suggests, is a massive undertaking:  two volumes, 1035 pages, and 118 illustrations. How did you deal with the scope of this project? Were any challenges raised by covering such a large amount of material?  

ECKLUND: Both manuscript and notes were written in black ink—over thirty large loose-leaf notebooks with additions which often went onto several pages with an alphabet soup of indicators. There was no bibliography, no image bank, no notes. John wrote the last lines in the hospital two hours before he died but never asked me to make certain the book he was leaving be published. He had never had a chance to read his completed manuscript, and no one but he had ever seen that manuscript. I decided to take on the unfinished task when I saw my name on the page of dedication, but I also decided that, realistically, if I didn’t read at least something from the book each night I would lose track of the ideas. So, for about ten years I took it everywhere I went, even on trips as far away as Trafalgar.  Like him, I worked alone, submitting the book for publication with no one else having read it.  I had to re-read it five times to be sure there wasn’t repetition; and when the time came to rearrange sections within a chapter or from chapter to chapter–well, those were the times I wouldn’t answer the phone all day. I made duplicates of the over 30 volumes of notes just in case there were a fire in John’s writing studio and I would then have to abandon the whole thing. Oh, yes, and the house became a total mess. I guess the basic drive forward was that this was a labor of love. My eyesight suffered, but taking early retirement allowed part time teaching, and I was able to continue.  Fortunately, I had almost from the beginning a marvelous, caring assistant for the word processing and discussion of style; and this last year my nephew was at my side for the enormous technical part, images, proofreading, and moral support.   

John Ecklund, a graduate of Yale Law School and partner in the law firm of Wiggin & Dana, was obviously an expert in the subject of legal history. In his preface to the book, he describes The Origins of Western Law as a “non-technical history of legal science.” As an editor, was it difficult to make this book accessible to those with little knowledge about law? Do you see this book as having a niche target audience, or can anyone appreciate its subject regardless of background?  

ECKLUND: John specifically wished there be no problem in making the book accessible: his goal had always been to write a book for anyone interested in the why and how of law’s evolution. It was a dream from his Navy days in WWII through his years as Yale’s Legal Counsel and Treasurer. I call this approach “accessible erudition,” which basically means, the book is a good read, with each chapter a set of new adventures in the story of the law. This makes each chapter structured around both ideas and anecdotes, with fascinating personal biographies of those whose philosophies went into making law both the bête noire and the indispensable cornerstone of our social fabric. John was a popular after-dinner speaker, had a wonderful sense of humor and loved the human side; he specifically states this is not a “niche” book, as you put it, but rather one with many dramas for everyone. I think that the reader will be, as I was, amazed that so many of history’s famous names were lawyers. 

The Origins of Western Law focuses on history, but in doing so creates a stronger understanding of modern law as the past inevitably influences the present.  In the process of constructing this work, was there a focus on inspiring readers to reflect on the workings of law in contemporary society?   

ECKLUND: Oh, absolutely. As I read, I realized that John had written a book that completes all of our identities. It is not just about where law comes from, but rather a kind of DNA explanation behind the constant search for structures which might beneficially channel the restive human spirit while trying to deal with aspirations for freedom. The precedents for our lives today—be it space travel, nano-technology, rights for minorities, or piracy at sea—all are strewn across the ages under what I like to call a sky of “starry” decisis, from a dusty Acropolis to Viking raids, from surges of conflicting religious beliefs to extraordinary ideas presented by quirky professors of law sitting in freezing classrooms with one student, or none. One thing I especially liked in John’s approach was his frequent bringing in the lives of important women onto the stage of legal innovation. I hope there will be women readers who now will pick up on these figures and write a book about them.   

In the Preface, John Ecklund claims that his book focuses more on the philosophical aspects of law than its technical workings, explaining that it is tied together by an overarching theme: “the great conflict between people who see law as tending to come from abstract principles that are necessarily right and people who see it as tending to come merely from the changing preferences of those in position to impose their will.” Could you tell us a little more about this overarching theme and the role it plays throughout the book? 

ECKLUND: It’s interesting you ask that question, because John uses the word “key” to explain the ages-old, profound division in how society thinks and law is made. The early Greeks had their Plato of immutable principles vs. sophisticated skeptics pushing for law relative to the preferences of the time; there were medieval Realists on the side of the eternal, universal needs of the day while thinkers called Nominalists opted for the individual and opened the door for Montaigne’s ‘what do I know?’ Obviously, today’s constitutions built on principles strain in daily friction against the valid urge for amendment corresponding to topical, preferential needs for change. You can see this conflict overflowing in the l960s as arguments led to the relativism in morality which has become so much a part of a world where there will always be those who, contrarily, feel there is a principled, “right” way. John actually mentions a Phi Beta Kappa dinner speaker postulating that “There are no principles.” As we struggle along with Einstein and relativity into string theory and parallel universes, and with the world’s rapid globalization overflowing into deep space, such legal division is ever more in the forefront of discussion. Can there be a universal principle approach to the pressing, preferential need to handle global warming? We may not think about it much, but the tension between absolutes and specificity, between natural law and positive law, is actually part of everyone’s daily routine and daily stress with anarchy and revolution so often chosen as the way out. It’s eye-opening to read the book and find out so many had our same problem! 

Iris Doubleday is a senior at Wheaton College majoring in English. Wheaton College is home to the Kappa of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.