Who Was Henry Campbell Black?

Written by James Hirby and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

This dictionary's namesake was a consummate turn-of-the-20th-century professional who left a permanent mark on the American legal landscape. Born in 1860, Henry Campbell Black grew up in New York State's Hudson Valley region and developed an interest in the law at a young age. In fact, he was something of a prodigy: He published the first edition of Black's Law Dictionary before his 31st birthday. Today, this book is recognized as a top legal resource and serves as a basis of study for many thousands of aspiring legal professionals.

Ironically, Henry Campbell Black wasn't a particularly noteworthy lawyer. Although he received formal legal training and began to practice law after graduating from a now-defunct law school in Pennsylvania, he grew frustrated with the demands of the profession and left his post after just five years. After leaving his unsatisfying job as a lawyer, Black quickly holed up in his parents' house and began compiling a comprehensive list of legal terms. Although it's unclear whether he intended this compilation to become an iconic tome, the scope of his ambition was clear from the start.

Known as "Campbell" to his friends and relatives, Black was a confirmed homebody. Unlike most of his legally-inclined peers, he chose to live in his family home for the majority of his adult life. In fact, he lived with his mother until she passed away in 1911. It seems likely that his strict Presbyterian upbringing imbued Black with a strong sense of discipline and familial obligation. This might also explain his decision to remain single until after his 50th birthday.

Black did eventually marry a much-younger single woman who had boarded with his mother for some years. By this time, he was living in Washington, D.C. and had become immersed in his work as a legal scholar. In addition to his work as the editor of Black's Law Dictionary, he published over 1,000 scholarly articles that touched upon arcane legal matters as well as timely political issues. In recognition of his achievements, he received an honorary law degree from his undergraduate alma mater in 1917.

Of course, Black kept returning to the legal dictionary that he had created. During his lifetime, he issued several revised editions of the tome. With each successive publication, he personally oversaw the addition of thousands of new definitions and concepts. By the time he passed on in 1927, he had earned recognition as one of the most powerful legal thinkers of his generation.

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