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Our Pushful Yanks

Q. How many Boalt Hall students or faculty have been Rhodes Scholars? --BC, Oakland

Farnham Griffiths
Farnham Griffiths

A. Berkeley Law’s association with the famed Oxford scholarships goes back to the program’s founding days, when one of California’s earliest Rhodes scholars was Farnham Griffiths, a future Boalt Hall professor (1910-13 and 1915-29). During his long career Griffiths was personal secretary to the legendary Benjamin Ide Wheeler, a lecturer in Roman Law at Boalt Hall, one of California’s foremost admiralty law attorneys, and a member of the UC Board of Regents — all this despite having a name that sounds suspiciously like a forgotten silent film star.

The Rhodes Scholarship program was established in 1902 under the will of Cecil John Rhodes, the controversial diamond magnate and colonial leader. Rhodes envisioned the program as a way to encourage foreign scholars to matriculate at one of the twenty colleges of Oxford University, his alma mater. It was a surprising, powerful and enduring legacy for a figure not known for his intellectual accomplishments, but in many ways it reflected the man and his values. A 1909 report on the progress of the program is redolent with the prejudices of the period: “It may be safely assumed that nowhere else in the world is there collected together, for purposes of common study and with opportunities for intimate personal intercourse, a body of students so typically characteristic of all the material which goes to make up what we call ‘the Anglo-Saxon race.’”

Both the world and the scholarship program would change — radically — but from the outset Rhodes’s dream had its nay-sayers. As one Oxford student put it, “The pushful Yank may be fond of us (if he is, he manages to conceal it fairly well), but we never knew an instance of his visiting our shores without pocketing a good pile of the less nimble Britisher’s money before returning home. In view of this, it seems at first blush a trifle rash to pay others to come and continue the practice.”

Though the scholarship is now considered to be a postgraduate award, that was not Cecil Rhodes’s original intention. In an interview recorded at his San Francisco law office in 1954, the septuagenarian Farnham Griffiths remembered a September day in 1902 when as a callow freshman he and his father paid a visit to the new president of the University of California. “When I walked in with my father, President Wheeler came to the door that led into his inner office [in South Hall] — I can see him standing there now — and informally talked about what the general requirements for the Rhodes scholarships were: sophomore standing, age nineteen to twenty-five, and other details.... The first Rhodes scholarships examinations were given in the spring of 1904 in my sophomore year. In those days we had to take qualifying examinations and the papers were sent back to Oxford. They were like admission examinations or, using the Oxford term, Responsians. The Oxford people read them and then advised the committee in California who had passed the qualifying examinations. Then the committee in California appointed the scholar for the year.”

The California committee decided to alternate between Berkeley and Stanford, sending a Cal man the first year, then a Stanford man the next. (Not until 1977 were women eligible to become Rhodes Scholars.) Under the rules established by the Rhodes Trust, the state would send no one the third year. The next scholar would be chosen from one of California’s “smaller” colleges, and then the rotation would be repeated. Not everyone was enthusiastic. Stanford President David Starr Jordan quipped that “the chief value of a scholarship to Oxford is the opportunity of studying in Germany during the vacation.”

Griffiths was aced out of the honor of being the very first Rhodes Scholar from California. “Billie [William Clark] Crittenden got the appointment that first time. It was several years later when they came back again that I got the appointment. Nineteen-hundred and six, I guess it was.” The young men were expected to submit a list of six Oxford colleges ranked in order of preference, and from these the Rhodes Trust would attempt to place the candidates in whichever college would take them. Griffiths unwittingly made an end run around the process when Berkeley Professor Henry Morse Stephens, himself a Balliol man, contacted his old college directly and pressed for his protege’s acceptance. The gaffe elicited a letter from Rhodes trustee George Parken dripping with peeve, informing Griffiths that he was “lucky” to have been accepted at Balliol when so many other Americans were vying for the few open slots, and trusting that no future Californian would be so vulgar as to jump the queue. Pushful Yanks indeed.

Griffiths became a student at Balliol College for Michaelmas Term 1907, and decided on a whole new academic career. “I only got interested in studying law (I wasn’t much interested in it even then) because I had to decide what to take at Oxford and Professor Stephens said I’d better have two strings to my bow. I had already studied history, and he thought it would be better if I then studied law because then I could always either practice or teach.”

Thus are distinguished legal careers launched.

Griffiths discovered that at Oxford legal education was carried on in a manner very different from what was being practiced in the United States. “They don’t teach by the case system as they do in the law schools here. You didn’t have to attend any classes if you didn’t want to. If your tutor suggested that you take such and such lectures you took them. You were preparing for examinations which had nothing to do with attending classes or anything of that sort. On the advice of your tutor you’d decide what books to read and what classes to attend. There was great emphasis on Roman Law and general jurisprudence and all the theoretical subjects.”

When in 1915 Griffiths finally sat for the California bar exam, he discovered that his years with an Oxford tutor came in rather handy. “I had no trouble at all because in those days for admission to the bar you didn’t have the Committee of Bar Examiners you have today, you know. You went before the District Court of Appeal. And they tended to ask you more questions on the history of English law, Blackstone, and all that sort of thing. The examinations were oral mainly, followed by a very short written examination. They’d bring in four or five at a time before this court, and they’d throw questions at them. And it so happened that for all the questions I got, the work I’d taken at Oxford was excellent preparation.”

Farnham Griffiths was merely the first of a century-long line of faculty and students of Boalt Hall who hold the distinction of having been a Rhodes Scholar. The list includes Dean Rusk, ‘40, Professor William A. Fletcher; Geoffrey T. Gibbs, ‘88; Professor W. David Ball; Professor Goodwin Liu and David K. Ismay, ‘05. This list is no doubt woefully incomplete; we would be very much like to hear from readers with additions.

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