Interview by Mary Warnement
Dan Breen was born in Framingham, Massachusetts but grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. He went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for his undergraduate studies, and he holds a law degree from the University of Georgia and a doctorate in American history from Boston College. He has taught law at Brandeis University since 1998 and became a full time instructor in the Legal Studies program in 2015. We talked about his lifelong passion for history, his love of Boston, legal definitions for the word “chicken,” the fun of coining new words, and unguilty pleasures. Dan will speak in November about the Athenæum’s first librarian William Smith Shaw and his connection to an important legal case. Read more to hear how Dan found his way to the Boston Athenæum.
Q: How did you choose Wisconsin-Madison?
DAN BREEN: I first went to Wake Forest but decided I wanted to go somewhere completely different, somewhere I had no experience with and that was UW Madison. I knew I wanted to major in history and I knew they had a good program. My first day up there was right before my first day of class, I’d never been up to Wisconsin. But I never regretted it, I just loved it there.
Q: There’s a lot more snow in Wisconsin than Georgia.
DB: And I was not used to it, of course. So, I would be on campus, and I would duck into buildings whenever I could. It took me forever to get to class because I was going building to building to building on the way, just to warm up.
Q: You didn’t even have a winter coat when you got there?
DB: Yes, well, my mother made sure not only that I had a winter coat but also long johns. I think I was the only one in Wisconsin wearing long johns. Everyone was like, what the hell are you doing? Like, this isn’t Minnesota!
Q: And you chose to study history.
DB: I knew at an early age. Even when I was in elementary school, I would always try to check out the kids’ books on history. My family had a subscription to the Literary Guild, which may still be around, I don’t really know, but they would always get books every month, and there would be history books, and I would sneak a read while they were looking at their own books.
Q: What did your parents do?
DB: My father was a lawyer. My mother had a few odd jobs here and there, but she mainly stayed at home.
Q: Were you one of her odd jobs?
DB: Hah! That’s right. She was always reading something, they both were readers; and I always wondered what they were doing.
Q: You were an only child?
DB: No, my sister and my brother were more or less the same way. My brother got a doctorate in mathematics. He works at the American Mathematical Society in Providence, which luckily is not that far away. My sister ended up working in a library down in Georgia.
Q: And did your parents stay in Georgia?
DB: They did, and eventually they went to Florida.
Q: Georgia wasn’t hot enough?
DB: No! They went to Florida and to me it’s unbearable. Right outside of Tampa, where it’s in the 90s all the time. Strangely enough, it’s never been 100 degrees in Tampa which my father never ceases telling me. Still, I was especially happy that they didn’t need me to mow the lawn. They have a service to do it. If I had to mow the lawn I don’t think I’d be looking forward to those visits.
Q: After getting your BA in history from Wisconsin, you returned to Georgia for the JD.
DB: Then I practiced law in Atlanta, and I decided to get a doctorate to become a full time academic because much like Shaw, the founding librarian of the Athenæum, I didn’t take much to the practice of law. I really didn’t like it very much.
Q: But isn’t there a bit of history in practicing law? Discovering precedents?
DB: There’s a lot of history involved in it. And that really is what I took to a great deal because behind every case there’s a story. Usually somebody who’s in trouble for some reason, and there’s nothing uninteresting about that. I would spend a lot of time reading the case I was supposed to, but then I’d spend time browsing these other case reports that I found more interesting. Clients probably liked that I couldn’t bill those hours, but of course the firm didn’t. I loved the academic aspects of the law, and when I went to Boston College, I wrote my dissertation on a judge I came to admire.
Q: I saw his name in your dissertation subject, the pragmatic jurisprudence of Henry J. Friendly. What a name for a judge.
DB: Yes, his family name in German was Freundlich, but that became Friendly.
Q: What made you write about him?
DB: In law school, a lot of the cases I really liked were written by him. He had a real flair and a very keen intelligence. Looking for a dissertation topic, I needed something that no one had ever written on, with a lot of sources, and I found that he had plumped all of his boxes of stuff at Harvard Law School. Nobody had really gone through it; it was all there waiting for me. Day after day after day, I went to the law library and the very helpful staff there in special collections would bring out these boxes of very badly organized material that I went through. The case that I especially liked, that I’d first read in law school, was a famous contracts case when Friendly had to decide whether a chicken was really a chicken.
Q: So, what’s the German word for chicken?
Q: Isn’t that the word for dog?
DB: Huhn, not Hund.
Q: I was thinking hähnchen meant chicken. Let’s look it up….there are several different words. Maybe one’s a young chicken.
DB: There, it says cockerel, a male chicken.
Q: You never know where conversations in the Athenæum will take you.
DB: We’re taking the proper spirit for approaching legal cases. Friendly really should have been named to the Supreme Court, but unfortunately the only window he could have been appointed was during Nixon’s presidency, when he needed to recommend a southerner. Friendly was from New York.
Q: Friendly must have attended Harvard Law because he gave his papers to them?
DB: Yes, he never talked about it, but he had the highest GPA in Harvard Law School’s history. He surpassed Louis Brandeis, whose law clerk he was. The two of them enormously respected each other.
Q: Brandeis University must love you knowing so much about their namesake.
DB: Well, I don’t know how much they know about my knowledge of him, but I do teach a class at Brandeis on Louis Brandeis, and as far as I know, it’s the only class anywhere just on him.
Q: Did Brandeis write much other than legal briefs?
DB: Louis Brandeis did not; he had it in him to write a book but he never quite did. He wrote essays on all sorts of topics. Henry Friendly also wrote many articles and many of them are in a Brandeisian vein, but many of them are not. It’s good to sort of tease out the influence.
Q: Brandeisian, that’s a good word, too.
DB: I think I’m the only one who pronounces it that way. If you go to campus they’ll say Brandeizian.
Q: Brandeizian. I think your way sounds better.
DB: Yeah, I think my way’s better, too.
Q: I’ll try to coin that. Of course I’ll include it in this interview and post it online…
DB: Find a way every single day to use that word at the library…It will spread. For example, this is a very Brandeisian cup of tea.
Q: Yes! Done. I’m assuming Brandeis went to Harvard Law as well.
DB: Yeah, Brandeis is interesting. He did go to Harvard Law School but he had never gotten an undergraduate degree because his high school education in Germany was so great he didn’t really need one. My own father attended Suffolk. Like me, he was a transfer student but he transferred from the University of Maine. He was a city kid who grew up in Lynn. He had gotten accepted to the University of Miami down in Coral Gables but at the last minute he decided he would go to Maine.
Q: Which is quite different, as different as Wisconsin from Georgia.
DB: Yes. He met my mother who grew up in Maine.
Q: Even after he left for Suffolk he stayed in touch with her?
DB: They were married when he was a junior but she had graduated so he went to Suffolk to finish his degree. Much to my grandfather’s unhappiness. He didn’t think it was a good idea to get married so young to somebody without a degree. They lived in the West End in a place that was pretty dilapidated and depended upon my great aunt and uncle to bring them food from time to time.
Q: So, your father got a law degree, then moved to Georgia. You got a law degree, and found your way back to the cold weather.
DB: There’s just something about Boston, and now my wife and I could never leave.
Q: Did you meet her in Boston?
DB: I met her in Atlanta. She was going to university and I was out, practicing law. We had met down there, but then we didn’t see each other again, until she moved up here and went to BU as a graduate student. We met again up here by happenstance and that’s when we began dating. She’s a fellow mostly-southerner, from South Carolina, and she also loves Boston. We like the cultural and historical attractions here. It’s an old city with a federal tradition; it’s cutting edge as far as technology and young people go.
Q: How did you find the Athenæum?
DB: For some reason, I had never come in here when I was studying at BC in the late nineties and early aughts. But it turned out that my brother’s friend from college had a father who was an artist and he had an exhibition here in 2005. The name of the artist is Dee. We’d just come to see the exhibition, and, like everybody, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of it. I couldn’t believe that I had never been in. I spent two years thinking I should join, I should join, and kept talking about it, never thinking it was the right time to join, and by 2007 when I was researching my current interest, I decided I had another reason to join which was to access the special collections. That’s when we joined. I think it was 2007.
Q: I can remember you coming into the special collections room day after day.
DB: I was researching this famous murder case. The case of Thomas Oliver Selfridge who was charged with manslaughter for cutting down the son of a political opponent on State Street. There’s my interest in law as well as Boston history.
Q: Sounds like quite a salacious kind of story.
DB: It is a salacious kind of story! And that eventually produced the article that’s coming out in the North End Historical Association Review in November.
Q: And is that what you’re going to be speaking about here at the Athenæum?
DB: I’m going to be speaking about William Shaw, who was involved in another way to all of these events. He was a Federalist, a friend of Thomas Oliver Selfridge, who was charged with manslaughter. One of his great enemies, who was an enemy to all Federalists in Boston, was this newspaper editor named Benjamin Austin. It was Benjamin Austin’s son who was killed by Selfridge.
Q: Oh wow. Was Shaw involved in the murder trial at all?
DB: No, in effect, by then he had abandoned the practice of law. I’ll talk about why I don’t think he would’ve been a terribly good lawyer. He had studied law, eventually got a wonderfully plush job as a clerk for the district court, where he didn’t really have to do anything, and he devoted his time to building up the Athenæum. He was at the beginning of his work as a clerk when the murder trial began. The lawyers Selfridge hired to represent him were paragons of the Boston Bar, like the great Christopher Gore, who would eventually become governor.
Q: So he had connections. Did they secure his acquittal?
DB: They prevailed, yes. It was not a very close vote, although it was a sensational and very interesting trial. The defense was that Selfridge could reasonably feel that his life was in danger. The man approached, threatening him with a cane and under the reasonable assumption that he was in fear of his life, he opened fire which became the “stand your ground” defense, which is very controversial, especially in Florida. That’s why that case is really important these days.
Q: Absolutely. The chicken one is probably more intriguing, but this one carries a little more weight.
DB: One of the great things about the Athenæum is that you preserve the newspapers from the early nineteenth century where all the commentary was about this case.
Q: I imagine it was depicted very different in Austin’s own newspaper.
DB: Very different! There were seven newspapers at that time, five were Federalist, two were Republican. In the Republican papers Selfridge is depicted as a monster who was out for blood the moment he stepped out into the street, even before Austin attacked him with a cane. They talk about this recent graduate from Harvard with so much potential. The Federalist papers said he was defending himself when some guy with a cane came after him. If I were just looking at these articles online I would miss a lot. There’s just something about browsing here that is a treasure, a wonderful, wonderful resource.
Q: Seeing the context of where it is on the page also matters because you get the experience of what the original reader would have had instead of just the article pulled out of context. And it’s great that you can see it here without just seeing it on microfilm which allows you to experience it as it was originally.
DB: Yes, and there’s real flavor because your eyes stray off to see things that you otherwise wouldn’t if you were just looking at it online.
Q: The murder was in…
DB: 1806. The day was often referred to as Black Monday. August 4. I mean, it happened in broad daylight right on State Street and it entered Boston lore. It’s not much talked about today, but it should be.
Q: Speaking of what should be, do you enounter frustrations while researching?
DB: One of the frustrating things is, Selfridge left hardly any letters behind. Probably he instructed his wife to burn them, he died young. He stayed in Boston but wasn’t really quite the same again after all this. He never prospered.
Q: Have you read the Shaw papers here in our collection?
DB: I have. I’ve actually gone through them pretty thoroughly. There are some really funny things in there that I’ll be talking about in November. He was quite a character. A bit cantankerous and forgetful at times.
Q: I look at the Gilbert Stuart portrait of him and think, “was he having a bad day?”
DB: My understanding is that he really didn’t want a portrait of himself. His friends more or less insisted they raise the money for Stuart to do it, and I think he’s looking as though he didn’t want to be sitting for a portrait.
Q: It’s nice to bring these people to life because you walk by that portrait every day and may pay no attention to it whatsoever.
DB: I’ve got some ideas about Shaw that I think make him especially relevant today. I think the thing that Shaw liked about the idea of the reading room that became the Athenæum is what I like about the Athenæum, and that’s the experience coming across those newspapers and things unexpected that you never expected to see—the sheer beauty of this space makes you want to come here and spend time here and that makes you come across things you never otherwise would if you were in a big academic library. It’s very complete but there’s not anything especially lovely about it. You go get what you need and then you go. But here, you browse and you find things purely by luck, like John Norwich’s history of the Byzantine Empire. I looked through it just browsing and checked it out and I’ve been devouring it all summer. I just love it. And if I hadn’t done that, if I hadn’t just been browsing that day, I never would have known there was an emperor Michael the Drunkard, so I’ve been reading about Michael the Drunkard, and I never would have known there was a Theophylact the Unbearable if I hadn’t been here in this beautiful place.
Q: One of the joys of working here is helping people find things they aren’t necessarily looking for. It’s one of the great pleasures.
DB: Yeah, and that’s the thing that’s always appealed to me. That’s why I would waste so much time at my law firm reading all of these cases that I shouldn’t read. All I could think was: they’re not going to like this. But here, it’s just an unguilty pleasure.