The Faculty History Project documents faculty members who have been associated with the University of Michigan since 1837. Key in this effort is to celebrate the intellectual life of the University. This Faculty History Website is intended as a component of the effort to document the extraordinary academic achievements of Michigan’s faculty in building and sustaining one of the world’s great universities. It provides access to a comprehensive database of information concerning the thousands of faculty members who have served the University of Michigan.
Find out more.

The Bentley Historical Library serves as the official archives for the University.


Horace Lafayette Wilgus
Faculty Senate

Horace La Fayette Wilgus was born April 2, 1859, near Conover, in Miami County, Ohio. He was the son of James Wilgus, M. D., and Susannah Throckmorton (La Fetra) Wilgus. His grandfather, William Wilgus, had come out over the mountains from New Jersey in 1815, and most of his ancestry was of English Colonial stock. However, there was a line of French Huguenot and further back one of the Dutch of New York; while a Quaker branch of the family may have accounted in some measure for his quiet serenity of spirit. He received his early education in the public schools in and near Conover, and became deputy county surveyor of Miami County in 1875. Later he studied civil engineering in the National Normal University at Lebanon, Ohio. He afterwards entered Ohio state University from which he was graduated in 1882 with the degree of B. S. In 1889 he received the degree of M. S. in Political Science from the same institution. During this period he also read law and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1884. He opened a law office at Troy, Ohio, in 1886. One year later he moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he continued the practice of law till 1895.

His career as a teacher began in 1878 when he became an instructor in mathematics and later in physiology, while still a student at Ohio state University. In the years 1881-1885 he was chief clerk in the office of the Commissioner of Railroads and Telegraphs for the State of Ohio. In 1885 and 1886 the Receiver and General Manager of the. Cleveland and Marietta Railroad. It was in these positions that he laid the practical foundation for his later brilliant success as a professor and writer on the law of corporations.

In 1891 he took an important part in the organization of the Law Department of the Ohio state University and acted as secretary of the faculty and professor of elementary law until 1895. In this year he accepted a call to the Law School of the University of Michigan. In 1897 he was made professor, and continued to teach and write on the subjects of Torts and corporations until his retirement in 1929. As Professor Emeritus he continued his writing on corporation law until his sudden but peaceful death, on October 8, 1935, at the age of seventy-six years. He achieved an outstanding position as a legal scholar and teacher of law. In the field of corporation law he had a national reputationt both with legal scholars and with corporation lawyers. His books and numerous articles in legal reviews upon many aspects of corporation law have attracted wide attention. He taught Evidence in his earlier years at the University of Michigan and published a book of Cases On the Law of Evidence, in 1896. But his chief interest was in the subject of corporations He published, in 1892, two volumes of Annotated Cases - Lew of Corporations, which became a standard work on this subject. In 1901 he published A Study of the United States Steel Corporation in its Industrial and Legal Aspects. This embodied much of the practical knowledge of corporate organization which he had acquired during his connection with the office of the Commissioner of Railroads and Telegraphs and in the office of the Cleveland and Marietta Railroad. He gives here also an interesting story of the work of Andrew Carnegie in the formation of the great corporation which was the source of Carnegie's enormous fortune. We find here, too, an exhaustive treatment of the formation of the great corporation, its industrial position, its management, and its legality.

Besides his major works above discussed, he wrote many articles for the Michigan Law Review and other periodicals. His The Tragedy of the Thirteen Days in ill.! is a masterpiece of exposition of the troublous times that are discussed in the Diplomatic Correspondence of Europe from July 23 to August 4, immediately preceding and ending in the commencement of the World. War. This article contains, too, an elaborate bibliography of the documents that treat of the beginning of the great world tragedy,that will be useful to subsequent historians. His achievements as a scholar were recognized by his election as President of the Research Club of the University of Michigan for the year 1927-1928.

The many letters received since his death testify to the respect and affection felt for him by his students. One of his old pupils writes: "He was admired and loved by all of our class and it is with the deepest regretting a man it is difficult for me to express my true feeling toward the man we so loved." These and many others of like tenor show how he appealed not only to the heads but likewise to the hearts of his students.

Professor Wilgus intellectual activities did not cease with his retirement from his professorship. The Michigan State Bar Association had appointed a committee in 1930 to study the General Corporation Act and to draft a new one. Professor Wilgus was a member of this com¬mittee in its origin and continued in that capacity until his death. He took no part in the direct drafting of the act, hut he and the other members of the committee, except the draftsmen, criticized the initial and subsequent drafts. His interest was constantly in favor of the minority shareholders and of avoiding the possibility of the majority shareholders using provisions of the act to abuse minority shareholders' rights. Every member of the committee felt that his judgment was sound, and that not only was the draft improved, but that each individual member gained from the association with him and from his extensive knowledge of the law. After the act drafted by this committee became a law in 1931, Mr. Burritt Hamilton who had put out an annotated edition of the old General Corporation Act in Michigan, asked Professor Wilgus to collaborate with him in annotating the new act. These annotations are almost unique, in their thoroughness and their scholarly comprehensiveness and acumen. They were published in 1932 under the title Michigan General Corporation with Comments, Annotations and Forms, by Horace L. Wilgus and Burritt Hamilton. Professor Wilgus was not satisfied to merely incorporate by citation Michigan cases. Under some of the more impor¬tant sections his notes furnish an exhaustive discussion of the case-law, development of the problem involved. A lawyer would get from these notes citations to all the important authorities necessary to write a brief should he have a case· involving the section.

In 1935 there were a number of amendments to the Act of 1931. Just before his death Professor Wilgus had completed annotating these new sections, and these annotations were as completely and carefully done as those to the original act itself. But Professor Wilgus' interests and helpfulness were by no means confined to his work in the Law School and to his legal research and publications. For many years he was an active church worker and gave generously of his time to all sound charitable undertakings in the community. To the city of Ann Arbor and the state of Michigan he was ready always to give his best in counsel and effort, and many times he was called upon to do so. Very few men have the sweetness of nature and the gentleness of manner, combined with firm strength, to enable them to win so universally the -affection, the respect and the admiration which his qualities commanded among his colleagues and students in the community in which he lived. It does not seem possible that anyone who knew Professor Wilgus could have failed to have for him warm affection and admiration. There is not one of us who knew him well who does not feel that we have lost a loyal and understanding friend, a wise counselor, and an influence for tolerance, sanity and wisdom in our lives.