The Many Legalities of Early America

By Johnson, Herbert A. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Many Legalities of Early America


Johnson, Herbert A., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Many Legalities of Early America. Edited by CHRISTOPHER L. TOMLINS and BRUCE H. MANN. Chapel Hill and London: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xii, 466 pp. $59.95 cloth; $22.50 paper.

THESE essays, the product of a November 1996 conference of the same name, represent a landmark in the evolution of early American legal history. They occupy this pivotal position for two reasons. First and foremost, they reach new levels of interdisciplinary understanding in what we have come to recognize as the "law and society movement." Secondly, they illustrate perhaps for the first time, the degree to which social and economic perspectives can enhance "traditional" or "institutional" scholarship on substantive and procedural law. If widely read, these essays should lay to rest the counterproductive, and perennial, debate about whether lawyers should make "feeble attempts" to write history and whether non-lawyer historians should presume to delve into the sacred study of law.

Why are these essays significant as "law and society" writing? Most importantly for this reviewer is the fact that the authors really understand the law. The major flaw in the work of prior "law and society" students has been their neglect, if not their utter disdain, for the disciplinary integrity of substantive and procedural law. At the very least this mars the accuracy of research, and in the most extreme cases, it may lead historians into the trap of being sloppy researchers. It is the duty of all historians to understand fully the sources they consult and to be accurate in drawing conclusions from those materials. These authors have taken that obligation quite seriously, and they have produced essays that will long be outstanding examples of early American legal history-satisfying alike to "law and society" enthusiasts as well as to the remaining mastodons of the "institutionalist" school.

How do these essays use social and economic perspectives to enrich our appreciation of traditional legal history? Essentially, the authors address old source materials with new questions and reach well-reasoned and enlightening conclusions. …

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