Book Reviews -- Juries and Judges versus the Law: Virginia's Provincial Legal Perspective, 1783-1828 (Constitutionalism and Democracy Series) by F. Thornton
Huebner, Timothy S., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Juries and Judges Versus the Law: Virginia's Provincial Legal Perspective, 1783-1828. By F. THORNTON MILLER. Constitutionalism and Democracy Series. KERMIT HALL and DAVID O'BRIEN, Series Editors. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1994. xiv, 175 pp. $32.50.
IN this important study, F. Thornton Miller attempts to connect Virginia's late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century localistic legal perspective to the Old Dominion's famous constitutional battles with the United States Supreme Court. Based primarily on an exhaustive examination of civil suits in county and state courts, Miller contends that rural agrarianism, expressed through a preference for local justice and the power of juries, lay behind Virginia's opposition to the centralization of judicial power and commercial expansion championed by the Marshall Court. In making this argument, he not only challenges those historians who have portrayed American law during this period as increasingly tied to business interests but also adds significantly to our understanding of southern jurisprudence.
Miller describes an ongoing debate within Virginia's legal community in the early republic: reformers favored a universal common law based on scientific principles and a new federal constitution imposed on the states, while provincial conservatives advocated a distinct custom-based common law and strong local courts and juries to defend fundamental liberties from the curse of concentrated power. This latter group had the upper hand throughout this period of Virginia's history, and they repeatedly challenged efforts to establish uniformity in the law and centralization of power in the national government. According to Miller, this defensive provincial posture had both an ideological and an economic component. Conservatives drew on the rhetoric of English Country ideology; they saw themselves as the champions of virtuous agrarianism and viewed their opponents as corrupt conspirators against liberty. Moreover, the conservative defense of juries and local justice served the economic interests of debtors, whose cases constituted the bulk of the litigation in Virginia's courts during this period. Juries drawn from the local population exhibited little sympathy toward British creditors and almost always sided with indebted fellow Virginians. Thus, Miller argues, efforts to maintain the power of local courts and defend debtor interests were inextricably linked. …