The State of American History

By Herbert J. Bass | Go to book overview

Some Problems and Possibilities of American Legal History

LAWRENCE M. FRIEDMAN

When too many manifestos about research are published and people write about doing rather than attending to the doing, it is a sure sign that a field of knowledge is immature. American legal history is in something of this state. In print, and in speech, American legal historians complain about their field.1 They ponder its uses to history, law, and the world; its untapped resources; and the reasons why it has not flourished. Of course there is a literature of American legal history, besides the complaints and manifestos; but there is cause for concern in the proportion between the two.

Another disturbing sign of immaturity is simply that there are few practitioners, alive or dead. Probably fewer than fifty persons in law schools and history departments could identify themselves as full-time historians of American law, or could realistically think of American legal history as their major intellectual effort. To these we may add an unknown but not staggering number of amateurs who hover about on the periphery. Not many persons even teach the subject. One hundred and fifteen law schools (out of 132 accredited by the American Bar Association) were surveyed on the subject in 1961. Only thirty-one had a legal history course in their curriculum.2 Most of these courses, apparently, were exclusively English legal history, or were about something called Anglo-American legal history, in which the Anglo vastly overshadowed the American. Probably not more than ten law schools, then or now, offer a course in American legal history. I do not know how many history departments give offerings in this area;

-3-

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