Making Legal History: Essays in Honor of William E. Nelson

Making Legal History: Essays in Honor of William E. Nelson

Making Legal History: Essays in Honor of William E. Nelson

Making Legal History: Essays in Honor of William E. Nelson


One of the academy's leading legal historians, William E. Nelson is the Edward Weinfeld Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. For more than four decades, Nelson has produced some of the most original and creative work on American constitutional and legal history. His prize-winning books have blazed new trails for historians with their substantive arguments and the scope and depth of Nelson's exploration of primary sources. Nelson was the first legal scholar to use early American county court records as sources of legal and social history, and his work (on legal history in England, colonial America, and New York) has been a model for generations of legal historians.nbsp; nbsp; This book collects ten essays exemplifying and explaining the process of identifying and interpreting archival sources- the foundation of an array of methods of writing American legal history. The essays presented here span the full range of American history from the colonial era to the 1980s.Each historian has either identified a body of sources not previously explored or devised a new method of interrogating sources already known.The result is a kaleidoscopic examination of the historian's task and of the research methods and interpretative strategies that characterize the rich, complex field of American constitutional and legal history. nbsp; Daniel J. Hulseboschnbsp;is Charles Seligson Professor of Law and Professor of History at New York University. He is the author ofnbsp;Constituting Empire: New York and the Transformation of Constitutionalism in the Atlantic World, 1664-1830. nbsp;nbsp; R. B. Bernsteinnbsp;is Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Law at New York Law School and Adjunct Professor of Political Science in the Skadden, Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies at the City College of New York.He has written, edited, or co-edited over 20 books in the fields of American constitutional and legal history, including the prize-winningnbsp;The Founding Fathers Reconsidered and Thomas Jefferson.


Morton J. Horwitz

It is a pleasure to offer a foreword to this volume of essays in honor of Bill Nelson—one of the most generous scholars working in the field of legal history. I’ve known Bill from the beginning, when we were both Charles Warren Fellows at Harvard Law School some forty years ago. At that time we were researching our first books. Every day Bill would travel to one or another archive. “I was in the Dedham courthouse today,” he would say, and the next day he was in another courthouse. Each day I would wait for him to come back and debrief him on his research—for self-interested reasons.

Now, here’s the point: Bill Nelson shared all of his research with me. We were not working on identical topics, but they were similar. I have not seen that happen in the subsequent forty years of my academic life. Bill showed a sense of generosity and of investment in a common purpose. If we were going to make legal history a field, we needed to try to help each other as best we could, and Bill really did make a big difference in my understanding of my own work.

What Bill did for Americanization of the Common Law was, I think, something that had not been done before: He literally covered the court records. If you think about the state of the published work at that time on the Massachusetts colonial period, you have to say, in terms of primary sources, there was little. You had Nathan Dane’s General Abridgment and Digest of American Law, published in the 1820s, and you had William Cushing’s legal notes in the Massachusetts Historical Society. There were also Josiah Quincy’s reports from the Superior Court of Judicature just before the Revolution. But 98 percent of the materials of colonial Massachusetts law had never been read.

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