Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Thomas Jefferson, Legal History, and the Art of Recollection

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Thomas Jefferson, Legal History, and the Art of Recollection

Article excerpt

Thomas Jefferson, Legal History, and the Art of Recollection. By Matthew Crow. Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society. (New York and other cities: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 282. $49.99, ISBN 978-1-107-16193-1.)

Thomas Jefferson is often cast as an ahistorical thinker who championed natural rights. "'Our Revolution,'" he wrote, unlike the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, "'presented us an album on which we were free to write what we pleased. We had no occasion to search into any musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semi- barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts'" (p. 3). However, Matthew Crow claims in his engaging book, "Jefferson's forthright declaration was complete nonsense" (p. 4). "Jefferson was more attuned than most to the fact that Americans found themselves in a heated political contest over history, and ... historiography" (p. 25). That realization played out in various ways over the course of Jefferson's life.

Two opening chapters set the contexts "out of which Jefferson's concerns for collecting and reading legal history emerged" (p. 39). Chapter 1 explores "debates over the historical and textual authority of written law in seventeenth-century England" in works by Edward Coke, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and others (p. 11). In chapter 2 we see how Virginians such as William Byrd II and Robert Beverley "configured law as a fragile assemblage" that would be molded in the process of "forging historical identity" (pp. 42, 43). Law and history were "inseparable," and the Scottish Enlightenment taught Jefferson similar lessons (p. 45). His legal commonplace books were dominated by extracts from works by Henry Home, Lord Karnes, especially Principles of Equity (1760). Karnes's sense "that one could not study the law without studying it historically, without comparing it to other systems of jurisprudence, and without understanding the social and governmental contexts in which law had developed, was perhaps the single most important idea shaping Jefferson's approach to learning in the area of the law" (p. …

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