Academic journal article The Journal of Southern Legal History

Signposts: New Directions in Southern Legal History

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern Legal History

Signposts: New Directions in Southern Legal History

Article excerpt

BOOK REVIEW Signposts: New Directions in Southern Legal History. Sally E. Hadden and Patricia Hagler Minter, eds. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8203-4499-7, 473 pp., paper, $26.95

Signposts: New Directions in Southern Legal History explores many historical nuances about race, gender, and European influences within the law and legal processes in the American South. Picking up where legal historians James Ely and David Bodenhamer left off in 1984, editors Sally Hadden and Patricia Minter provide an edited volume of seventeen essays that explore a cross-section of topics ranging from Spanish influence in Louisiana courts in the eighteenth century to the libertarian influence in southern arguments against civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Southern legal history is broadly defined in Signposts. Essays cover the entire South and topics range from inheritance laws, criminal law, property disputes, slave laws, constitutional interpretation, and civil litigation. All of this is a deliberate effort by Hadden and Minter who go beyond the typically studied areas of southern legal history to focus on more divergent topics of southern legal development, legal intellectuals, and legal practice.

As Hadden and Minter note, southern legal history has typically focused on issues surrounding laws involving race and slavery or early legal development in colonies like Virginia. While these topics are undoubtedly important aspects of southern legal history, Hadden and Minter delve into the complexities of legal traditions in the South. They argue that southern legal history has jad a great impact in crafting American legal processes, and that southern legal history is too frequently explored as an anomaly within the United States system rather than a harbinger of national legal change.

The essays in Signposts go deep into the thicket of primary sources of local dockets, municipal courts, and unwritten societal codes. Rather than focusing exclusively on well-known cases that have been widely examined by legal scholars and historians, Signposts include essays that explore how the law was applied and challenged at the local level in the South. This examination of southern court systems illustrates the transnational influence within southern laws. Rather than assuming southern legal history is the inheritor of English common law, these essays illustrate that oftentimes southern laws, particularly outside the English colonies, involved an amalgam of French, Spanish, and later English influences that are still present today.

The book is divided into three historical eras. Part One of Signposts examines southern laws and legal processes in colonial times and in the early Republic. These essays include topics such as Spanish inheritance laws in Florida, criminal law in Louisiana, slavery laws in Spanish Louisiana, grand jury presentments in South Carolina, and the legal impact of Virginia jurist St. George Tucker. Part Two of Signposts looks at southern legal history in the nineteenth century. These essays range from topics involving Cherokee removal, women's property rights, vigilante justice, legal thought concerning slavery, legal justifications of secession, the dismantling of Reconstruction through litigation, and homestead exemption laws. These essays show that within the nineteenth century South, lawyers and judges struggled to incorporate new legal tradition of federalism within southern society. Part Three turns to twentieth century southern legal history with a particular focus on racism and how race played a prominent role within concepts of southern womanhood, property rights, education structures, reapportionment laws, and legal defenses against the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

These sections work together to illustrate the complexity of the South's legal traditions. Each essay illustrates a larger dichotomy of how Southerners and southern law reflected the structures of the American legal system within the context of the inherited legal and racial history of the South. …

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