American Law in the 20th Century

By Drake, Ian | Ideas on Liberty, May 2003 | Go to article overview

American Law in the 20th Century


Drake, Ian, Ideas on Liberty


by Lawrence M. Friedman

Yale University Press [bullet] 2002 [bullet] 736 pages [bullet] $35.00

Writing the history of a country's laws, especially those of a nation as vast and varied as the United States, is a monumental task. It is even more difficult to encapsulate it in a single volume. Yet that is largely, if idiosyncratically, what Professor Lawrence Friedman of Stanford Law School has done.

The scope is grand by necessity because American government and law are immense at all levels. As I write this review and glance around my room, each thing I see has laws regulating its creation, existence, or disposal-most of which were passed in the twentieth century. For instance, the parts for the computer I'm staring at were shipped under international commercial treaties (under United Nations auspices or simply between the United States and the shipping country). Certain books on my bookshelf are available thanks to the Supreme Court's interpretation of the First Amendment. And finally, the dog sitting under my chair has been honored with a series of local ordinances that control how he is walked and immunized. Law is everywhere in America and, as Friedman notes, the history of almost any part of America in the twentieth century must make reference to the law.

His book can be divided into three large topics: the growth of American government at the federal, state, and local levels (and the resultant permeation of law into almost all aspects of life); the role of the state and federal courts in shaping statutory, common, and constitutional law; and "legal culture" -the lawyers, judges, officials, and bureaucrats, and their philosophies.

Friedman dutifully chronicles the growth of the federal government, especially noting the multitude of agencies and regulations. The story is peppered with obscure facts and anecdotes regarding the development of various agencies: for instance, the attorney general (Charles Bonaparte) who organized what became the FBI was a relative of Napoleon. Friedman accurately characterizes the federal government that evolved as a "Leviathan," with a plethora of administrative agencies inhabiting a "subterranean world" of their own. But readers might doubt his assessment of the New Deal as "profoundly conservative." (Friedman contends that the Works Project Administration and other programs were conservative because they sought to preserve dignity and maintain skills, rather than encourage idleness. …

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