In the first of the three volumes of his projected comprehensive narrative history of the role of law in America from the colonial years through the twentieth century, G. Edward White takes up the central themes of American legal history from the earliest European settlements through the Civil War.
Included in the coverage of this volume are the interactions between European and Amerindian legal systems in the years of colonial settlement; the crucial role of Anglo-American theories of sovereignty and imperial governance in facilitating the separation of the American colonies from the British Empire in the late eighteenth century; the American "experiment" with federated republican constitutionalism in the founding period; the major importance of agricultural householding, in the form of slave plantations as well as farms featuring wage labor, in helping to shape the development of American law in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the emergence of the Supreme Court of the United States as an authoritative force in American law and politics in the early nineteenth century; the interactions between law, westward expansion, and transformative developments in transportation and communication in the antebellum years; the contributions of American legal institutions to the dissolution of the Union of American states in the three decades after 1830; and the often-overlooked legal history of the Confederacy and Union governments during the Civil War.
White incorporates recent scholarship in anthropology, ethnography, and economic, political, intellectual and legal history to produce a narrative that is both revisionist and accessible, taking up the familiar topics of race, gender, slavery, and the treatment of native Americans from fresh perspectives. Along the way he provides a compelling case for why law can be seen as the key to understanding the development of American life as we know it. Law in American History, Volume 1 will be an essential text for both students of law and general readers.
©2012 Oxford University Press (P)2013 Audible, Inc.
This work is by and for people with long attention spans and some knowledge of (and pretty strong motivation to stay with and learn) legal concepts. As a longtime legal scholar, I can't know what this would sound like to someone without that background. It seems clear as a bell to me, all through. Listening to this, I realize the vastness of the topic, and impossibility of fitting a fully comprehensive treatment into even this larger audiobook. But I came away with much improved knowledge of such topics as: (1) property rights in the colonies, and vis a vis the Native Americans; (2) "justice" as practiced in relation to those natives; (3) shifts in legal doctrines as new ways of business (e.g., canals, railroads, more new business entities appearing and competing, in areas formerly under older-type monopoly charters) emerged along with cities, more courts, and various judicial and other government personalities; (4) the runup to the Civil War, which receives a very detailed legal treatment, along with the status of slaves; and (4) the course of that war. The discussion of the Confederate Constitution (and much of the mentality and doctrines of the South as regards slavery) is but one example of very eye-opening contents of this book. The Dred Scott decision is taken apart in meticulous detail. Of course, some areas get shorter treatment, such as the finer details of government finance, but this book is great value for me. It's not everyone's cup of tea, though. I sure hope the author puts out the promised further volume!
This book struck me as very well done academically but not particularly interesting in terms of bringing to light new perspectives or analyses. White does try to focus on the lesser appreciated aspects of major cases, and he steers refreshingly clear of cliche/overdone themes. I had hoped he would turn that divergence into something fascinating but it never really heated up. In a fair trade off for a nonfiction historical account, the author trades forming his own unique ideas in favor of remaining unbiased and historically accurate. No complaints as to content, the book is well researched and well done, just kind of boring.
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