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Many Legalities



American legal history took off as an academic discipline in the 1950s, when Wisconsin’s J. Willard Hurst led a generation of scholars away from the prevailing conception of law as an autonomous body of doctrine and toward a history that placed it firmly within a social and economic context. At first, scholars of early America found the pickings of this revolution slim, for the Wisconsin school generally regarded the country’s colonial past as a pre-liberal curiosity, a backwater of no current interest or relevance. But over the past twenty years, the backwater has come alive with investigative activity. As a result, law, whether approached as text, event, ideology, rite, discourse, or instrument, has become widely studied as a phenomenon in the behavior, ideas, culture, and consciousness of early America’s varied populations.

Despite its obvious energy, early American legal history still lacks definition and direction. Accordingly, this conference, The Many Legalities of Early America, has been organized to winnow form from the field’s manifest substance. By assembling the best of the research currently underway and presenting it in a format that will promote debate and encourage explorations of broader possibilities, we intend to facilitate the construction of narratives that can carry the field onward to real maturity.

Early American legal history has come to an important and challenging moment. As never before, law and legality are vital subjects in all areas of historical research. If we are to avoid the former indifference that defined “early” out of American legal history, the scholars who concentrate on this era must build on its abundant vitality. Never have a field’s needs and opportunities been clearer or more compelling.