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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · April 15, 2015

Looking Forward to Early American Legal Histories, May 29-30, 2015

WMQ 6 min read

Sally Gordon, Convener of the 2015 WMQ-EMSI Workshop, Early American Legal Histories

Sally Gordon, Convener of the 2015 WMQ-EMSI Workshop

As we prepare for the annual WMQ-EMSI workshop, dedicated this year to legal history, it is fitting to reflect on an earlier undertaking in the same field.  Almost twenty years ago, the first conference on early American law, sponsored by OIEAHC, convened in Williamsburg.  Together with Omohundro editor-par-excellence Fredrika Teute, legal historians Bruce Mann (then of Penn Law, and now at Harvard Law School) and Chris Tomlins (then at the American Bar Foundation, now Berkeley Law) convened a stellar collection of scholars and papers to explore what Tomlins called “A Manifesto of Destiny” for early American legal history.  The resulting volume, edited by Mann and Tomlins, included the work of Mary Bilder, David Konig, Holly Brewer, Nina Dayton, and Richard Bushman, just to name a few.

That conference was called “The Many Legalities of Early America,” and those of us planning the 2015 WMQ-EMSI workshop to be held in late May at the Huntington Library sought both to honor and extend the work of that inaugural event with our second iteration, “Early American Legal Histories.”  Our keynote speaker will be Bruce Mann, whose talk is (modestly!) titled “The Past, Present, and Future of Early American Legal History.”  We intend that our conference will bridge the two disciplines of history and law, as the earlier one did.

Several things are different about this conference, however.  For one thing, all our presenters are based in history departments, rather than law schools, reflecting a trend that legal historian Stan Katz noted a generation ago.  The “problem of a colonial legal history,” said Katz, is that the burgeoning field of legal history, which features an increasing number of scholars trained in both law and history, has focused more on the 19th and 20th centuries.  Even in 1996, only two of thirty participants were based in law schools (a third soon moved to a law school after a postdoc).  And Bruce Mann noted then that much of what had come to be called the “new legal history” of the 1970s and 80s was already past its best-buy date.  Early America lags far behind in talented scholars in law schools and/or with formal legal training at the mid-career level, who are the targets of this year’s Early American Legal Histories conference.

This is not to say that legal historians have been silent:  Tomlins’s own Freedom Bound (2010) and Bruce Mann’s Republic of Debtors (2002), together with volume one of the (pricey but substantial) Cambridge History of Law in America (2008), edited by Michael Grossberg and Tomlins, have all added heft to the field.  But the fantastic explosion of scholarship on early America outside legal history in the last twenty years has only sharpened Katz’s basic insight.

It is high time to revisit the field, therefore, to explore the best work of seasoned scholars who have made law and legal change a central focus of their research and writing.  Eight papers made it through the organizers’ high-test sieve.  Our lineup features the fine work of Kathleen Brown and Jennifer Spear on the law of slavery, Saul Cornell on the common law and constitutionalism, Michael Goode on Quaker colonization, Christine Walker on women and slavery in Jamaica, Honor Sachs on freedom suits in Virginia, Craig Yirush on Native legal norms, and two papers on New France by Helen Dewar and Alexandre Dubé.

And while we cannot predict whether our gathering will produce a new manifesto, we are confident that we will grapple with both the great promise and the difficulty of integrating finely grained research in law and legal change into the best work in history.

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