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Fall 2023 Course

American Legal History 1776-1865

Prerequisites: None

Exam Type: One-Day Take-Home

This course is designed to consider the development of American law from the time of the founding of the United States to the beginning of the period of Reconstruction. It will not be a march through the evolution of legal doctrines, though we will discuss the development of various doctrines. “Law”, for our purposes, is broadly defined to include, among other things, the structure of the government that was created after the Revolution, statutory and common law, and customs. We will proceed in rough chronology, deviating when it makes sense to do so.

In history, context is all. To understand the development of any country’s legal system, one must know something of the people (powerful and not), the society, and culture in which that system came into being. This is necessarily, then, a course in American history. If context is critical to historical study, recognizing the role of contingency must also guide our consideration. Things did not always have to happen the way they happened. With that in mind, we can say that the creation of the United States turns out to have been a pivotal moment in the history of the world. We are going to consider the choices made when creating the American Republic as a nation of laws from the 1770s to the 1860s. Many of those choices helped to shape American identities, and resonate to this day. It will be fun, and instructive, to consider how it all unfolded.

Note: This course is jointly-listed with FAS as History 1405.