American Legal History



This course concerns the interaction between the legal system and social change in the United States. Reading consists of a collection of legal documents from the past, including appellate decisions from state and federal courts but also such things as statutes, contracts, divorce proceedings, inaugural addresses, private letters, and the like.

One of the earliest documents is a memorandum of a prosecution for bestiality in Plymouth Colony (1642); the last is the speech on race that President Obama gave during the campaign. The only text will be Gonick, The Cartoon History of the United States, so no prior familiarity with U.S. History will be necessary.

Class time will be given to lecture, discussion of the materials, and a collection of portraits, photographs, maps, etc., on PowerPoint. The main themes include the relationships between law and the economy, changing conceptions of individual rights, the development of the legal profession, and the crucial role that race relations have played in the development of our law from the beginning to the present.

The course touches on many different areas of law and is an excellent way of tying together and making sense out of all of the other courses that one might take in law school.