Note to readers: This is a part of a series of questions and answers with Lawrence Friedman. If you have a question you've wanted to ask him, please post it in a comment, or email me.
When you first began teaching American legal history, what was on your syllabus? And what was your class like? Thinking about your legal history classes now, how have they changed over time? In what ways is your syllabus different? Are your teaching objectives different? Do your students expect something different?
Answer (from Lawrence):
I don't think my legal history classes have changed much over time. I ask people (shamelessly) to buy A History of American Law; but I teach mainly from unpublished class materials. I've never tried to publish these, because I feel they're too idiosyncratic. There really isn't a canon for legal history. At least I don't think so. Maybe the dear old Charles River Bridge case!
My materials are all primary sources-- statutes, a few cases, reports, excerpts from various texts-- for example, I have a section on criminal justice, and it includes some material from Beaumont and DeTocqueville on the penitentiary system; an excerpt from Dimsdate, Vigilantes from Montana, that sort of thing.
I am a law and society person through and through. I pay little or no attention to jurisprudence and schools of jurisprudence. I have a lot of material on criminal justice, family law, and (of course) slavery and race relations. The emphasis is not on constitutional law or the Supreme Court. Or on the founding fathers and the Constitutional convention.
I think all along my teaching objective has been to show the relationship between American law and American society, in different periods. A kind of historical sociology of law, but without grand theory; and rooted in concrete experience. I think I should add that it's basically a lecture course. This isn't a matter of pedagogical theory; I have enormous admiration for teachers who can teach legal history as a discussion course, when the size of the class is fairly large. I just don't know how to do it.
Another objective is to counteract the numbing effect of much of the law school experience, which is highly formal, and highly normative. And which also ignores history and culture. I also have some history students in my class-- I think they benefit, because the legal system is such a critical aspect of our society and our history, and it's good for them to be exposed to it.
I have no idea, frankly, what the students expect. Law school is full of academic refugees: doctors, English majors, engineering students who changed their mind; and quite a few history majors who are discouraged by the job prospects for historians. Probably there are as many expectations as there are students.
On the whole, I think the students really like the class. Unlike a lot of the rest of law school, history is really really interesting. At least that's my opinion.