|Chris Tomlins (image credit)|
Christopher Tomlins’s Freedom Bound is an ambitious effort to place law at the heart of American history generally, by demonstrating its centrality to the creation of the particular regimes of freedom and subordination that governed the colonies and states until the Civil War. Tomlins rejects the surprisingly durable notion that law has been an impartial releaser of energy (as if it did not have a lot to say about whose energy would get more or less favorable treatment). And he equally rejects the idea that law has been mere window dressing for developments really driven by the logic of capitalism. Rather, Tomlins argues that law makes society, makes labor, and makes civic identity as much as it is made by those things. And it never does this work impartially but, instead, by setting out the terms of “colonization.” In Tomlins’s hands, the colonizing process that launches American history is both a creation of law and a durable metaphor for what law is and does, not just in the so-called colonial period but all the way to the Civil War and beyond. Thus the long sweep of American history from the earliest migrations to the Civil War becomes a history of colonization. The land is colonized, the indigenous peoples are colonized, and human beings who are needed for the labor of colonization are themselves colonized--all by means of law and its capacity to shape and limit the imagination, to legitimate and naturalize that which inescapably rests on power and violence. But, as the law obscures its own violence and its determination to subordinate some to enhance the freedom of others, that history of law as colonization never becomes a reductive story of one fixed class oppressing another. Rather, law is always plural, contingent, contested—much more so in the uncertain atmosphere of the early colonies than in the ever more rigidly slave-based society of the next two centuries (so much for the unfolding of freedom and the beneficent release of energy)—but still law as power, law as colonization, is always a matter of human contest over the highest stakes: more freedom for some and more unfreedom for others. Tomlins’s big book and big arguments are often deeply persuasive, but the most important testament to his work will come when we are still debating his many claims, big and small, another generation down the road.The Committee on the John Phillip Reid Book Award, chaired by Gerald Leonard (Boston University), awarded an honorable mention to Paul Halliday for Habeas Corpus: From England to Empire (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).
John Phillip Reid, for whom the prize is named, could not attend the meeting, unfortunately. He was sorely missed by his many fans.