Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Huebner Reviews Edwards' "People and Their Peace"

“Focusing on the Local” is the title of the review, recently posted on H-SAWH, by Timothy S. Huebner, Rhodes College, of Laura F. Edwards, The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). The review commences:
In this ambitious work, Laura F. Edwards attempts to reshape historians' understanding of early nineteenth-century southern legal culture. The dominant narrative of southern legal history, Edwards explains, focuses on state lawmaking and legal institutions--on appellate courts, judges, and judicial decisions, as well as statutes, legal treatises, and the writings of political elites. All of these sources emphasize how the law underwent "reform" during the early nineteenth century, when law became codified and centralized at the state level. Historians, Edwards claims, have eagerly and uncritically repeated the themes evident in these state-focused legal documents. The conventional narrative, Edwards thus warns, contains "strong Whiggish undertones of inevitability," for the sources imply that "law and government simply assumed the form they were always intended to have" (p. 5).

Edwards offers a counterpoint to this view. Attempting to "excavate localized law" from beneath the existing historiography, she focuses on legal development at the grass roots between 1787 and 1840 (p. 26). Relying on thousands of court records from six jurisdictions (three counties in North Carolina and three districts in South Carolina), Edwards provides a richly textured portrait of a legal culture in which women, African Americans, and the poor played an important part. Even as professionals attempted to standardize and centralize the law during the 1820s and 1830s, Edwards demonstrates, localized legal practice showed a degree of persistence.
More and hat tip: H-Law