Friday, July 9, 2010

New Directions for Legal History of the South?

Al Brophy, my friend and recent guest blogger on this site, suggested that I post some thoughts about possible new directions for the legal history of the South. Almost (gulp) ten years ago, I wrote an essay for the Columbia Law Review about new directions in the legal history of race and slavery, where I suggested that “cultural-legal histories” focusing on trial records, and the interaction between law and local cultures, were the most fruitful new research projects in the field. Since then, there has been an outpouring of wonderful work in this vein, including books by Dylan Penningroth, Jeannine DeLombard, and Laura Edwards, as well as many very promising dissertations by up and coming scholars.

If I had to peg a similarly important trend for this decade, I would say it’s the rise of comparative and transnational legal studies of slavery, from the transnational micro-histories by Rebecca Scott & Jean Hebrard and Martha Jones are working on, to the forthcoming broad comparative work on race in the Americas by Bob Cottrol and Taunya Kateri Hernandez. As Alejandro de la Fuente and I have written in a forthcoming essay for the Annual Review of Law and Social Sciences, these comparative studies hold great promise for legal scholarship. The turn away from law in the social history of slavery in the 1970s through the 1990s coincided with a turn away from comparison. Returning to law, but from a bottom-up rather than top-down perspective, may allow us to escape some of the exceptionalism that has marked studies of the U.S. South – and the U.S. more generally – without falling prey to the overdrawn contrasts of an earlier generation of scholarship.

I would be very interested in hearing what others working in this area think are the important new questions or avenues for research at the moment.