Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Legal History Books That Hook

The new school year is fast approaching—my legal history course begins on Thursday and our son starts kindergarten on the 29th. In researching kindergarten, I found a website about “books that hook,” or encourage kids to become avid readers. This led me to ponder how students become hooked on legal history. For many people in our field, Willard Hurst’s Law and the Conditions of Freedom in the Nineteenth-Century United States or Morton Horwitz’s The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860 inspired them to become legal historians.

My own experience was somewhat different. As a junior at Grinnell College, I took Ira Strauber’s constitutional law course. It was intense: a mixture of New York City attitude and pacing, with a dose of The Paper Chase, in a crowded classroom in Iowa. Strauber taught us close textual analysis, while simultaneously scaring the bejesus out of us. You did not want to come to class unprepared. I learned to anticipate the questions he would ask and began imagining how I would teach the material. Yet he had a trick up his sleeve. Even if you mastered a case, he then used historical context to force you to see the case from another perspective. I quickly realized that I needed to know more history. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to study with the constitutional historian Alan Jones whose scholarship had challenged the progressive interpretation of law in the late nineteenth century. His JAH article “Tom M. Cooley and Laissez-Faire Constitutionalism, a Reconsideration,” (March, 1967), for example, garnered him the second OAH Brinkley-Stephenson Award and continues to be cited.

The book, however, that changed my intellectual life was not assigned to me. Each spring the Grinnell College History Department bestowed the Ida Pilling Welch '30 History Book Award to one or more rising seniors “whose interest in and commitment to historical study reaches beyond the ordinary reaches of the classroom.” The award was a $100 gift certificate to purchase books. I spent a wonderful afternoon at the college bookstore browsing the history section. My final selections included a slim volume, C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow.

Once I started reading The Strange Career of Jim Crow, I could not put it down or stop thinking about it. Eventually, the introduction to my dissertation, “Policing the Child: Juvenile Justice in Chicago, 1870-1925,” declared, “This dissertation is written in the spirit of C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow; a book which revealed that Reconstruction was filled with ‘forgotten alternatives’ and that twentieth-century segregation could not be justified by appeals to a history which ignored those possibilities. If the past could have been different, as Woodward’s research implied, then so could the present because it, too, is the product of political choices.” I now explain to my students at UNLV why Martin Luther King, Jr. called Woodward’s book, “the historical bible of the civil rights movement.”