Thursday, November 17, 2011

Nicoletti Wins Cromwell Dissertation Prize

Last week's meeting of the American Society for Legal History included the announcement that the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation has awarded Dissertation Prize to Cynthia Nicoletti, a professor at the Mississippi College of Law,  for The Great Question of the War: The Legal Status of Secession in the Aftermath of the American Civil War, 1865-1869, which she wrote in the History Department at the University of Virginia, where her dissertation advisor was Gary Gallagher.  She had won the ASLH's Kathryn T. Preyer Scholars Award for her paper as a junior scholar in 2008.

Cromwell's trustees acted on the recommendation of a committee of the American Society for Legal History, which stated:
Cynthia Nicoletti (image credit)
This deeply researched and well-argued dissertation challenges the assumption that the North’s victory in the Civil War led inexorably to the demise of the states’ argument that secession was a constitutional right. Although historians often argue that Confederate defeat resolved the question of secession’s constitutionality, Nicoletti recreates the vigorous post-war debate about the validity of permitting the outcome of the war to substitute for a legal judgment on the constitutionality of secession.  She reveals how the federal government’s decision not to try Confederate President Jefferson Davis for treason forced Americans to confront the unsettling realization that they had allowed a violent conflict to provide the ultimate determination of their society’s most divisive legal issue. The Supreme Court’s technical decision in Texas v. White notwithstanding, many Americans concluded that “Trial by Battle” rather than rational argument in a court of law had determined secession’s legitimacy.  While skillfully recreating the lives of the lawyers, politicians and jurists who grappled with these issues, Nicoletti also demonstrates how the theoretical justifications for military Reconstruction complicated efforts to reach a judicial determination of the legality of secession. We were impressed with Nicoletti’s achievement.  She engaged one of the most frequently debated questions in American history (the legality of secession) and found innovative ways to provide new and important insights.