Monday, November 9, 2015

Charles W. McCurdy and the Community of Scholars

Charles W. McCurdy (UVA Law)
On November 1-2, I attended “The Legacy of Charles W. McCurdy,” a conference held in honor of Professor McCurdy occasioned by his retirement from the University of Virginia, where he taught in the Corcoran Department of History and the School of Law.  The schedule is here.  The conference also marked the inauguration of UVA’s Charles W. McCurdy Fellowship in Legal History.  It followed “The Ages of American Legal History: A Roundtable in Honor of Professor Charles W. McCurdy,” held at the annual meeting of the American Society for Legal History in Washington, DC, on October 31.

In addition to the history department and law school, the Miller Center for Public Affairs also sponsored the event, which consisted of dinner Sunday night and a day-long series of panels Monday, on which some of Professor McCurdy’s many students appeared.  At one session, the inaugural McCurdy Fellow, Sarah Seo, Columbia JD, ABD Princeton, spoke on “The Automobile and the Cold War Fourth Amendment.”  She was joined by a Miller Center National Fellow, Nora Krinitsky, ABD in the University of Michigan’s History Department.  Ms. Krinitsky spoke on “Beer Wars and Black Votes Policing the Color Line in Interwar Chicago.”  Risa Goluboff and David Sklansky commented.

You can catch last Monday’s panels via the interweb.  The morning ones, held at the Miller Center, were videotaped and may be viewed here.  The afternoon panels, held at the School of Law, were audiotaped and may be heard here. All sessions are available as downloadable mp3-audio files to brighten your next commute or trip to the gym.  I especially recommend two sets of remarks in the first session at the Miller Center: G. Edward White's comments on the significance for constitutional history circa 1975 of Justice Field and the Jurisprudence of Government-Business Relations: Some Parameters of Laissez-Faire Constitutionalism, 1863-1897, an article Professor McCurdy wrote while still a graduate student, and Hendrik Hartog's recollections of Professor McCurdy when they joined the field of legal history at about the same time in the 1970s. I also liked Reuel Schiller's catalogue, in the final session, of lessons McCurdy students learned from their advisor, as evidenced in papers presented at the conference.  And if you want to hear the man himself, try this YouTube video from the University of California's series "Conversations with History" and his Jefferson Lecture at UC Berkeley, The First U.S. ‘War on Terror’: The 1798 Sedition Act and Constitutional Politics in the Age of Jefferson.

Tributes delivered at the meals were not recorded.  For me, the highlights were letters from Robert W. Gordon, which vividly brought out the importance of Professor McCurdy’s scholarship, and Harry N. Scheiber, Professor McCurdy’s dissertation advisor, which stressed his reach as a historian.  Other comments from colleagues and students–undergraduate, doctoral, and in UVA’s JD/MA program–confirmed for me an impression I have long had of Professor McCurdy, that he was just about the opposite of the academic who jealously hoarded his time and attention for his own scholarship and career.  The lyrics varied from person to person but the music stayed the same: gratitude to Professor McCurdy for perceptive advice and guidance given unstintingly at a particularly formative or vulnerable moment.

Like others at the conference, I reflected on Professor McCurdy’s The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1865 (2006), a prize-winning book I imagined he decided to write after a conversation in which some social scientific contributor to the field of American political development asked him what he thought of scholarship showing how courts and parties could prevent the emergence of a sensible social order and he replied that it would be a good idea.  A much earlier work, American Law and the Marketing Structure of the Large Corporation, 1875-1890, was a beacon for me as I revised my dissertation, because it gave due regard to both legal doctrine and economic calculation in its account of the litigation campaigns of industrialists.

I also reflected on a time when I benefited from Professor McCurdy’s attentiveness.  To understand it, consider how a novice legal historian might come to understand him- or herself as having joined a community of scholars.  I am willing to wager that no other group of scholars devote more thought and resources to facilitating that process than do legal historians.  Several law schools have fellowships earmarked for legal history.  The ASLH, with the essential financial support of the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation, has the Kathryn Preyer Award, the J. Willard Hurst Summer Institute in Legal History at the University of Wisconsin, Cromwell-funded research grants for doctoral students and junior scholars, and a Cromwell-funded dissertation prize.  The seminars of the Institute for Constitutional History perform a comparable function.

Professor McCurdy has given his time and thought to several of these ventures.  (I recall being moved by his comment at the Preyer Award panel at the ASLH’s annual meeting in 2011.)  Before the establishment of these programs, however, you knew you had joined the legal history guild–if you were very fortunate–when a scholar whose work you knew and respected but who did not owe you the time of day nevertheless recognized your promise and encouraged you to make good on it.  I’ll think about the time Professor McCurdy did that for me whenever a new Charles W. McCurdy Fellow is announced.

Update: Our friends at the Miller Center for Public Affairs have sent the following information about contributing to an endowment for the McCurdy Fellowship:
The Miller Center and the Law School will fund the Fellowship for the next three years, and are currently working to establish an endowment to fund the McCurdy Fellowship in perpetuity.  Those interested in advancing the scholarship of legal history should consider contributing to the McCurdy Fellowship. Information on the McCurdy Fellowship can be found [here] (click on select designation; McCurdy Fellowship) or by contacting Renee Branson at Mailed contributions can be sent to the Miller Center, PO Box 400406, Charlottesville, VA 22904.