Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Assembling My Own Legal History Course Materials

As I mentioned in an earlier post, a few years ago I decided to start assembling my own primary source materials, tailored to the dates and coverage of my courses. (This also reduced course costs—I post the materials via our course management system, allowing students to print and/or view the materials online, as they like.) I initially expected the process to be fairly straightforward; I had taught legal history courses many times over, and thus knew what kinds of materials would illustrate, complement, and complicate my lectures and the historical scholarship I assigned. However, it turned out to be much more time consuming than I had anticipated, because there’s just so much fascinating material one could assign, and it was so easy to go down rabbit holes. Although I thought I knew what I was looking for, I kept finding materials sources that were so intriguing that I rewrote some lectures entirely in order to include them.

The first and easiest part of the task was gathering cases, statutes, and other sources I’d already been teaching and wanted to continue using. For each, though, I now had to decide how much of the original source to include. For example, I had long used casebook excerpts of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Virginia statutes regarding servitude and slavery, but there was so much rich and interesting material in the statute books that it was hard to figure out what to exclude. And editing nineteenth and twentieth-century judicial opinions for an undergraduate audience required significant attention to both length and clarity.  

In other areas, I knew only generally what I wanted (these included colonial cases involving domestic disputes, and nineteenth-century private law cases with more interesting fact patterns than the ones I’d been using). Without specific documents in mind, I looked to the footnotes of relevant books and articles for ideas; I also tried to browse online sources to the extent possible. For colonial records, I am extremely thankful for archive.org, where it is easy to full-text search many colonial legal reports. Here my strategy was to identify something like Nathaniel B. Shurtleff’s Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, search various volumes for words like “adultery” and “drunk,” and see what came up. (A lot.) And once I found an interesting case, I could search the litigants’ names; I was happy (for me, of course, not for them) whenever I found couples whose domestic strife kept them returning to the courts. Similarly, in paging through the nineteenth-century legal treatises available through HeinOnline (especially the Early American Case Law and the Legal Classics collections) I found brief descriptions of and citations to nineteenth-century tort and contract cases that seemed engaging and readily comprehensible.

Finally, I wanted to see what other kinds of sources were out there, and I wanted to broaden my sources to showcase non-elite, non-male, and non-white perspectives on law and legal change. Here too I looked to the footnotes of academic books and articles; I also went back to other people’s syllabi to see what sources they included. (I’ve been collecting paper and electronic syllabi since I started teaching. Online resources have significantly improved in recent years, and one particularly useful collection of legal history can be found at the Triangle Legal History Seminar’s website. Academic crowd-sourced reading lists of primary and secondary sources like the Trump Syllabus 2.0 and the #CharlestonSyllabus—now a book—are another great resource. And The Docket is planning a syllabus repository.)

I also browsed the resources on Project Avalon – both its Chronology of American History 1492-present and its more focused collections like Statutes of the United States Concerning Native Americans – for sources of possible interest. George Mason University’s History Matters website also has a great set of primary sources, as does the American Yawp (especially pre-1923). I also sat down with a pile of all of the various American history document collections I’d accumulated via book sales, exam copies, and free book piles in academic hallways. These included (but were definitely not limited to) the Founders’ Constitution (now also online); Women’s America (Linda K. Kerber, Jane Sherron De Hart, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, eds.); multiple volumes of A Documentary History Of The Negro People In The United States (Herbert Aptheker, ed.); The Constitutional and Legal Rights of Women (Judith A. Baer and Leslie Friedman Goldstein, eds.); The Age of Jim Crow (ed. Jane Dailey); and the excellent but out of print Women in American Law: From Colonial Times to the New Deal (Marlene Stein Wortman, ed.)

At the end of the day, of course, I found more material, and more ideas for hunting down even more material, than I could ever use (or ask students to read). (I’ll describe how I repurposed some of these sources for paper topics in a later post.) I had, however, created collections that represented a broader set of voices and perspectives and that I was excited to teach.