The William Nelson Cromwell Foundation awards annually a $5,000 book prize for excellence in scholarship in the field of American Legal History by an early career scholar. The prize is designed to recognize and promote new work in the field by graduate students, law students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty not yet tenured. The work may be in any area of American legal history, including constitutional and comparative studies, but scholarship in the colonial and early national periods will receive some preference. The prize is limited to a first book, wholly or primarily written while the author was untenured.
2018 recipient: Cynthia Nicoletti (University of Virginia), Secession on Trial: The Treason Prosecution of Jefferson Davis (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Committee citation: Cynthia Nicoletti’s Secession on Trial: The Treason Prosecution of Jefferson Davis ingeniously creates a page-turner out of a trial that never happened. In vivid detail and compelling prose Nicoletti uses the federal government’s abandoned prosecution of Jefferson Davis to challenge the conventional wisdom among historians and legal scholars that the verdict of the battlefield settled the legality of secession. Nicoletti instead illuminates the uncertainty among lawyers, politicians, and the populace on secession’s legality and thus the availability of a treason prosecution for those who had seceded. Along the way, she also argues for the centrality of law and legal thinking in post-Civil War America’s political culture, displaying both the law’s power and powerlessness. Former Unionists and Confederates alike showed continued faith and fidelity to law. Indeed, Nicoletti highlights examples of actors high and low resisting the push of politics to adhere to unfavorable legal outcomes and of the strange alliances this legal fidelity produced. Even as Nicoletti argues that law constrained politics in the postbellum period she also illuminates the ways political considerations shaped the course of the law—both the fear that Davis would be acquitted and, as the political ground shifted, of taking a position on the matter at all. Nicoletti has written a beautiful work of legal history about working lawyers mired in legal and constitutional intricacies but fully aware of the potentially earth-shaking political consequences of their actions. Secession on Trial opens up fresh perspectives not only on the Civil War and Reconstruction but also the vexing and variable relationship between law and politics.The members of this year's Cromwell Book Prize subcommittee were Sophia Lee (University of Pennsylvania) (chair); Felice Batlan (Chicago-Kent College of Law); Jonathan Levy (University of Chicago); and Thomas Mackey (University of Louisville).
Congratulations to Professor Nicoletti!