This past weekend the American Society for Legal History held its annual meeting. (The program is here.) This year the meeting was in lovely Atlanta. The papers were really terrific and going in all sorts of directions -- from old standbys like the Taney Court to very new areas (for legal historians anyway) like black power and sex equality. I was really pleased with how much new work there is in the field -- and it was refreshing to spend a few days listening to serious scholarship. It would be melodramatic to say that I felt like Rip Van Winkle arriving "home" in a very changed world, but the field of legal history incorporates a lot of subjects that were unanticipated even eighteen years ago when I was new to it.
John Wertheimer of Davidson College put together a roundtable on teaching American legal history for Thursday afternoon. The roundtable had four distinguished teachers:
Barry Cushman of the University of Virginia Law School (whose work includes Rethinking the New Deal Court: The Structure of a Constitutional Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1998));
Elizabeth Dale of the University of Florida history department (whose work includes Criminal Justice in the United States (Cambridge University Press, 2011));
Sally Hadden of Western Michigan University's history department (whose work includes Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Harvard University Press, 2001)); and
Peter Karsten of the University of Pittsburgh's history department (whose work includes Between Law and Custom: "High" and "Low" Legal Cultures in the Lands of the British Diaspora, 1600–1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2003)).
It was a really distinguished line-up of teachers and scholars. Each person spoke about for around ten minutes or so and then there was extensive discussion with the audience. John Wertheimer spoke some towards the end of the roundtable about his seminar in legal history, which each year writes an article together. I had the chance to talk with his students a couple weeks back about their current project -- this is a really exciting model for how to run a class. Each person proposes a case to study; they make the case for their case and then the class votes for the case they're going to study. Then they frame the case in the secondary literature and start digging in the archives, and all around the case -- looking, for instance, at the case in the stream of appellate decisions both before and after it and also at the social and economic context. John published an article, "The Collaborative Research Seminar," on this in the Journal of American History. And a few years ago John published a number of those chapters together in Law and Society in the South.
Here is a podcast of the roundtable. The initial speeches come through much better than the audience questions. If you teach legal history I think you'll find this a really entertaining and educational podcast.