Now that the Companion to American Legal History that Sally Hadden and I co-edited is available, I want to talk a little more about what it says about the field of legal history. By way of background, the Blackwell-Wiley companion volumes are designed to survey the field and give review essays that talk about what historians have written about; and sometimes at the end they point towards new directions in the field, as well.
I think the volume comes at precisely the right moment for American legal history, because the field is going in so many different directions at once. A while back -- like when I was in graduate school -- the field was still dominated by studies of appellate opinions and jurisprudence. So judges, treatise writers, and high brow legal thinkers predominated in the field. There has been an extraordinary expansion in subjects over the past several decades. Legal historians are looking closely at enslaved people, women, gay people, immigrants, workers, welfare recipients, as well as lawyers in big firms and small. And they're looking at the procedures of justice of the peace and police courts, local trial courts, as well as state supreme courts and the United States Supreme Court. The methods have broadened dramatically, too: we're interested in how fictional literature critiqued law (and in some cases supported it); how the technology of law brought down irrational authority and (more commonly) supported it. As Sally and I say in the introduction -- and as I've observed elsewhere -- legal history is expanding so much in subjects and methods that it is beginning to look like almost all of history fits somewhere in its boundaries.
There's just a lot of literature to deal with and a great many moving parts. Most of this is positive -- it's great to be in such a broad field. One thing, however, is negative here. And that is that the field is going in search of unifying principles. Where once we knew how to talk about the pre-Civil War period, now there are so many different themes that it's sometimes hard to see how one important and deep book relates to another, even though they may be on what look like a similar topic. One of my hopes is that in bringing a lot of the recent literature of legal history together in one place we'll see how people working in different periods are asking similar questions and how people working in the same period but from different vantages (either of sources or subjects) may have something to say to one another. One of the topics that I'm increasingly interested in, for instance, is how the technology of law is used throughout our history to bring order to the community.
I'm hoping that the volume will spark some serious discussion of unifying questions.