Laura Edwards’s A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction

This post is long overdue. I am beginning what will be a new series for the blog. For the next few months, I will be posting short precises on a number of books on the Civil War and Reconstruction. This series is designed to serve two functions. One, it will keep me writing and thinking analytically. And two, it will serve as a catalogue of book reviews, which may or may not be helpful to have in the future. The casual reader may be turned off by the style of the posts, but I feel they are important nonetheless. These books have and are currently shaping the historiography of Reconstruction and, if pondered seriously, will spark further questions. 

 

A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights

In A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights, Laura Edwards argues that the Civil War transformed the American legal order by altering the relationship between the government and its people. This transformation, however, was not the predetermined result of war time governance. Rather, the emerging legal system evolved as a dialectic: the Federal Government expanded its legal authority as ordinary individuals simultaneously carved out spaces whereby they could provide new meaning to their rights. Broad interpretations of the Reconstruction Amendments conflated the distance between civil and political rights and notions of equality and justice. Tensions arose, Edwards insists, because even in the midst of this evolution, the foundational structure of American law endured. Law affirmed legal principles, not rights, and jurisdiction remained with local and state governments rather than the federal government, diluting the Reconstruction Amendments’ overall effectiveness. Suits only made it to the federal level via a series of appeals. Thus Edwards concludes that Reconstruction died, in part, because Congressional Republicans could not muster a new legal system to match the new legal order. Rights were relegated to being bundles of privileges that granted one access to the legal system.

 

A link to an interview of Dr. Edwards’s discussing here book can be found here.