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Common Law and Natural Law in America

Book description

Speaking to today's flourishing conversations on both law, morality, and religion, and the religious foundations of law, politics, and society, Common Law and Natural Law in America is an ambitious four-hundred-year narrative and fresh re-assessment of the varied American interactions of 'common law', the stuff of courtrooms, and 'natural law', a law built on human reason, nature, and the mind or will of God. It offers a counter-narrative to the dominant story of common law and natural law by drawing widely from theological and philosophical accounts of natural law, as well as primary and secondary work in legal and intellectual history. With consequences for today's natural-law proponents and critics alike, it explores the thought of the Puritans, Revolutionary Americans, and seminal legal figures including William Blackstone, Joseph Story, Christopher Columbus Langdell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the legal realists.


'Forsyth explodes the myth that the complex and sometimes contradictory insights of natural law had nothing to do with the development of the American legal tradition. Elegantly written and meticulously documented, this book is essential reading for both ethicists and legal historians.'

Cathleen Kaveny - Darald and Juliet Libby Professor of Law and Theology, Boston College

'Common Law and Natural Law in America challenges our received understanding of the historical relationship between common law and the natural law tradition in the United States. Forsyth’s careful and elegant study will be of great interest to legal historians and philosophers as well as anyone concerned with the connections between law, religion, and morality in America, past and present.'

David Singh Grewal - Yale University, Connecticut

'An elegant and erudite excavation of a forgotten yet influential stratum of American legal thought. Combining deft conceptual reconstructions with a compelling historical narrative, the author presents a tradition of natural law thought that is as important for moral theologians and moral philosophers as it is for legal historians. It is a superb study, and I could not recommend it more highly.'

Gerald McKenny - Walter Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame, Indiana

'Upending standard views of natural law and common law as sharply distinct, Common Law and Natural Law in America lays bare a shared conviction animating American legal thought from the seventeenth up through the early twentieth century. Common law is not merely made, in the accumulation of cases and precedent, but discovered, as rooted in a universal moral law, albeit one that is not transparently available. Forsyth deftly shows how consensus on this point, maintained until the early twentieth-century advent of legal realism, came in many distinct flavors, each with its own potential to reframe the terms of contemporary debate on law, morality, and religion. A transformative contribution!'

Jennifer A. Herdt - Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics, Yale University, Connecticut

'Traversing literature ranging from college curricular to legal commentaries, while combining intellectual and institutional history, Forsyth develops a sophisticated, richly textured account of how different formulations of the relationship between natural law and common law shaped the American legal imagination until such formulations were overshadowed by an intentional secularization. But this is no elegy. Rather, in a compelling style, Forsyth makes available a combination of theological, moral, and political concepts that are central to the American legal tradition and constitute a vital resource for the urgent task of re-articulating the moral basis of law in the contemporary context.'

Luke Bretherton - Duke University, North Carolina


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