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

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Part of New Histories of American Law

  • Date Published: January 2015
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781107401341

$ 24.99 (G)

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About the Authors
  • Although hundreds of thousands of people died fighting in the Civil War, perhaps the war's biggest casualty was the nation's legal order. A Nation of Rights explores the implications of this major change by bringing legal history into dialogue with the scholarship of other historical fields. Federal policy on slavery and race, particularly the three Reconstruction amendments, are the best-known legal innovations of the era. Change, however, permeated all levels of the legal system, altering Americans' relationship to the law and allowing them to move popular conceptions of justice into the ambit of government policy. The results linked Americans to the nation through individual rights, which were extended to more people and, as a result of new claims, were reimagined to cover a wider array of issues. But rights had limits in what they could accomplish, particularly when it came to the collective goals that so many ordinary Americans advocated. Ultimately, Laura F. Edwards argues that this new nation of rights offered up promises that would prove difficult to sustain.

    • Introduces key issues in the legal history of the period to those who are not specialists in the field, including undergraduates
    • Serves as a new intervention in the historiography of the topic and thus speaks to specialists in the field as well
    • Written for scholars in two historical subfields that are usually construed as separate and unrelated (legal history and the history of the American Civil War/Reconstruction)
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    • A Choice Outstanding Academic Title 2015

    Reviews & endorsements

    "Bold, brilliant, and sweeping, this concise history places the transformation of American law at the center of the Civil War. In clear analysis of constitutional amendments, Supreme Court decisions, expanding wartime powers, and everyday people's bold claims, Edwards shows that a war fought to preserve a legal order ended up almost entirely remaking it. The legal dismantling of American slavery not only extended rights to new people but also reconfigured what rights meant and why they were so central to the new American nation that the war made."
    Gregory Downs, City College and Graduate Center, City University of New York

    "A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction offers a compelling new account of how the Civil War transformed the American legal order. Edwards, a leading historian of the nineteenth century, connects developments at the federal level with the histories of African Americans, women, and organized laborers. Her treatment of the complex relationship between individual rights and inequality should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of the modern United States."
    Kate Masur, Northwestern University, Illinois

    "In A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Laura Edwards combines a brilliant synthesis of decades of scholarship with original insights and analysis. She lucidly demonstrates how the social tumult and fearsome politics of the Civil War era reshaped the nation's legal order and Americans' ideas about the meaning of rights."
    Michael A. Ross, University of Maryland

    "This is an important addition to the literature on American social and legal history. Edwards shows how the Civil War forever changed the conception of the Constitution, federalism, and individual rights. In an eminently readable account, she traces the evolution of legal thought and practice in the North brought about by the Civil War … This well-researched, well-written book is accessible and useful for scholars ranging from ambitious high school students to established senior scholars. It is superb. Summing up: essential."
    M. M. Feeley, Choice

    "A superb synthesis … Edwards challenges traditional and revisionist narratives as she infuses legal history into dialogue with scholarship running from the Dunning school of the early 1900s to the present. She provides fresh views on old issues as she, for example, explicates the irony of centralization in the Confederate federal government. Moreover, she provides captivating insights beyond the 1861 to 1877 period in demonstrating the error of conflating the federal government with the nation and so oversimplifying governance within the nation, and in persistently reminding readers that the story of the nation is one of ongoing conflict mirroring the American people's aspirations in all their contradictory possibilities."
    Thomas J. Davis, The Journal of American History

    "In this remarkable synthesis of multiple strands of historiography Laura F. Edwards makes it stunningly clear that legal change was broader and deeper than conventionally imagined. Intended for student use but speaking in original and elegant terms to specialists and non-specialists, A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights offers a concise narrative that makes the correction of historiographical myopia look easy."
    Pamela Brandwein, The American Historical Review

    "Laura F. Edwards analyzes the legal transformations in rights brought about by the national experience of the Civil War and Reconstruction … Edwards’s book thoughtfully intervenes in debates over the meaning of this period and provides a remarkably fresh perspective on this well-tilled ground."
    Julie Novkov, Journal of Southern History

    "Edwards deftly incorporates historical information about the impacts of the legal changes of this era on many segments of the US population. Moving beyond a traditional emphasis on the social categories of white and black, the author provides valuable context about the impacts of the era’s legal changes on women in general (both black and white), workers in the expanding industrial sector, and Native Americans. Edwards also offers her readers an alternative to the dominant North-South "axis" of the historiography of Reconstruction … Any library that collects in the areas of legal history, constitutional history, or civil rights would be well served by the addition of this title."
    Jennifer L. Laws, Law Library Journal

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    Product details

    • Date Published: January 2015
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781107401341
    • length: 226 pages
    • dimensions: 213 x 140 x 20 mm
    • weight: 0.27kg
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. The United States and its use of the people
    2. The Confederacy and its legal contradictions
    3. Enslaved Americans, emancipation, and the future legal order
    4. The federal government and the reconstruction of the legal order
    5. The possibilities of rights
    6. The power of law and the limits of rights
    7. Conclusion.

  • Author

    Laura F. Edwards, Duke University, North Carolina
    Laura F. Edwards is the Peabody Family Professor of History at Duke University, North Carolina. Her book The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South was awarded the American Historical Association's 2009 Littleton–Griswold Prize for the best book in law and society and the Southern Historical Association's Charles Sydnor Prize for the best book in Southern history.


    • A Choice Outstanding Academic Title 2015

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