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The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860 (Studies in Legal History) New Ed Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674903715
ISBN-10: 0674903714
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Editorial Reviews

Review

He has read widely in many fields...[and] has gathered a rich harvest for any reader...a remarkable achievement. (Yale Law Journal)

It is to be hoped that a wide audience will read it since the issues it raises are indispensable...Horwitz's book is written with a passion. (New York Review of Books)

A thoughtful contribution to the continuing issue of whether and how much we are governed by our judges. (Library Journal)

One of the five most significant books ever published in the field of American legal history. (William E. Nelson, Yale University)

Review

One of the five most significant books ever published in the field of American legal history.
--William E. Nelson, Yale University --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: Studies in Legal History (Book 10)
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; New Ed edition (April 30, 1979)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674903714
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674903715
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #533,381 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
As one reviewer and the publisher had pointed out, the basic premise of the book is how the common law sought to accommodate the economic changes (and actually sought to allocate wealth) during the formative years of this republic. Some commentators have criticized this book as a Marxian dialectic attack of the American law--in particular from the Chicago School quarters. (Chicago Law Review published a very scathing review in the 70s with the aim, I suspect, to discredit Horwitz's argument) But I thought Professor Horwitz did a wonderful job in supporting his argument with citation and documentation. Is he a revisionst? Maybe. But he's more of an E.P. Thompson than a Howard Zinn. In any event, this book presents a very convincing argument despite its tendentiousness.
P.s. For those of you who want to avoid "legal arcana" or those who want a more eclectic treatment of the development of the American law, I would recommend Lawrence Friedman's History of the American Law.
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Format: Paperback
I am neither a lawyer nor a historian, a mere 3rd rate merchant, but the book is an excellent map to where the bones of USA are buried, case by case. How come pollution became such a problem in USA? Case by case, the common law system that protected the environment was broken apart to give the advantage from the property owner to the factory owner. Once a factory owner would have to control pollution, and yes this would add to cost, but not stop progress. Court cases allowed big biz to socialize the cost of pollution while keeping the profits. Sound familiar, with today's bank bailouts?

Yes, Horwitz is a Marxist, but we err if we fail to perceive that Marxists get their facts straight. And as a Marxist, he summarizes we need Marxism. OK, just skip the last paragraph in the book. The rest is a stunning, accurate indictment of USA Big Law and Big Biz (and big govt). WE cannot reform or recover America, but we can know what works, and by self-employment carve out a redoubt of legitimate action in a lawless land.
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Format: Paperback
Horwitz argues a fairly radical case, which may not have received wide enough recognition due to the subject matter and style. He says "I seek to show that one of the crucial choices made during the antebellum period was to promote economic growth primarily through the legal, not the tax, system, a choice which had major consequences for the distribution of wealth and power in American society." He also has some interesting ideas about the way "the internal technical life of a field generates autonomous forces that determine its history." We make a mistake, Horwitz believes, if we fail to account for the activities and interests of lawyers, judges, the legal profession, law schools, etc., when looking at how "the law" influenced history. The same could probably be said, with equally interesting results, for religion, medicine, or the study of history itself.

Horwitz looks at common law. Constitutional law, he says, "represents episodic legal intervention buttressed by a rhetorical tradition that is often an unreliable guide to the slower (and often more unconscious) processes of legal change in America." Constitutional law also focuses on judicial review, rather than what Horwitz characterizes as a very active, constructive, legislative role taken on by nineteenth century jurists. "By 1820," he says, "the process of common law decision making had taken on many of the qualities of legislation. As judges began to conceive of common law adjudication as a process of making and not merely discovering legal rules, they were led to frame general doctrines based on a self-conscious consideration of social and economic policies.
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Format: Paperback
The five star reviews are right: "The Transformation of American Law" is an important book, filled with cliche-shattering ideas. Any law student or lawyer who kids himself that private law is apolitical or intellectually autonomous should read it immediately. He'll learn that supposedly timeless and neutral legal doctrines are actually of 19th-century vintage and had profound distributional and economic consequences. (Sneak preview: Industrial and financial interests benefited at the expense of workers and farmers.)

The three star review is also right: "The Transformation of American Law" is leaden, convoluted, tedious, repetitive, and filled with unexplained legal jargon (such as "executory contract" or "quantum meruit"). Non-legally trained readers will have a hard time following the argument.

Bottom line: I've split the difference and given the book four stars. Be warned -- but read it.
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