The best books to understand the role that states have played in shaping American law and legal history

Joseph A. Ranney Author Of Bridging Revolutions: The Lives of Chief Justices Richmond Pearson and John Belton O'Neall
By Joseph A. Ranney

Who am I?

I'm a retired trial lawyer and a legal history professor and fellow at Marquette Law School in Wisconsin. As a young lawyer, I was struck by how much Americans focus on federal lawmakers and judges at the expense of their state counterparts, even though state law has a much greater effect on people's daily lives than federal law. The scholar Leonard Levy once said that without more study of state legal history, “there can be no … adequate history of [American] civilization.” I want to help fill that need through my books and articles, and I enjoy sharing this fascinating world with my readers.  

I wrote...

Bridging Revolutions: The Lives of Chief Justices Richmond Pearson and John Belton O'Neall

By Joseph A. Ranney,

Book cover of Bridging Revolutions: The Lives of Chief Justices Richmond Pearson and John Belton O'Neall

What is my book about?

Bridging Revolutions recounts the colorful and controversial lives of two Southern chief justices, North Carolina's Richmond Pearson and South Carolina's John Belton O'Neall.

O'Neall, a committed Unionist, resisted his state's nullification movement during the 1830s and put an end to that movement with a crucial 1834 decision. Pearson, the only Southern justice whose service fully spanned the South's transition from slavery to freedom, stoutly defended North Carolinians' civil rights against incursions by the Confederate government during the Civil War. After the war, he urged the South to accept "the world as it is" rather than oppose civil rights for freed slaves, and he did more than any other Southern judge to protect newly-freed slaves' civil rights and to reshape Southern state law.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality

Why did I love this book?

This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to fully understand the century-long struggle after the Civil War to end legally-sanctioned discrimination against Black Americans. Prof. Klarman provides a richly detailed account of that century-long struggle, an account that describes the legal battles that took place in individual states and puts them in the context of the larger national debate. The book requires some effort on the reader's part, but the story that Klarman tells of the U.S. Supreme Court's gradual turn against segregation and its clashes with Southern state lawmakers and courts is ultimately a deeply moving one. 

By Michael J. Klarman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From Jim Crow to Civil Rights as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A monumental investigation of the Supreme Court's rulings on race, From Jim Crow To Civil Rights spells out in compelling detail the political and social context within which the Supreme Court Justices operate and the consequences of their decisions for American race relations. In a highly provocative interpretation of the decision's connection to the civil rights movement, Klarman argues that Brown was more important for mobilizing southern white opposition to racial change than for encouraging direct-action protest. Brown unquestioningly had a significant impact-it brought race issues to public attention and it mobilized supporters of the ruling. It also, however, energized…

Book cover of The Southern Judicial Tradition: State Judges and Sectional Distinctiveness, 1790-1890

Why did I love this book?

The South is endlessly fascinating to history fans, and Prof. Huebner gives us short, thought-provoking biographies of six important Southern state judges. He recounts the contributions that each judge made to American law – for example, Virginia chief justice Spencer Roane's ultimately futile effort to persuade Americans that state courts could interpret the federal Constitution for themselves, independent of federal authority; Tennessee Justice John Catron's efforts to embed Jacksonian principles in American law; and North Carolina chief justice Thomas Ruffin's clear-eyed assessment of the inherent conflict between slaveowners' views of slaves as human beings and as tools for maximizing agricultural production and profit. Huebner skillfully combines fascinating personal stories with sharp insights into each judge's legal legacy. 

By Timothy S. Huebner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Southern Judicial Tradition as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An exploration of the emergence of a southern judiciary and the effects of regional attitudes on legal development. It draws on the opinions and correspondence of six chief justices to analyze their conception of their roles and the substance of their attitudes to various cases.

Book cover of Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act

Why did I love this book?

In 1882, only a few years after it enacted a series of landmark civil rights laws, Congress passed an Exclusion Act slamming the door on Chinese immigration. Why the dramatic turnaround? A powerful anti-Chinese movement, driven by racism and fear of economic competition, had taken hold among whites in the West and had produced a wave of anti-Asian state laws. Americans east of the Rockies didn't share Western sentiments, but eventually Eastern politicians yielded in order to attract Western votes. Gyory gives us an absorbing picture of the exclusion movement, of Western anti-Chinese leaders, and of the Easterners who went along with them. His book is a stark reminder that good people's indifference can contribute to the triumph of evil.

By Andrew Gyory,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Closing the Gate as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred nearly all Chinese from US shores for ten years. Gyory traces the origins of the Act, contending that rather than confronting divisive problems such as class conflict, politicians sought a safe, non-ideological solution to the nation's industrial crisis.

Book cover of James Kent: A Study in Conservatism, 1763-1847

Why did I love this book?

Although he is virtually unknown today, New York chancellor James Kent ranks as one of America's greatest state judges. Kent was an old-time Federalist, a believer in government by gentlemen. During his lifetime his views steadily lost ground to Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, but he made a permanent imprint on American law. Among other things, he authored the first general treatise on American law and arranged for national circulation of New York judicial decisions, thus giving his state an outsize role in shaping American law, and he helped preserve the central place of federal authority and protection of private property in the law. Kent deserves a modern biography, but until one is written, readers interested in New York history and legal history will find John Horton's older 1939 biography a lively and easy-to-read book, well worth their time.

By John Theodore Horton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked James Kent as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Reprint of the first and only edition. Originally published: New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., [1939]. xi, 354 pp. Well-annotated, with a thorough bibliography and index.

Book cover of Jefferson's Louisiana: Politics and the Clash of Legal Traditions

Why did I love this book?

Jefferson's Louisiana is an absorbing study of a clash of cultures that helped to shape America's legal empire as it moved westward. Louisiana, governed by Spain and France under civil law codes for nearly a century before it became part of the United States, was a crossroads at which English law (dominant elsewhere in the new nation) and European law collided. Prof. Dargo first describes the uneasy cultural accommodation that French and Spanish settlers made with American immigrants at the turn of the nineteenth century, an accommodation made more challenging by Aaron Burr's simultaneous efforts to foment revolution in the trans-Appalachian West. Dargo then tells the story of how American and old-settler jurists collaborated to shape a new Louisiana code amalgamating common and civil law. 

By George Dargo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jefferson's Louisiana as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Purchase of all of Louisiana in 1803 brought the new American nation into contact with the French Creole population of the Lower Mississippi Basin. The Spanish called it Baja Luisiana. While the settlement in and around the city of New Orleans (the capital of the province when it was ruled by Spain) was not large, it had well established governmental and legal institutions. Which system of law would prevail in this volatile corner of the North American continent, a region that was distant and strategically vulnerable to rival European powers -- Spain, France and Great Britain - who still…

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