Lawyers and Slavery
The commercial role of lawyers brought them into direct contact with the law of slavery. My research explores the legacy of slave law, revealing that American judges and lawyers continue to cite slave cases as good law today and that such cases have not only been incorporated into modern judicial decisions but also into the Uniform Commercial Code. At a time when other Americans groups and institutions from business to universities are coming to grips with the legacy of slavery, my work asks the legal profession to do the same.
Table of Cases from Thomas R.R. Cobb's, An Inquiry Into the Law of Negro Slavery in America (1858)
My work also provides the historical grounding lawyers need to do so. In the nineteenth century, human property accounted for roughly 20% of the wealth in the United States, and enslaved Americans produced 60% of the world’s cotton. American judges issued nearly 11,000 appellate opinions on the law of slavery. My scholarship analyzes the law that arose from slave commerce and examines the professional approach that encouraged lawyers to participate in a slave economy. Understanding the development and reception of slave law explains the continued presence of slavery in modern law and the urgency of addressing its legacy.
Lawyers and Economic Development
My research also examines the economic influence of the legal profession more generally. Whereas other historians and legal scholars focus on the relationship between legal doctrine and economic activity, my research illustrates the important place of the transactional work of lawyers in American economic life. In conducting transactions, lawyers play vital roles as commercial agents. Though nominally private-law practice, this legal work was never wholly private. Nineteenth century lawyers served state-like functions by helping to create liquidity, enforce property rights, and encourage investment. Providing historical context for this activity helps explain the continued prominence of the legal profession in American economic life.