Is it possible to read both broadly and deeply into one subject? Early in 2017, because of my interest in the life of North Carolina Chief Justice Richmond M. Pearson, I set out to read both broadly and deeply into American legal history. I wanted to know more about the lives and work of American jurists.
I guess this quest actually started in 2016, when I read Lawrence Friedman's A History of American Law and Joe Meacham's American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Friedman's book has its interesting parts as well as some that are less so(I could never be a corporate or property lawyer). Meacham's biography of Jackson was quite interesting.
In 2018 came Cliff Sloan and David McKean's The Great Decision: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Battle for the Supreme Court. This was a fascinating tome, and, at some point in the future, I want to dive more into the life of John Marshall. Next came John Quincy Adams: Policymaker for the Union by James E. Lewis, Jr. I had read on John Adams before (queue up David McCullough's voice), but never anything on his son, except in other texts. Like John Marshall's work on establishing the Supreme Court as an equal branch of government, John Quincy Adams really established the state department.
Next came Maurice G. Baxter's Henry Clay: The Lawyer, a book I've had for a number of years (published in 2000), but never read. Lawyers in 19th century America practiced all kinds of law, all at once. But they also developed specialties along the way. Clay specialized in real estate law.
Next, I turned my attention to Abraham Lincoln, picking out two books from the tens of thousands on this one man. The first was a collection of essays edited by Roger Billings and Frank J. Williams entitled Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest President. The title should have given it away: this book was dreadful. Only two of the essays were really quality material (and I don't even remember what they were). One thing I did pick up was that Lincoln excelled in collecting debts. For example, some backwoods store owner would order merchandise from a New York wholesaler and when he did not pay, the wholesaler would hire Lincoln to collect. A much, much better book was James Simon's Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney. Once again, this was a book I have had for some time (published in 2006). This was a superb read, comparing the lives of Lincoln and Roger Taney. At some point, I would really like to dig more into the life of Taney.
Then came Timothy S. Huebner's The Southern Judicial Tradition: State Judges and Sectional Distinctiveness, 1790-1890, a book of essays on six different judges. I was most interested in Thomas Ruffin (yes, cousin to Edmond Ruffin). Thomas Ruffin had retired from the North Carolina Supreme Court by the time of the war, but did play several interesting roles during the conflict. We'll probably look more into his life in a future blog post.
Finally came Justice of Shattered Dreams: Samuel Freeman Miller and the Supreme Court during the Civil War Era. This book (I'm about half way through) is superbly written. It has some of the best summaries of national events, like the Kansas-Nebraska Act, that I recall seeing. Miller was one of the five justices that Lincoln appointed to the US Supreme Court during his presidency. He was a slave-owning Kentucky doctor before giving up on the institution and moving to Iowa to practice law. Miller believed that Southern leaders who attempted to start the Southern Confederacy should have been hanged or driven into exile.
So, it is possible to read both broadly and deeply? Yes. I read broadly into American history in 2017, coving over 90 years of the past. But I have also read deeply, looking specifically at lawyers and legalities, men and events that influenced American history.
What's next? I'm not sure. Several times in my life, I have taken huge chunks of time to read on a certain subject or individual. I once spent two years reading on Robert E. Lee. I've already confessed that I would like to read more on Marshall and Taney. I have William M. Robinson, Jr.,'s Justice in Grey: A History of the Judicial System of the Confederate States of America, a book I have never read. (It's huge - almost 700 pages.) I'm very interested in the life of John A. Campbell, a sitting US Supreme Court Justice who resigned his seat at the start of the war, went back to Alabama, and was then appointed the Confederate Assistant Secretary of War. I also have several books I've collected over the years on more recent justices and courts. I originally thought I would spend 2018 looking more into 19th-century science, but maybe I'll hang out in the legal world a little longer.