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Remaking Custom

Law and Identity in the Early American Republic
Ellen Holmes Pearson

BUY Cloth · 272 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813930787 · $46.50 · Mar 2011
BUY Ebook · 272 pp. · ISBN 9780813930930 · $46.50 · Mar 2011

History has largely forgotten the writings, both public and private, of early nineteenth-century America’s legal scholars. However, Ellen Holmes Pearson argues that the observers from this era had a unique perspective on the young nation and the directions in which its legal culture might go.

Remaking Custom draws on the law lectures, treatises, speeches, and papers of the early republic’s legal scholars to examine the critical role that they played in the formation of American identities. As intermediaries between the founders of America’s newly independent polities and the next generation of legal practitioners and political leaders, the nation’s law educators expressed pride in the retention of the "republican parts" of England’s common law while at the same time identifying some of the central features that distinguished American law from that of Britain. From their perspective, the new nation’s blending of tradition and innovation produced a superior national character.

Because American law educators interpreted both local and national legal trends, Remaking Custom reveals how national identities developed through Americans’ articulation of their local customs and identities. Pearson examines the innovations that legists could celebrate, such as constitutional changes that placed the people at the center of their governments and more egalitarian property laws that accompanied America’s abundant supply of land. The book also deals with innovations that presented uncomfortable challenges to law educators as they sought creative ways to justify the legal cultures that grew up around slavery and Anglo-Americans’ hunger for land occupied by Native Americans.


A fascinating book. The effort to describe and analyze how early nineteenth-century American legal writers understood American law is noteworthy and important. Pearson is a sympathetic and careful reader of this remarkable outpouring of American legal literature. Remaking Custom will likely restore to these often forgotten writers the reputation they once deservedly had.

Mary Sarah Bilder, Boston College School of Law, author of The Transatlantic Constitution: Colonial Legal Culture and the Empire

About the Author(s): 

Ellen Holmes Pearson is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.

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