Signposts, an anthology of essays on southern legal history, presents the work of seventeen scholars currently working in the field. As the editors state in their introduction, southern legal history has been a fertile ground for new scholarship over the past twenty-five years. However, this innovative work has been overshadowed by the avalanche of scholarship on slaves and race relations in the South. This volume emphasizes research in other areas of southern legal history [End Page 314] and successfully proves the importance of examining all aspects of southern law. Signposts makes the case for the vibrancy of a legal history that is regional and yet illuminates national legal history.
Although the editors present these essays in chronological groupings, the essays reflect thematic coherency across the centuries. Several essays on property law illuminate the role of property in creating the underpinnings of the southern legal system. James Ely argues that understanding the uniqueness of the South as a debtor region explains the particular importance of the southern states’ creation and application of homestead exemption statutes. Laura Edwards examines the role that textiles played in women’s economic life and describes how local practices recognized a property right in textiles that the formal legal system of coverture denied. Susan Richbourg Parker addresses the role that Spanish law played in allowing Florida women a claim on real property. Jennifer Spear investigates how Spanish law granted slaves a legal claim to purchase their freedom against their master’s will. Patricia Hagler Minter presents an insightful micro-history of Buchanan v. Warley. She argues that even though the U.S. Supreme Court found the Louisville ordinance requiring segregated residential neighborhoods unconstitutionally violated property rights, the decision belongs in the civil rights canon because the court understood that the ordinance created a racialized property system.
Another group of essays highlights the importance of lawyers, judges, and legal thinking to southern intellectual history. Jessica Lowe examines the thought of St. George Tucker and argues that he actively transformed common law judging to create a republican role for the judiciary. Alfred Brophy argues that southern lawyers and judges were important creators of the proslavery ideology that effectively applied theory to the day-to-day reality of the slaveholding society. Roman Hoyos connects the southern Confederates’ theory of the right of secession to an interpretation of American constitutionalism in which rights existed outside of the 1787 federal Constitution. Christopher Schmidt examines the relationship between libertarian thought and the “right to discriminate,” and sees a libertarian bridge between the [End Page 315] white supremacist rhetoric and conservative philosophy in the 1980s.
Another theme is the role of the law in ordering society. Sally Hadden examines South Carolina grand jury presentments as a forum for citizen discontent with everything from poor roads to unruly slaves. Thomas Ingersoll interprets the law and order crackdown in New Orleans after 1763 as arising from the increasing insecurity of slaveholders, which resulted from the changes in European politics. Christopher Waldrep adds to his impressive list of writings on the role of extralegal violence in the South by convincingly arguing that the failure of the federal Constitution to control local law constitutionalized extralegal violence not only in the South but throughout the country. Lisa Lindquist Dorr examines local sources to uncover the role of women in violating Prohibition laws. Tim Garrison examines the role of one lawyer, Elisha W. Chester, in unsuccessfully mediating between the Cherokee and the national government in the dispute that led to the Cherokee removal from Georgia.
In two very intriguing essays, Charles Zelden and Cynthia Nicoletti describe the impact of southern events on national politics. Nicoletti argues that a group of loosely organized Reconstruction–era attorneys launched an attack on the Military Reconstruction Act that was so successful that the Republican Congress repealed the act for fear that the Fourteenth Amendment might be found unconstitutional. Zelden connects the civil rights movement and the Supreme Court’s “one person-one vote” rulings...