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  • Federal Justice in the Mid-Atlantic South: United States Courts from Maryland to the Carolinas, 1836–1861 by Peter Graham Fish
  • James M. Denham
Federal Justice in the Mid-Atlantic South: United States Courts from Maryland to the Carolinas, 1836–1861. By Peter Graham Fish. Legal History. (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2015. Pp. [xxxii], 734. $125.00, ISBN 978-1-61163-601-7.)

In this remarkable work, a sequel to his 2002 study, Peter Graham Fish examines the legal, economic, political, and social impact of the Third, [End Page 673] Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Circuits from 1836 to 1861 within the context of the expanding national economy and the tumultuous political polarization of the era. The mid-Atlantic South in Fish’s book encompassed Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina and, by 1842, also included Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia. An impressive and substantive book, Fish’s study joins and expands the work of Carl Brent Swisher, Kermit L. Hall, Russell R. Wheeler, Cynthia Ellen Harrison, Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau, and Robert M. Ireland.

In eight parts and thirty-two chapters Fish addresses in rich detail the politics of judicial appointments, the circuit courts, and the social settings of the courthouse towns. The study examines how the federal courts expanded, adapted, and responded to challenges during this period. Fish’s chapters also survey various constitutional questions confronting the courts. Important interstate commerce cases, bankruptcy, and the courts’ criminal jurisdiction (mail robbery, counterfeiting, forgery, murder committed on federal property, treason, and piracy) are covered. In addition, the roles of federal marshals, clerks of the court, commissioners, court criers, and steamboat inspectors are examined.

Admiralty matters, on both the region’s rivers and the high seas, consumed much of the courts’ attention. As would be expected, the adjudication of questions involving slavery is covered from a number of viewpoints, and this analysis is among the book’s most impressive contributions. As Fish reminds us, “slavery’s hovering presence” was everywhere the federal courts operated (p. 341). Readers will also find extensive information on the federal courts’ handling of illegal slave trade cases, a traffic made illegal by congressional enactment in 1808. No other litigation in federal courts was so controversial, and among the cases that Fish analyzes are the Echo, Wanderer, and Wildfire slave ship cases prosecuted and tried in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. Fish discusses these and other cases in the legal and political context of the time.

The book begins with the transition from the Marshall Court to the Taney Court. In 1836 Roger B. Taney succeeded John Marshall as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. A Maryland native, Taney, who is remembered mostly for his controversial ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), also rode circuit. In Taney’s case, he was assigned to the Fourth Circuit, which at that time constituted Maryland and Delaware. According to Fish, Taney’s appointment “stunned Marshallian conservatives. They perceived him as a ‘supple, cringing tool of power,’ a states’ rights advocate, and author and the executor of President Andrew Jackson’s veto that killed the Second Bank of the United States,” an institution that Marshall’s rulings up to that time had upheld (p. 123). Other lively passages describing contemporaries’ perceptions of Taney make for enjoyable reading. Fish also ably documents Taney’s lower court rulings, his attendance in the circuit, and his overall role in shaping the decisions in the circuit.

Fish’s mastery of the secondary literature on the federal courts in the antebellum era is impressive. More important, Fish and his students have combed thousands of pages of court records available at the National Archives. Fish also uses federal statutes, newspapers, and manuscript collections relevant to the judges, politicians, and other officers of the court. The book contains seventeen appendixes, forty tables, fourteen graphs, eighteen maps, an index of [End Page 674] cases, and 137 rare illustrations of people, courthouses, and contemporary city views. The Carolina Academic Press’s lavish presentation will be attractive to practitioners as well as scholars. Fish’s Federal Justice in the Mid-Atlantic South: United States Courts from Maryland to the Carolinas, 1836–1861 is truly...


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