This essay explores the implications of legal history for historians of the early republic who do not usually think about the importance of law or scholarship in the field for their own work. The essay develops two, related themes. First, it shows how recent work in legal history broadens our understanding of the law, which flourished in a variety of institutional contexts and even in rural byways and city streets, where it structured broad-reaching economic and cultural dynamics as well as the ordinary relationships of daily life. The law's proximity to people's lives, however, did not make it simple or straightforward, which is the second point of this essay. In fact, the law's very complexity made it more accessible to a wide range of people in the early republic. As the article argues, the contributions of scholarship in legal history make it impossible to cordon off the law and place it in a separate subfield, and to characterize legal rules and procedures in the past—particularly the early republic—as both clearer and less complicated than they are today. Scholars of the early republic more broadly can benefit from these recent findings, which affect many other areas of research—from the social histories of women and African Americans to our understandings of state formation, citizenship rights, and the fundamental aims of the law itself.


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pp. 121-147
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