- Murder in the Shenandoah: Making Law Sovereign in Revolutionary Virginia by Jessica K. Lowe
Virginia, Law, Legal culture, Legal history
On July 4, 1791, Abraham Vanhorn died in a melee on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley. John Crane, a 24-year-old from a prominent local family, was charged with Vanhorn’s murder. In Jessica Lowe’s able hands, the ensuing court case, which wound its way through all levels of the state courts, becomes a tour through the legal culture of 1790s Virginia—a moment when, Lowe persuasively argues, Virginian law was both especially influential and “in motion” (193) as it grappled with the Revolution’s aftermath. [End Page 752]
Murder in the Shenandoah is at once a finely crafted microhistory that displays deep archival skill in reconstructing the “experience” (14) of law in the early republic and an overview of the era’s key legal debates. As Lowe thoroughly demonstrates, republicanism’s advent unsettled law’s foundations in Virginia. Using Crane’s case as a lens, Lowe leads readers through Virginians’ numerous efforts to rebuild their law, as they argued over court reform, the nature and remaking of criminal law and punishment, judicial review, the role of precedent and statutes, and the practice and culture of pardons. She spends perhaps the most time on the practice of special verdicts—jury rulings deciding not on guilt or innocence but on the facts of the case, leaving the ultimate ruling to the judge—since a special verdict proved key to Crane’s ultimate fate. (In a testament to Lowe’s novelistic skills, I don’t want to spoil the outcome for readers.)
Along the way, Crane’s case intersected with some of era’s leading legal figures. His attorneys included future U.S. Attorney General Charles Lee and future Chief Justice John Marshall, and among his judges was the prominent legal scholar and treatise writer (and also, we discover, mediocre poet) St. George Tucker. More than the elusive Crane, Tucker emerges as the leading character of Lowe’s narrative: We watch along as he seeks to establish a new role for judges as “guardian[s] of republican liberty” (123).
Despite its narrative form, Lowe’s work makes key historiographical interventions. Or more accurately, it makes these arguments because of its form: One of Lowe’s key claims is about method and the need to read legal materials thickly, embedded in context. Lowe’s work compellingly illustrates the rewards of such an approach. She is at her best engaging in close, thoughtful readings of legal texts, and drawing persuasive conclusions from very small clues. She artfully explains the ambiguities of class in revolutionary Virginia from the court record’s choice to describe Crane as a “yeoman,” for instance, and makes sophisticated arguments about local justice based on the composition of the Berkeley County jury.
Lowe’s work also makes a more explicit historiographical claim when it challenges Laura Edwards’s argument, in The People and Their Peace (2009), that a sharp divide existed between local “peace” and the more formalized space of state law in antebellum North and South Carolina.1Lowe finds no similar divide in early republican Virginia: The same [End Page 753] notables who staffed county courts and made local law, she discovers, readily circulated to the state or even national level, and even county juries seemed to share their judges’ perspectives on law. This finding leads Lowe to critique prior scholars’ reliance on “legal pluralism”—the concept that conflicting conceptions of law were at work—arguing that, even as Virginians fought over politics and power, they largely agreed about “the idea of law itself” (13).
Lowe arguably undersells the scope of her historiographical challenge, which targets not just Edwards but an entire approach to American legal history—one that traces to Dirk Hartog’s influential 1985 essay “Pigs and Positivism,” which argued for reading legal disputes as “conflict[s] between contending normative orders.”2 Lowe is surely right that legal historians risk becoming...