Deciding Against Conciliation: The Nineteenth-Century Rejection of a European Transplant and the Rise of a Distinctively American Ideal of Adversarial Adjudication
Theoretical Inquiries in Law, July 2009
79 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2008
Date Written: August 15, 2008
A sizeable body of literature suggests that informal methods of dispute resolution - and, in particular, conciliation - flourish only in societies marked by extensive social hierarchy. Given this literature, it is quite surprising to discover that in the mid-nineteenth century, the United States embarked on an extensive debate regarding whether to adopt conciliation courts, whose primary function was to reconcile the disputants by persuading them to embrace an equitable compromise.
First created by the French Revolutionaries in 1790, conciliation courts were widely established throughout continental Europe. Observing this development, leading American lawyers and politicians - anxious to respond to public complaints about the costly nature of litigation and the growing power of the legal profession, and seeking a solution to the deep social rifts threatened by new forces of urbanization and industrialization - pondered seriously whether the United States ought to follow suit. Debate over whether to embrace such institutions occurred at the very highest of levels - including at the New York Constitutional Convention of 1846, now more famously remembered for giving rise to the Field Code. And a series of states enacted constitutional provisions authorizing their legislatures to create conciliation courts.
Ultimately, however, despite the widespread interest in such institutions, these were never meaningfully established - except in the notable case of the Freedmen's Bureau courts of the Reconstruction south. This paper explores this largely forgotten episode in American legal history. It examines why a nation that was radically egalitarian by standards of the time would seriously consider embracing an institution that we tend more commonly to associate with inegalitarian, strongly hierarchical societies - and why, after coming so close to adopting conciliation courts, it ultimately failed to do so. In the process, by situating the debate over conciliation courts in a broader social and legal context, the paper also excavates the origins of the modern, quintessentially American commitment to the virtues of formal, adversarial legal process.
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