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Law's Revolution: Benjamin Austin and the Spirit of '86

88 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2013 Last revised: 16 Dec 2013

Aaron T. Knapp

Boston University School of Law

Date Written: July 16, 2013


In the spring of 1786, a series of newspaper essays appeared in Boston arguing that lawyers and the laws on which they relied posed a mortal threat to the republican way of life and therefore had to be eradicated forever. Authored by Benjamin Austin, Jr. under the pseudonym "Honestus," these writings sparked a substantial public dialogue extending far beyond Massachusetts’s borders and, within the Bay State, prompted the Shaysites to wage what one historian has called "the American Revolution’s final battle." The commonly held notion that the obstreperous spirit of 1786 reflected a "crisis" requiring redress, and that ratification of the Constitution thereafter resolved it, temps us to consign Critical Period radicals such as Benjamin Austin to the losing side of history. The Article pursues a contrary interpretation. It views Austin and his partisans in 1786 as seminal figures in the birth of an independent American legal culture. It traces overlooked strains of this post-Revolutionary legal culture from the Founding to the Civil War and, in the process, unsettles foundational assumptions long held dear by American legal historians.

Keywords: American history, legal history, post-Revolutionary legal history, antebellum legal history, legal culture, law and revolution, law and politics, constitutional law, Benjamin Austin, Honestus, antilegalism

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Knapp, Aaron T., Law's Revolution: Benjamin Austin and the Spirit of '86 (July 16, 2013). Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 271-359 (2013). Available at SSRN:

Aaron T. Knapp (Contact Author)

Boston University School of Law ( email )

United States

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