Forensic Oratory and the Jury Trial in Nineteenth-Century America
Comparative Legal History 3 (2015): 293-306
19 Pages Posted: 18 Apr 2015 Last revised: 1 Nov 2017
Date Written: April 16, 2015
The institution of the jury underwent radical change in the United States during the nineteenth century. At the beginning of the century, the jury trial was a form of popular amusement, rivaling the theater and often likened to it. The jury’s ability to find law, as well as facts, was widely if inconsistently defended. The trial’s role as a source of entertainment, and the jury’s ability to nullify, were consistent with a view of forensic oratory that emphasized histrionics, declamation, and emotionally charged rhetoric as means of legal persuasion. By the end of the century, judges had gained more control of the law-finding power, and various questions of fact had been transformed into questions of law. Many of the details that would have aided the lawyers’ dramatic efforts were screened out by a host of new exclusionary rules. The overall effect was to afford less scope for lawyers' emotional excesses — and to make those performances seem disreputable and outmoded. As an institution, the trial continued to figure significantly in American culture through the first three decades of the twentieth century. Numerous factors conspired to weaken the trial’s prominence after that time. Although these changes in forensic style have not usually been considered as a part of that narrative, they may have helped to facilitate the decline of the trial, by reorienting its function away from a broadly representative one, and towards one that emphasized dispassionate analysis in the service of objectivity and technical exactitude, appealing to a rather different community, made up of professional lawyers and those laypersons who could appreciate their values.
Keywords: jury, legal history, forensic rhetoric
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