Slavery's Legalism: Lawyers and the Commercial Routine of Slavery

37 Law and History Review 571-603 (2019)

Posted: 22 Jul 2019

See all articles by Justin Simard

Justin Simard

Willamette University - College of Law; Northwestern University; American Bar Foundation

Date Written: May 23, 2019


Elite southern lawyers professed and demonstrated commitment to a vision of legal practice and decisionmaking that they shared with their northern colleagues, even as legal arguments over slavery and secession played out contentiously in politics and the courts. This vision was rooted, not in commitments to slavery, free labor, or economic development but rather in legalism, characterized by commitment to legal rules and reasoning, and legal practice, distinguished by dedication to routine commercial work. Insulated from many of the political and economic conflicts of the antebellum era, a national legal culture allowed southern lawyers to serve as economic intermediaries between North and South. This article examines this culture through a study of the career of the Georgia lawyer E.A. Nisbet. During his legal education, time on the Georgia Supreme Court, and work as a private lawyer Nisbet demonstrated a consistent commitment to a technical American legal culture that allowed elite southern lawyers like him to support slavery in subtle but important ways.

Keywords: Legal History, Law of Slavery, Legal Profession

Suggested Citation

Simard, Justin, Slavery's Legalism: Lawyers and the Commercial Routine of Slavery (May 23, 2019). 37 Law and History Review 571-603 (2019). Available at SSRN:

Justin Simard (Contact Author)

Willamette University - College of Law ( email )

245 Winter St. SE
Salem, OR 97301
United States

Northwestern University ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

American Bar Foundation ( email )

750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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