Slavery's Legalism: Lawyers and the Commercial Routine of Slavery
37 Law and History Review 571-603 (2019)
Posted: 22 Jul 2019
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
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