The Law of Descent of the Mind: Law, History, and Civilization in Antebellum Literary Addresses
59 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2005
Date Written: August 2005
In the antebellum era, literary addresses were a common and popular form of public expression. Legal historians have profitably mined Fourth of July orations and addresses in Congress for insight into the intellectual worlds of the antebellum era. Yet, they have made virtually no use of the literary address, which are aimed at a different and more elite audiences. This essay employs a close analysis of nearly forty addresses given at the University of Alabama from 1832 through 1860 to gauge the changes in thought in the antebellum South on political theory and jurisprudence. It uses the addresses to create a picture of the world view of the judges.
The addresses, moreover, illustrate the changes from Enlightenment ideas of moral and technological progress to a static, proslavery vision of the late antebellum period. They allow us to assess the orators' intellect, interests, knowledge, and belief systems. The addresses illustrate a wide-ranging respect for ideas, including the abolition of capital punishment, the scholar's search for truth against the tide of public opinion, republicanism, democracy, radicalism in American politics, and the importance of slavery to Southern culture. A final section turns to judicial opinions in Alabama to make a preliminary sketch of the ways that some of the ideas expressed in the addresses correlate with the moral philosophical views of judges.
The addresses, thus, emerge as important windows into antebellum Southern thought and as vehicles for mapping in detail the intellectual world of moral and political philosophy inhabited by southerners, particularly judges and legislators in the years leading into Civil War. Finally, the essay begins to sketch key pieces of jurisprudence (such as considerations of utility, the importance of history and culture, and morality), as it provides a model of how to mine the hundreds of addresses delivered to other literary societies, north and south, in the years before Civil War for insights into legal thought.
Keywords: antebellum legal history, literary addresses, moral philosophy, antebellum jurisprudence
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