The dean of US legal historians traces the development of our vast and peculiar “legal culture.”
America has more lawyers than any other nation, and our obsession with laws and legal issues dominates the news media and even entertainment. Why is law so central to American society? To answer this question, Friedman (Law/Stanford Univ.; Crime and Punishment in American Society, 1993, etc.) sketches the relationship between the development of our society and the concomitant growth of American law from colonial times to the present. In the beginning, colonial lawyers adapted the broad outlines of England's complex quasi-feudal legal system to America's simpler circumstances, more egalitarian society (excepting slavery), and comparative superabundance of land. After the Revolution, the victorious founders sought to largely preserve colonial Anglo-American common-law traditions. Each new state had its own legislature, court system, and distinct body of law. However, in the 19th century, all pursued one goal with remarkable uniformity: the promotion of the growing national economy and infrastructure. Lawsuits brought by those injured by rapidly proliferating industrial machinery helped the growth of legal concepts of personal injury still with us today. Friedman outlines developments in family, race, and criminal law in which sea changes such as the idea of equality and the growth of a large-criminal justice infrastructure paralleled the growing complexity of American society. The 20th century saw the rise of an administrative welfare state that fundamentally transformed the nature of government, while notions of individual rights enforced by activist federal courts gave substance to promises of democracy and equality. Looking into the 21st century, Friedman ties the continuing explosive growth of American legal institutions and the legal profession to our nature as an “individualistic, consuming, wealthy society; a free market, free trade society; a society of plural equality.”
An elegant, thoughtful survey of the parallel growth of America’s legal culture and the nation itself.