The Lost World of Classical Legal Thought

The Lost World of Classical Legal Thought : Law and Ideology in America, 1886-1937

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This book examines the ideology of elite lawyers and judges from the Gilded Age through the New Deal. Between 1866 and 1937, a coherent outlook shaped the way the American bar understood the sources of law, the role of the courts, and the relationship between law and the larger society. William M. Wiecek explores this outlook-often called "legal orthodoxy" or "classical legal thought"-which assumed that law was apolitical, determinate, objective, and neutral. American classical legal thought was forged in the heat of the social crises that punctuated the late nineteenth century. Fearing labor unions, immigrants, and working people generally, American elites, including those on the bench and bar, sought ways to repress disorder and prevent political majorities from using democratic processes to redistribute wealth and power. Classical legal thought provided a rationale that assured the legitimacy of the extant distribution of society's resources. It enabled the legal suppression of unions and the subordination of workers to management's authority. As the twentieth-century U.S. economy grew in complexity, the antiregulatory, individualistic bias of classical legal thought became more and more distanced from reality.
Brittle and dogmatic, legal ideology lost legitimacy in the eyes of both laypeople and ever-larger segments of the bar. It was at last abandoned in the "constitutional revolution of 1937", but-as Wiecek argues in this detailed analysis-nothing has arisen since to replace it as an explanation of what law is and why courts have such broad power in a democratic society.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 296 pages
  • 154 x 232 x 22mm | 421.84g
  • Oxford, United Kingdom
  • English
  • Revised ed.
  • 0195147138
  • 9780195147131

Review quote

"William Wiecek's Lost World of Classical Thought reads like a first-rate legal mystery story. We have always known that the 'switch in time that saved nine' in 1937 was a crucial turning point in the history of the jurisprudence of the U.S. Supreme Court. But it wasn't very clear how the anti-New Deal attitudes of the pre-1937 Court derived from what Wiecek calls the 'classical' jurisprudence of the late nineteenth century. Nor have we known how the
post-1937, but pre-Warren, New Deal Court built its own distinctive jurisprudence. Wiecek's account tells that story, and in so doing helps us understand the origins of the truly modern jurisprudence of the 1950s. Everyone who wonders how the preconditions of the Warren Court were constructed will want to read this
absorbing and important book."-Stanley N. Katz, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University "In this thorough and deftly written account of classical legal thought and its role in privileging powerful economic interests and social elites, Professor Wiecek presents an important, forceful challenge to revisionists who have stressed its libertarian and egalitarian elements."-Michael Les Benedict, Ohio State University "We have needed a rigorously researched, perceptively analyzed, and comprehensively clear synthesis of this core topic for a very long time. Eureka!"-Harold M. Hyman, Rice University "William M. Wiecek...has succeeded in the difficult task of writing an intellectual and legal history that should be readily accessible to a wide audience of students, lawyers, and historians, while sensitively situating Classical Legal Thought within the social, economic and political conditions that gave rise to it....The World of Classical Legal Thought is deftly written, thoroughly enjoyable, and a book well worth reading. It will undoubtedly become an
important resource for both students and scholars, and will serve as an excellent book for the law-school classroom. Wiecek's appendix, a detailed historiography of Classicism, is an absolute must for those working in the field." -Felice Batlan, New York University, in H-NET "William Wiecek's The Lost World of Classical Legal Thought is a remarkable achievement. It has an extraordinary sweep, synthesizing with admirable clarity a transformation of enormous scope and importance. The book can serve extremely well as an introduction to the legal history of the period. Scholars who toil in these fields will find in the book a well-balanced yet distinctive point of view. For them it will also be a consistently useful resource because
of Wiecek's wide-ranging use and discussion of primary and secondary sources, capped by a wonderful bibliographical essay."-Richard Friedman, Oxford University
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About William M. Wiecek

William M. Wiecek is Congdon Professor of Public Law at Syracuse University
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