The Lost World of Classical Legal Thought: Law and Ideology in America, 1886-1937 / Edition 1

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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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"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

"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

"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

"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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195147131
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 6/28/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

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

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Challenge of Classical Legal Thought 3
1 The Foundations of Classical Legal Thought, 1760-1860 19
2 The Emergence of Legal Classicism, 1860-1890 64
3 Classicism Ascendant, 1880-1930 123
4 Classicism Contested, 1893-1932 175
5 The Collapse of Legal Classicism, 1930-1942 218
Epilogue 246
App Historiography and the Supreme Court 253
Index 278
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