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Ranging widely from the founding era to Reconstruction, from the making of the modern state to its post-New Deal limits, John Fabian Witt illuminates the legal and constitutional foundations of American nationhood through the little-known stories of five patriots and critics. He shows how law and constitutionalism have powerfully shaped and been shaped by the experience of nationhood at key moments in American history.
Founding Father James Wilson's star-crossed life is testament to the capacity of American nationhood to capture the imagination of those who have lived within its orbit. For South Carolina freedman Elias Hill, the nineteenth-century saga of black citizenship in the United States gave way to a quest for a black nationhood of his own on the West African coast. Greenwich Village radical Crystal Eastman became one of the most articulate critics of American nationhood, advocating world federation and other forms of supranational government and establishing the modern American civil liberties movement. By contrast, the self-conscious patriotism of Dean Roscoe Pound of Harvard Law School and trial lawyer Melvin Belli aimed to stave off what Pound and Belli saw as the dangerous growth of a foreign administrative state.
In their own way, each of these individuals came up against the power of American national institutions to shape and constrain the directions of legal change. Yet their engagements with American nationhood remade the institutions and ideals of the United States even as the national tradition shaped and constrained the course of their lives.
There is no more central legal issue in debate these days than whether we are unique among the nations of the world for our structure of laws and liberties or whether we change them as convenient fashion dictates. This collection of four answers by...John Fabian Witt illuminates that question as well as provokes those of us who think we already have the answer...It does not give away the book’s focus to reveal that Witt does believe the American nationhood is rooted both in fundamental concepts of law and in the changing interpretation of those laws by an increasingly activist network of courts and, most provocatively, by a self-interested scrum of lawyers. Other nations are governed by laws, to be sure, Witt concedes. Yet he argues America is different.
— James Srodes
In the study of U.S. history, legal history is often neglected. No doubt, the complex nature of the subject is one explanation. Witt, a professor of law and history at Columbia University, cracks this barrier...This informative, readable book brings forth a new perspective.
— J. J. Fox Jr.
There are some books that simply take your breath away for their daring. Patriots and Cosmopolitans is one of these. In this work the author covers the entire sweep of legal and constitutional history, from the founding generation to the late twentieth century. He tackles private law, lawyering, politics, reform, and legal theory; as well as war, peace, race, gender, and ideas of nationalism...Witt tells his stories well...His argument itself is proof that well-written and forcefully argued legal history can still elevate, inspire, and improve our thinking.
— Peter Charles Hoffer
Introduction: The Features of American Nationhood
The Pyramid and the Machine: Founding Visions in the Life of James Wilson
Elias Hill's Exodus: Exit and Voice in the Reconstruction Nation
Internationalist Beginnings: Crystal Eastman and the Puzzle of American Civil Liberties
The King and the Dean: Melvin Belli, Roscoe Pound, and the Common-Law Nation
Epilogue: Law and the National Frame