15 January 2010

Dargo on the clash of legal traditions

The Lawbook Exchange recently published a revised edition of George Dargo, Jefferson’s Louisiana: politics and the clash of legal traditions (2009). They note:

The Purchase of all of Louisiana in 1803 brought the new American nation into contact with the French Creole population of the Lower Mississippi Basin. While the settlement in and around the city of New Orleans (the capital of the province when it was ruled by Spain) was not large, it had well established governmental and legal institutions. One of the most vexing problems that confronted the administration of Thomas Jefferson after the purchase of all of Louisiana in 1803: Which system of law would prevail in this volatile corner of the North American continent—Louisiana civil law or Anglo-American common law?

That Louisianians would remain committed to their civil law heritage was by no means certain. But the enactment of the Civil Law Digest by the territorial legislature in 1808 was a major event in the evolution of Louisiana’s increasingly complex legal regime. Jefferson’s Louisiana shows how this important moment came at a time when political forces and outside events joined together to reinforce local determination to resist total Americanization and to preserve Louisiana’s established legal culture. The book reconnects a segment of American legal history to the general history of the period. In addition to official records, it also uses archival sources that demonstrate how the struggle between civil law and common law forces affected people who were either outside of, or but marginally connected to, legal and governmental structures.

Sally Reeves, Former Chief Archivist of the New Orleans Notarial Archives and President of the Louisiana Historical Society (2003-9) called the work:

A rich and pioneering examination of the roles of Thomas Jefferson, Edward Livingston, and others in the battles between Creoles and Americans at the dawn of the American period in Louisiana. Dargo’s deft analysis sets the contest between civil and common law against the background of a larger cultural struggle. It is a major contributor to our understanding of the challenge of integrating disparate and competing traditions in a democracy.

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