Melvin Ely

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In Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War (Vintage Books, 2004), Melvin Ely uses a trove of documents primarily found in the county court records of Prince Edward County, Virginia to unravel a rich story about the free blacks who inhabited “the gentle slope of Israel Hill.” The story begins in 1796 when Richard Randolph, a prominent Virginian and cousin to Thomas Jefferson, left a will full of fiery abolitionist sentiment that emancipated his slaves and parceled 350 acres of his land among them. Ely explores the lives of the freed people who used this land to cultivate small farms and launch successful entrepreneurial ventures.

Israel on the Appomattox demonstrates that historians can gain a deep understanding of a society using legal documents as their window into the past. Ely’s research exposes the little known fact that Afro-Virginians could file (and often successfully filed) civil suits, despite not being allowed to testify in criminal courts. While not a perfect check on abuse, Ely explains that civil suits were an inroad free blacks could make against an unjust system. Through Ely’s exploration of the quotidian behavior of Prince Edward’s inhabitants, much is revealed about the relationship between politics, law, and actual behavior in societies past or present.


Kara W. SwansonBanking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk, and Sperm in Modern America

October 20, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Science, Technology, and Society] How did we come to think of spaces for the storage and circulation of body parts as “banks,” and what are the consequences of that history for the way we think about human bodies as property today? Kara W. Swanson’s wonderful new book traces the history of body banks [...]

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Lynette J. ChuaMobilizing Gay Singapore: Rights and Resistance in an Authoritarian State

October 15, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Southeast Asian Studies] Singapore has a well-deserved reputation as a state that stifles dissent and policies activism. But as Lynette Chua shows in Mobilizing Gay Singapore: Rights and Resistance in an Authoritarian State (Temple University Press, 2014), repressive government nowhere goes unchallenged, even if the forms that resistance takes are not manifest. Turning away from social [...]

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Joshua FersheeEnergy Law: A Context and Practice Casebook

October 13, 2014

Energy Law: A Context and Practice Casebook (Carolina Academic Press, 2014) by Joshua Fershee is a new casebook designed to better prepare students for practice than traditional methods of legal education. In this interview we discuss a brief history of energy law and delve into some of the topics covered in the book including: economic [...]

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Susan HaackEvidence Matters: Science, Proof, and Truth in the Law

October 1, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Philosophy] Our legal systems are rooted in rules and procedures concerning the burden of proof, the weighing of evidence, the reliability and admissibility of testimony, among much else. It seems obvious, then, that the law is in large part an epistemological enterprise.  And yet when one looks at the ways in which judges have [...]

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Guy ChetThe Ocean is a Wilderness: Atlantic Piracy and the Limits of State Authority, 1688-1856

September 22, 2014

Guy Chet, Associate Professor of early American and military history at the University of North Texas, in his book The Ocean is a Wilderness: Atlantic Piracy and the Limits of State Authority, 1688-1856 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014) makes a well-crafted argument for the persistence of Atlantic piracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, after the age [...]

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Jeremy LipschultzSocial Media Communication: Concepts, Practices, Data, Law, and Ethics

September 7, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Technology] Social media is a phenomenon that continues to grow and attract much attention in the form of consternation, commentary, criticism and scholarly research. Any attempt at truly understanding social media communication practices and tools requires interdisciplinary analysis, the examination of the technology from the varying perspectives of the groups of users, [...]

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Ovamir AnjumPolitics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment

August 22, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Islamic Studies] In Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment (Cambridge University Press, 2012), Ovamir Anjum explores a timely topic, even though his focus is hundreds of years in the past. In order to present his topic Professor Anjum asks a series of foundational questions, such as: How have Muslims understood ideal government [...]

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Marianne ConstableOur Word is Our Bond: How Legal Speech Acts

August 16, 2014

Our Word is Our Bond: How Legal Speech Acts (Stanford UP, 2014), by UC Berkeley Professor of Rhetoric Marianne Constable, impels its readers to reassess the dominant methods of considering what is law. Constable’s study of law is informed by both philosophy and sociology; however, she avoids common approaches employed by both disciplines and instead [...]

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Bruce AckermanWe the People: Volume 3: The Civil Rights Revolution

August 2, 2014

Bruce Ackerman is the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University. His book, We the People, Volume 3: The Civil Rights Revolution (Harvard UP, 2013) fills out the constitutional history of America’s “Second Reconstruction” period and makes a powerful argument that traditional understandings of the constitutional canon must be expanded to accurately reflect the American lawmaking process. [...]

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