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This blog provides a space for conversations about articles and ideas found in AALL Spectrum, the monthly magazine of the American Association of Law Libraries. The previous blog was located at aallspectrum.wordpress.com.
3/1/2013 3:05:49 PM

Book Review: A Documentary History of the American Civil War Era, Vol. 1: Legislative Achievements


Mackey, Thomas C., ed., A Documentary History of the American Civil War Era, Vol. 1:  Legislative Achievements (Knoxville, Tenn.:  Univ. of Tenn. Press, 2012), 331 pp., ISBN: 1-57233-869-5, ISBN-13: 978-1-57233-869-2, $49.95 (hardcover)

Produced as part of the University of Tennessee Press’ “Voices of the Civil War” series, this volume is the first of a projected three-volume set compiling selected primary documents of the “Civil War era,” which covers a period ranging from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).  Each of the 51 document headings in the first volume, which focuses on legislative material, is introduced with an essay establishing a historical context for the document(s) contained therein.  Not surprisingly, by far the most prevalent source is the United States Statutes at Large.  Despite certain idiosyncratic editorial decisions and a few transcription errors in the primary documents, the first volume will prove a useful resource for historians of both legal and non-legal focus, and its value should increase once the remaining two volumes are released.

This first volume is intended to cover “Legislative Achievements”; the second, due out on April 15, “Political Arguments”; the third, release date to be announced, “Judicial Decisions.”  Given the stated organization, certain of the selections in this first volume may raise an eyebrow or two.  Excluding the presidential vetoes, which make sense in this context, there are three inclusions from the executive branch that pose a bit of a mystery, although one could say that two of them are quasi-legislative in character, and the third is combined with an act of the Kentucky House of Representatives.  Even so, this tends to make the set’s topical delineation a little counter-intuitive. 

As the introduction notes, the selection of documents “is not meant to be complete, just representative” (Mackey, supra, at xv).  Although the bulk of the selections have to do with the origins and conduct of the War and Reconstruction, with particular emphasis on civil rights, there are a couple of outliers as well—the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 and the National Banking Act of 1863, for example--which appear to have been included because of their long-term importance to modern American infrastructure.  Indeed, less than half of the selections actually occur during the Civil War, and, with a couple of exceptions, the volume disregards Confederate legislation.  The more extensive coverage is on the postwar period to 1878, with particular emphasis on the running battle between Andrew Johnson and the Republican Congress, culminating in Articles of Impeachment against the President in 1868.  I, for one, think this emphasis was an excellent decision, and, for the constitutional law scholar, the interplay between the Executive and Congress on the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Reconstruction Acts, and the Freedmen’s Bureau Acts raises thorny issues echoed in the current Voting Rights Act debates—especially Johnson’s stated belief that there was no need for the legislation, and that it unfairly targeted Southern states. 

There are some very minor transcription errors, but they’re reasonably manageable with an application of context.  The work is also indexed well, although one or two items are placed out of chronological order—usually because paired with another document from an earlier date.  Ultimately, though, these don’t detract substantially from the work’s utility.

Overall, I found Mackey’s explanatory essays to be concise and informative.  The occasional repetition between them makes clear that this work isn’t intended primarily to be read cover-to-cover, but as a reference work for legal historians and political scientists.  The legal focus will also draw your constitutional law professors in, and I believe that the value of the selections will only increase when the other two volumes appear.  A preview of forthcoming content is even provided in the form of a chronology that lists all the primary documents in the set.  Whether your faculty’s field is civil rights, Con Law, or legal history, they should find this a convenient resource for primary source research into many of the laws that formed modern America.

David E. Matchen, Jr., is the Circulation/Reference Librarian at the University of Baltimore School of Law, and is trying his hand at fantasy baseball this season.

Posted By David Matchen at 3/1/2013 3:05:49 PM  0 Comments