Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
American Law in the Twentieth Century

American Law in the Twentieth Century

Lawrence M. Friedman
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 736
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    American Law in the Twentieth Century
    Book Description:

    In this long-awaited successor to his landmark workA History of American Law,Lawrence M. Friedman offers a monumental history of American law in the twentieth century.The first general history of its kind,American Law in the Twentieth Centurydescribes the explosion of law over the past century into almost every aspect of American life. Since 1900 the center of legal gravity in the United States has shifted from the state to the federal government, with the creation of agencies and programs ranging from Social Security to the Securities Exchange Commission to the Food and Drug Administration. Major demographic changes have spurred legal developments in such areas as family law and immigration law. Dramatic advances in technology have placed new demands on the legal system in fields ranging from automobile regulation to intellectual property.Throughout the book, Friedman focuses on the social context of American law. He explores the extent to which transformations in the legal order have resulted from the social upheavals of the twentieth century--including two world wars, the Great Depression, the civil rights movement, and the sexual revolution. Friedman also discusses the international context of American law: what has the American legal system drawn from other countries? And in an age of global dominance, what impact has the American legal system had abroad?Written by one of our most eminent legal historians, this engrossing book chronicles a century of revolutionary change within a legal system that has come to affect us all.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13502-2
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Way We Were, the Way We Were Going to Be
    (pp. 1-12)

    Just as on December 31, 1999, on December 31, 1899, there were celebrations, festivities, and discussions of what the past century had wrought, and what the new one might bring. The celebration in 1899 was a little less feverish, perhaps—after all, it was the start of a new century, not the start of what most people considered a whole new millennium; but Americans partied and drank and hailed the new year with gusto. TheNew York Timesreported that one couple, William Witt and Ann Waddilove of Jersey City, got themselves married at Leiderkrantz Hall a minute after midnight—...

  5. Part I The Old Order

    • 1 Structure, Power, and Form American Public Law, 1900–1932
      (pp. 15-28)

      In many ways, the American scheme of government has been a model of stability. The constitutional system, set up in the late eighteenth century, has turned out to be tough and durable. Not many countries can match the American record. In 1900 the scheme of government seemed, essentially, the same as it had always been. In Europe, upheavals and revolutions had rocked France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. There was no counterpart in the United States. There was, of course, the Civil War—a huge, bloody exception. Still, Jefferson or John Adams, if brought back to life in 1900, would have...

    • 2 The Legal Profession in the Early Twentieth Century
      (pp. 29-43)

      At the turn of the century, according to the census, there were 108,000 lawyers and judges (almost all of them men) in the United States.¹ We have considerable information about who the lawyers were, how they were organized, and the like—much less about what lawyers actually did. We do know that the bar was, then as now, highly stratified. At the top were the “Wall Street lawyers,” the good, gray, competent, conservative men who handled the affairs of big business. A few lawyers, also rich and powerful, worked for and represented the great corporations—especially the railroad giants. In...

    • 3 The Law of Business and Commerce
      (pp. 44-79)

      According to that great president Calvin Coolidge, the chief business of America is business. That may or may not be true; but the chief business oflawis certainly business. Murder, divorce, and race relations may be sexier subjects; from the media, the public gets infinite quantities of information or misinformation about criminal justice; but the workaday law is largely hidden from view. The lawyer’s daily routine is basically about mundane things, and chiefly about doing business—about buying and selling; about real estate; about organizing and running partnerships and corporations; about stocks and bonds; in short, about commerce, money,...

    • 4 Crime and Punishment in the New Century
      (pp. 80-110)

      Before the twentieth century, Washington, D.C., and the federal government did not have much to do with criminal justice; this was mostly a job for the states. Not entirely, of course: the District of Columbia was federal, and had a criminal justice system; so did the territories, and such new prizes as Puerto Rico and the Philippines. But outside of these federal domains, plus army bases, ships at sea, and national parks, the national government was not a major player in the business of labeling, catching, and punishing killers, thieves, and other no-goods. There were, of course, federal crimes—smuggling,...

    • 5 Race Relations and Civil Liberties
      (pp. 111-148)

      In many ways, the period before the New Deal was the high point of American apartheid, the flowering of Jim Crow. A dense network of laws and ordinances in the southern and border states kept the races apart—and the whites on top. Behind the laws were the “unwritten laws,” the code that made up the so-called southern way of life. If a black (in particular, a black man) stepped over the line, and acted insolent or “uppity” to a white person, he was at serious risk. If, God forbid, he was accused of molesting or raping a white woman,...

  6. Part II The New Deal and Its Successors

    • 6 The Roosevelt Revolution
      (pp. 151-183)

      The Great Depression began, most dramatically, with the stock market crash of 1929. There had been signs of danger and impending crisis; but this event set off a chain reaction, like the first shots of a revolution. The economy went into total eclipse. The period of “normalcy” exploded. The great parade of the 1920s ended. The country spiraled downward into a deeper, blacker hole than most living Americans could ever remember. At the worst of the Depression, about a quarter of the working population was jobless. Businesses failed by the tens of thousands. Banks collapsed like tenpins. All over the...

    • 7 War and Postwar Prosperity and the Flowering of the Welfare State
      (pp. 184-204)

      The New Deal had shifted power from the states and localities to Washington; and fighting a major war only accelerated this trend. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; and within a week, the United States was also at war with Germany and Italy. Congress very quickly enacted a War Powers Act, which gave the president carte blanche to shift government agencies around, modify or amend government contracts, and deal with problems of enemy property and foreign exchange, for the duration of the war.¹

      The Second World War was a hard, desperate struggle—a two-ocean war. The whole...

    • 8 Crime and Criminal Justice in the Postwar World
      (pp. 205-250)

      The fate of criminal justice in the period after the Second World War was dominated by a single, brute fact: an explosion of crime, especially violent crime. The murder rate had been high in the late 1920s and early 1930s—reaching slightly less than 10 per 100,000. Then it declined steadily. In 1955 it stood at 4.5 per 100,000. From then on, it rose steadily, once again reaching 10 per 100,000 in the 1970s; and there it remained, more or less, until the 1990s, with small fluctuations.¹ These are very high rates—much, much higher than those of European countries...

    • 9 Courts, Trials, and Procedures in the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 251-279)

      Civil procedure is the ugly duckling of law. It is a field only a lawyer can love; and even most lawyers find loving it a struggle. Procedure, in the older common law—the system inherited from England—was a maze, a mess, a tangle of arcane and tricky rules. Pleading—drawing up the papers that would begin a lawsuit—was a science in itself; and a murky and difficult one at that. A lot of this arcane rubbish was swept away in the nineteenth century, though some states were more progressive than others. The so-called Field Code, adopted in New...

    • 10 Race Relations and Civil Rights
      (pp. 280-348)

      No changes in the law in the latter half of the twentieth century were more dramatic than the changes in the laws and legal practices with regard to race. The law started from a very low base. As we have seen, the American system of apartheid was firmly in place in the first half of the century; and in some ways was more stringent and oppressive than ever.Plessy v. Fergusonhad been decided in the last years of the nineteenth century. Blacks in the South were disenfranchised and subordinated. Their situation in the North was at least formally better;...

    • 11 The Liability Explosion Personal-Injury Law in the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 349-376)

      Tort law—a lawyer’s term—is the law of civil wrongs. When we do harm to somebody else, that is a tort. It is “civil” to distinguish it from criminal wrongs. If I carelessly back into your car in a parking lot, I have probably committed a tort, and I may have to pay for your repairs; but I will certainly not go to jail, especially if it was simply an accident.

      Tort law is a grab bag of behaviors; slander is a tort, and so is trespassing on somebody else’s land. But the heart and soul of tort law...

    • 12 Business Law in an Age of Change
      (pp. 377-398)

      The New Deal flowered during the Great Depression. The period after the Second World War—roughly the second half of the century—was, despite some ups and downs, a period of great prosperity and economic growth. Business law of this period reflected that expansion; it also reflected the broader social movements that were in turn influenced by economic expansion. And, not least of all, business law reflected the development of a strong consumer movement.

      The New Deal vastly increased the power of the federal government. States remained “sovereign,” however. And so they are, within their domain, or what is left...

    • 13 The Law of Property
      (pp. 399-429)

      The United States is most definitely a free-market country; but for most people, whether in business or not, an absolute, unregulated free market might be good for the other guy; for one’s self, help from the government is welcome, necessary, and of course richly deserved.

      Zoning, land-use controls, and urban planning are cases in point; they are a story of mixed motives, a brew of culture, morality, and economics. In the nineteenth century, cities grew like weeds. In 1800 there was no Chicago, no Los Angeles, no Seattle, no Houston. In 1900 cities were huge—they were also shapeless, ugly,...

    • 14 Family Law and Family Life
      (pp. 430-456)

      In the twentieth century, family law underwent some fairly drastic changes. The family itself changed, in structure and in culture. In the old-model family (never as common as pictured) the husband was the “head of the family,” the wife stayed home, cooked, darned his socks, and washed the children’s mouths with soap if they said a dirty word.

      Fewer families, as time went on, fit this picture. For one thing, more and more women had to work or wanted to work. They met with prejudice and discrimination, and were paid miserable wages; but millions of women went out to earn...

    • 15 Internal Legal Culture The Legal Profession
      (pp. 457-504)

      The period after the Second World War was a period of enormous growth in the legal profession. In 1951 there were 221,605 lawyers in the country, according to a Bar Association survey. By 1991, forty years later, there were more than 800,000 lawyers in the United States; the 1995 estimate was nearly 900,000.¹ By the end of the century, if all went according to schedule, the number of lawyers should have easily passed the million mark. In 1994–1995, the country’s law schools awarded 39,349 professional degrees in law.² Lawyers were, in a sense, breeding like rabbits—the profession was...

    • 16 American Legal Culture in the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 505-520)

      The previous chapter dealt primarily with what we might call the internal legal culture: the world of the legal profession: judges, lawyers, jurists.

      The internal legal culture does not, of course, exist in a vacuum. It has its own inner dynamic; but it is linked in many different ways to the general legal culture: the attitudes, opinions, and points of view of the population as a whole—lay people, whether investment bankers, factory workers, nurses, bus drivers, or anybody else. The ways in which the two cultures are linked have been a central theme—maybethecentral theme—of this...

  7. Part III The Way We Live Now:: The Reagan and Post-Reagan Years

    • 17 Backward and Forward Counterrevolution and Its Aftershocks
      (pp. 523-547)

      An account which (like this one) ends in very recent times runs special risks. Recent times are hard to sum up. History, like fine wine, seems to need time to age. Recent history is also too controversial. Not many people have an opinion about Byzantine Greece; only a minority have opinions about the Civil War; but everybody thinks she is an expert on the meaning of her own times.

      The last twenty years of the twentieth century were years of conservatism. Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, was in many ways a president of remarkable mediocrity: somewhat lazy, amazingly uninformed on...

    • 18 Getting Around and Spreading the Word
      (pp. 548-571)

      One theme of this book has been the way technology has changed the world we live in, and the way we live in that world. If you change the world, you change the world’s law as well. Any major advance in science, medicine, or technology leaves its mark on the law. Consider, for example, “the pill,” and how it changed sexual behavior, sexual attitudes, family life—and both family law and the penal code. Not that the pill did this all by itself; in some ways, the pill is an effect as well as a cause. For our purposes, it...

    • 19 Law An American Export
      (pp. 572-587)

      At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States was already a rich and powerful country, stretching its muscles, reaching out toward an overseas empire. By the end of the century, it was much richer, and much more powerful;thesuperpower in the world. It had come out on top in two world wars (there were more ambiguous outcomes in some smaller, less glorious wars). Most of its rivals had faded away. When Queen Victoria died, in 1901, the sun never set on the British empire; it controlled a quarter of the world. By 2000 the British empire had...

    • 20 Taking Stock
      (pp. 588-608)

      A final chapter is a place for summing up. Where did we stand, at the end of the twentieth century—in federal and state law; in the position of law in American society; in the growth or decline of this or that field of law; in the status and role of the legal profession? These are, of course, not easy questions. The chapters up to this point have, I hope, at least suggested some general principles and answers.

      One dominant theme of this book has been the relation between law and society; and between law and culture. Society changed drastically...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 609-680)
  9. A Bibliographical Note
    (pp. 681-690)
  10. Index
    (pp. 691-722)