Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



The hypothesis of continuity has now been ably tested and challenged by William E. Nelson's fine book, Americanization of the Common Law. Relying upon years of painstaking research in courthouse files throughout Massachusetts, Nelson utilizes unpublished opinions, court records, and attorneys' notes to fashion a striking interpretation of the significant changes that occurred in Massachusetts law following the Revolution. The author undertakes an analysis of the doctrines of substantive law and techniques of law-making and enforcement in order "to trace the emergence of modern American law... Nelson's stress upon nineteenth century majoritarianism and governmental coercion must be qualified by consideration of the difficulties inherent in the enforcement of any policy against the wishes of a large or determined minority. The role of consensus in the process of colonial conflict resolutions, which the author emphasizes, retains a measure of vitality in our own day.While some of the author's conclusions will stir debate, his work will prove most helpful in further study of legal changes in the wake of the Revolution. By not limiting himself to published opinions of higher courts and the pronouncements of leading lawyers and treatise writers, he has been able to probe the legal process as it affected daily life in Massachusetts. Nelson's compact but readable book is a valuable addition, if perhaps not the final word, that will greatly assist our understanding of America's legal past.