Vanderbilt Law Review


Kermit L. Hall

First Page



Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., once urged historians to study the law because it offered a magic mirror whose reflections divulged fundamental social values.' Holmes' plea on behalf of the utility of legal history has relevance for southerners intrigued by the possibility of their historical distinctiveness. Without a basis of comparison, however, the search for southern exceptionality becomes a quest after the arcane. As C. Vann Woodward observed,southern history ought to tell all Americans, not southerners alone,something about their common pasts. Woodward argued that attaining this goal was entirely feasible, since certain aspects of the southern past, such as slavery and race relations, have uniquely counterpointed broader national values. The burden of joining these two subspecialities of American history-one legal and reflexive, the other regional and introspective-is to elaborate the distinctiveness of the southern legal past within the broader sweep of American legal history.This task requires southern legal historians to evaluate carefully subject matter and methodology. Discovering who has administered southern legal institutions must claim an important place on the research agenda. If the South was distinctive, then the consequences of that uniqueness should be reflected, as Holmes suggested, in the composition of the bench and bar. Collective biography, or prosopography as it is more properly termed, is specially suited to this task.