The Legalist Reformation

William E. Nelson.

Published March 2001. Order online through The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN: 978-0-8078-2591-4.

Based on a detailed examination of New York case law, this pathbreaking book shows how law, politics, and ideology in the state changed in tandem between 1920 and 1980. Early twentieth-century New York was the scene of intense struggle between white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant upper and middle classes located primarily in the upstate region and the impoverished, mainly Jewish and Roman Catholic, immigrant underclass centered in New York City. Beginning in the 1920s, however, judges such as Benjamin N. Cardozo, Henry J. Friendly, Learned Hand, and Harlan Fiske Stone used law to facilitate the entry of the underclass into the economic and social mainstream and to promote tolerance among all New Yorkers.

Ultimately, says William Nelson, a new legal ideology was created. By the late 1930s, New Yorkers had begun to reconceptualize social conflict not along class lines but in terms of the power of majorities and the rights of minorities. In the process, they constructed a new approach to law and politics. Though doctrinal change began to slow by the 1960s, the main ambitions of the legalist reformation–liberty, equality, human dignity, and entrepreneurial opportunity–remain the aspirations of nearly all Americans, and of much of the rest of the world, today.


“Confident and successful. . . . Ranges across decades to depict the transformation of the common law of New York in the twentieth century. . . . A major contribution to twentieth-century American legal history. It goes into extraordinary depth into New York common law across the century and considers how one influential state legal system . . . met the legal demands of religious and ethnic diversity.”
– Law and History Review

“Nelson’s vision is expansive, his research prodigious, his analysis insightful, and his achievement impressive. . . . This fresh research is scholarship of the first order, in itself a major contribution.”
– Journal of American History

“Drawing on a beautifully detailed study of thousands of court opinions and life in New York, William Nelson reveals how twentieth century common law jurists brought together the diverse racial, ethnic, and religious factions in the state.”
– Harvard Law Review

“This splendid book was fifteen years in the making, and it sets a new and very high standard for studies of American legal history in the twentieth century. It is based on intensive work in an immense body of source material.”
– American Historical Review

“Nowhere is the concept of the law as an evolving, dynamic, and progressive force in modern American society better espoused than in this seminal, exhaustive piece of legal and historical research. . . . This scholarly work is highly recommended for academic and law libraries.”
– Library Journal

“An excellent history of our most influential state legal system. A brilliant achievement.”
– Morton J. Horwitz, Harvard Law School

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