A Nation of Laws

America's Imperfect Pursuit of Justice

Peter Charles Hoffer

America's founders extolled a nation of laws, for they knew that only a fairly enforced legal system could protect liberty and property against corruption and tyranny. Nearly two and a half centuries later, that system remains the ultimate safeguard for us all. With concise but penetrating and provocative insights, the eminent Peter Charles Hoffer recaptures the spirit of this grand enterprise while never losing sight of its human face.

The distillation of four decades of stellar writing, Hoffer's book is a wise and illuminating meditation on the key concepts, history, evolution, and importance of American law. He brings the law to life through brief narratives and portraits drawn from the pages of our nation's history. He takes his readers on a tumultuous journey from the Salem witchcraft trials through the divisive debates over slavery; the long struggles for equality and civil rights; the moral and culture wars over abortion, gay rights, and the teaching of evolution; and recent controversies concerning the rule of law in wartime.

“Interesting reading for those not already versed in the law. . . . Hoffer’s extensive bibliography will point the way for readers to pursue interests aroused by the author’s crash course in American legal history.

—Washington Lawyer

“In this fascinating condensation of more than two centuries of American law into a slim 224 pages, Hoffer examines such criminal trials as those against abolitionist John Brown, feminist Susan B. Anthony, and evolution teacher John Scopes.

—Steve Goddard’s History Wire
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In a very compact space, Hoffer has a great deal to say about the role of law, lawmakers, law cases, lawyers, litigants, judges, law professors, and public opinion in creating and recreating the fabric that weaves all of these elements together. He pays particular attention to the criminal trial by looking at the legal proceedings against slave liberator John Brown, feminist Susan B. Anthony, and teacher of evolution John Scopes. He also explores what happens when the law is stretched to the breaking point by revisiting such events as the Stono Slave Rebellion, the Seneca Falls women's rights convention, and FDR's paradigm-shifting New Deal speech.

Throughout, Hoffer carefully weighs the promise and vitality of our laws against its flaws and historical failures, for our legal system has not reflected a strong linear progress from inequality and privilege toward perfected liberty and dignity for all. His crystal clear vision of our legal history reminds us of the ambiguities and contradictions, quarrels and confrontations, that mirror the struggles within American history itself and reinforce the central role of law in American life.

About the Author

Peter Charles Hoffer is Distinguished Research Professor of History at the University of Georgia and coeditor of the prizewinning series Landmark Law Cases and American Society. His nearly dozen books include The Supreme Court: An Essential History, Historian's Paradox: The Study of History in Our Time, Brave New World: A History of Early America, Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos That Reshaped America, The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History, Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History, and The Treason Trials of Aaron Burr.