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Verdicts Of History

July 2024
2min read

Beginning a series of articles on notable American trials

“The law,” declared Sir Edward Coke, is the “perfection of reason”; although to Mr. Bumble, the beadle of Oliver Twist , it could be, in its baffling workings, “a ass—a idiot.” Much the same argument continues to this day, with the points of view relatively unchanged. No one respects law more, or argues more heatedly about it, than the English-speaking peoples. No one manufactures more of it, in sheer weight, bulk, and complexity, than the Americans. The law has reflected and sometimes accelerated the transition of the United States from a rural republic to a city-dwellers’ democracy. And how has most of this law been made? Not, despite fond popular belief, in our legislatures, but in our courtrooms.

In the past few years, headline after headline has told us of judicial verdicts that banned official prayer from public schools, desegregated the classrooms, ordered state reapportionments that many think will open a new (if not necessarily better) era in American politics, and in recent rulings on confessions and search procedures, drastically altered the balance of power between the policeman and the accused. Some of the court decisions have represented what football writers might call “end runs” around the immovable lines of the Senate; some of them have probably represented the majority will of the country, and some of them probably have not. But they are all law, despite violent debates in newspapers and on the air, congressional speeches, and threats to amend the Constitution.

The courtroom has always been an arena in which opposing classes, ideas, and ways of life have met in direct conflict. Sometimes, as in Theodore Roosevelt’s titanic confrontation with J. P. Morgan over the Northern Securities trust, the legal battle has averted a bloodier clash. Jn other cases, the courtroom ritual has only served to intensify hatreds. Textbook summaries have, for instance, almost totally obscured for us the enormous impact that John Brown’s trial had on the popular mind in the North. Similarly, we have lost sight of the tragic mixture of justice and revenge that motivated the men who tried to impeach Andrew lohnson. Forgotten even more completely, because the principle is so well established, are several trials of the early 1800’s in which Alexander Hamilton and others placed the tree press out of reach of political attack.

In the trials of labor leaders such as Big Hill Heywood. arch criminals such as Al Capone, tycoons such as Samuel lnsull, government officials such as Alger Hiss, an entire era is condensed, recapitulated—and judged. Often the verdict is like a pivot on which swings a vast change of public mood. Even a murder trial can produce a notable legal precedent along with its standard ingredients of vivid emotion and purple oratory—when, for instance, the man on trial is a romantic scoundrel like Congressman Daniel Sickles, and the victim is the son of Francis Scott Key. That trial, the sensation of 1859, established the “unwritten” law whereby wronged husbands and wives could revenge themselves with impunity.

The courtroom is also an incomparable crucible for distilling the essence of human character. To follow Lincoln, Hamilton, or Burr word for word before a jury gives us insight into a great personality that often cannot be achieved in any other way. From the opposite end of the telescope, trials of the past can give us new perspectives on similar issues in the present. T he judgment on Abraham Lincoln’s murderers, for instance, oilers a hundred comparisons to the Warren Commission report on President Kennedy’s death. Finally, by looking with a calm, objective eye on the verdicts that agitated other generations, we may be able to consider more dispassionately the judicial turmoil of our own time.

These are only a few of the rewards that we arc confident readers will find in the new series which begins on the next page. It will be written by Thomas J. Fleming, distinguished author of Now We Are Enemies and One Small Candle and a frequent contributor to A MERICAN H ERITAGE .

Our opening article, the story of John Adams’ defense of the British soldiers who shot down his fellow Hostonians one tumultuous March evening in 1770, a night in some ways reminiscent of Watts, and Detroit, and Cleveland, is a striking example of how courtroom drama can combine historical significance, deadly parallels, and enduring human interest.— The Editors


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