This is the third volume of a trilogy in which I attempt to describe some central themes of American history, from the first colonial settlements to the conclusion of the twentieth century, and to explore how law was connected to those themes. As in the first two volumes, my approach to the topics covered has been both synthetic, relying on existing literature, and revisionist, attempting to advance some fresh interpretations of the material under consideration. My view of the causal relationship of law to its cultural context in the course of American history is set forth in the introduction to volume 1 in the series and has remained in place in this volume: I treat the relationship as reciprocal, with law both serving as a causal agent and responding to developments in the larger culture. My coverage, as in the previous volumes, has necessarily been selective: some developments in American law are not covered in the series, and others are given extended attention.
The challenge of writing this volume has been slightly different from that I encountered in the previous two. A fair amount of the material surveyed in this volume takes place in a time frame in which I have been living, and some of it involves developments in which I participated. Writing “history” about events one observed as a contemporary raises even more acute issues of objectivity than the issues one faces generally as a historian. I have written elsewhere that I believe a fully “objective” stance is not possible for actors in one time frame seeking to recover and make sense of events in another, but that historians should do their best to approach the past with detachment, especially where it comes to judging the behavior of actors from other eras. Even assuming, however, that detachment toward the past can and should be achieved in historical scholarship, it would seem particularly difficult to achieve when one is writing about matters that one observed first-hand.
I have struggled with efforts to achieve detachment of a sort toward many of the topics covered in this volume, most of which involve events and attitudes that have taken place in my lifetime. In the course of those efforts I have been made keenly aware of a phenomenon I had hitherto recognized but not previously faced so acutely. One tends to filter events and reactions to events that one has encountered as a contemporary through one’s idiosyncratic lenses, and, in writing about them years after they took place, to retain the personal reactions one had to them at the time, and even to insist that those reactions can amount to adequate historical explanations for what transpired and why. Such insistence is surely a mistake: the “narratives” of past events one sets forth (p.x) in revisiting them are obviously partial, and in that respect very far from an adequate scholarly recounting, or explanation, of the events. I have tried to respond to that difficulty by leaving myself out of narratives as much as possible, and enlisting other historical actors as participants in the narratives, and how far that effort has succeeded I leave to readers.
My thanks to Fred Konefsky, Neil Duxbury, and Betsey Hedges for their comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript, and once again to my assistant Donna Green, and to the great staff of the Reference Desk at the University of Virginia Law Library, for help with everything from sources to citations to images for the book’s cover. A special thanks to Kate Mertes, who prepared the index for Volume II of this series and has done her usual distinguished work on the index for this volume.
Although I want to recognize the many contributions to my happiness of my extended family, Susan Davis White, Alexandra White, Elisabeth White Varadhachary, Bruce Arendt, Luke Arendt, Hannah Arendt, Dietram Varadhachary, Louisa Varadhachary, and Dahlia Varadhachary, I want to single out Alexandra in the dedication, in recognition of her receiving tenure on the faculty of Luther College. It is a source of great pride to Alexandra’s father that she has found a profession which she loves and brings out her talents.