A Separate Peace? The Politics of Localized Law in the Post-Revolutionary Era


Jessica K. Lowe received her J.D. from Harvard Law School and is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton University. She can be contacted at jlowe@princeton.edu. For their reading and criticism of drafts of this essay, the author is indebted to Tal Kastner, Bernadette Meyler, Sarah Milov, Dael Norwood, Daniel Rodgers, Sheri Shepherd, Steven Wilf, Joseph Younger, and especially Anne Twitty, who devoted many hours to long conversations about Southern history and the significance of The People and Their Peace. Discussions with James Oakes and Peter Onuf at critical times also contributed to the thoughts framed herein; Professor Onuf further gave very helpful comments on a late-stage draft. Finally, the author owes a special thanks to Hendrik Hartog, who reviewed successive drafts and patiently offered himself as a sounding board during what must have seemed like the interminable writing of this piece. His generous mentoring made this (and so much else) possible.


Law is often seen as peripheral to Southern life before the Civil War, and the South as an outlier in the American legal history of that era. In The People and Their Peace (2009), Laura Edwards demonstrates the profoundly legal nature of Southern society and takes an important step toward integrating the legal history of the South with that of the nation. Edwards identifies two dueling legal cultures in North and South Carolina between 1787 and 1840—the law of local courts, which she terms localized law, and the state law of professionalized lawyers and reformers. She argues that white women, slaves, and the poor fared better in localized law—which was based on notions of popular sovereignty and the flexible rubric of restoring “the peace”—than in state courts, which were steeped in a national culture of individual rights that led to more restrictive results. This essay questions Edwards's dichotomy between local law and state law and her depiction of the popular content of localized law, while building on Edwards's innovations to suggest a new direction for Southern legal history.