Saturday, May 19, 2018

Booknotes: Uncivil Warriors

New Arrival:
Uncivil Warriors: The Lawyers' Civil War by Peter Hoffer (Oxford UP, 2018).

I've often wondered if anyone was working on a Civil War book about lawyers in uniform, though I'm not sure what tack an author might take to might it most interesting. For the Civil War generation the law had always been viewed as the best profession for ambitious men wishing to both rise in society and realize their political aspirations at all levels, so it should surprise no one that lawyers and lawyer-politicians would be appointed generals and high-ranking regimental officers in both armies in vast numbers. But this book isn't about that!

On a broader level, Peter Hoffer's Uncivil Warriors discusses the many ways that lawyers North and South shaped events from secession through Reconstruction. It comes to the conclusion that "the Civil War was 'of' and 'by' the lawyer/politicians who sat in seats of power." Thus, Hoffer's study "focuses on these lawyers' civil war: on the legal professionals who plotted the course of the war from seats of power, the scenes of battle, and the home front. Both the North and the South had their complement of lawyers, and Hoffer provides coverage of each side's leading lawyers. In positions of leadership, they struggled to make sense of the conflict, and in the course of that struggle, began to glimpse of new world of law. It was a law that empowered as well as limited government, a law that conferred personal dignity and rights on those who, at the war's beginning, could claim neither in law. Comprehensive in coverage, Uncivil Warriors' focus on the central of lawyers and the law in America's worst conflict will transform how we think about the Civil War itself."

Chapters examine different views North and South regarding the legality of secession, contrast the Lincoln-Davis cabinets and US-Confederate Congresses, look at the Merryman case and its civil rights related offspring, debate the question of whether secession was a criminal act, and discuss the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent amendment propositions. The book ends with a Reconstruction epilogue.


  1. Drew: I just got assigned this one. Your point about the vast numbers of lawyers who became general and other officers during the War struck me, as well. It was an era in which formal legal education was not required and most came to the profession in the same way that Lincoln did. Other than an anecdotal-style collection of events involving selected individuals, I'm not certain what (if any) thesis an author could pull together.

    1. I've thought about it off and on over the years, too, and never came up with anything I thought would be remotely book worthy.

      An interesting point Hoffer makes in the book is in regard to the essentially adversarial nature of practicing law (i.e. the focus is on winning not arriving at objective truth/justice or an outcome mutually acceptable to both sides), suggesting that that mindset honed by their profession undoubtedly influenced behavior in the political sphere. He doesn't go into it, but you might draw from it an inference that perhaps the Civil War generation of national politicians (many, perhaps the majority, of whom were lawyers) was more "lawyerly" than previous ones and thus less accepting of compromise. I wouldn't be surprised if there were more lawyers on a percentage basis in the House and Senate during the 1850s than the 1830s and 40s.

    2. Speaking as one in that business, I think you raise a valid question. On the flip side, lawyers are accustomed to settling disputes. That isn't a modern development. Once Illinois undertook the massive project documenting Lincoln as a lawyer, we have evidence that there clearly were instances where he counseled clients to resolve a matter. My own (uninformed) speculation is that the irreconcilable philosophical differences which led to secession and war played a much larger role than the fact that the practice of law involves a significant adversarial element. In other words, lawyers were able to frame the debate in terms which reflected a legal disagreement but that was reactive and not causative.

    3. Yes, I can definitely see that counterargument!

    4. Not that lawyers played no role in driving the country to war, of course. We know the seven of them (wearing robes) took a match, lit it, and dropped it into the gas tank in 1857.

    5. So many things have been put forth as the driving force behind secession and Civil War...why not lawyers! Of course, I am being facetious and Hoffer hints at no such thing.


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