History | Writing Legal History
J400 | 15462 | Dwyer
Above class open to majors only
Above class open to undergraduates only
From Sacco and Vanzetti (1921) and the Scottsboro Boys (1931-1937)
to the cases of Charles Manson (1970-71) and O.J. Simpson (1995),
major twentieth-century trials exposed not just the workings of the
legal system but also American cultural fault-lines. When “hot
button” issues related to politics, race, and gender erupted in
courtrooms, they produced major social, as well as legal, turmoil.
In this seminar, as a way of exploring this larger legal history,
each student will choose a major twentieth-century trial, develop a
research question related to it, and then use a variety of primary
materials to answer that question. (For examples of typical
sources,, see Lindner’s Famous Trials website:
of our time will be spent reading and analyzing primary documents
but we also will discuss one text, Lawrence Friedman’s “American Law
in the Twentieth-Century,” and a number of articles. By the end of
the semester, students will produce an original research essay.
They also will have learned the broad outlines of twentieth-century
American legal history and how to deal with legal materials.
There will be no examinations. The various steps of the research
project (including creation of a research question, development of
a bibliography, writing of a draft, and production of a final
essay) will count for approximately 50% of the grade, Participation,
short response papers, and critical feedback to other students will
make up the remainder.