The Lawyer's Library in the Early American Republic
This essay appears in a volume titled Subversion and Sympathy: Gender, Law, and the British Novel in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Martha C. Nussbaum and Alison L. LaCroix, eds.) (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, 2013). The essay explores the role that fiction played in the early republican project of building American nationhood. Many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American statesmen and jurists – including such prominent thinkers as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and Joseph Story – were avid readers of fiction. The vast majority of the novels they read were written by English authors; moreover, many of those authors were women. For example, among Marshall’s surviving papers is a letter in which he chided Story for not including Jane Austen among the great novelists that Story listed in an 1826 address to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Story had, however, cited Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney, and Ann Radcliffe in his address, and his son later recalled that his father had enjoyed Austen’s novels. “This is emphatically the age of reading,” Story told his Phi Beta Kappa audience. And, he added, “[m]an no longer aspires to an exclusive dominion in authorship.” For founding-era thinkers such as Adams and Jefferson, novel-reading provided a way for Americans to participate in transatlantic culture and to hone a republican moral sensibility. For the early-nineteenth-century jurists Marshall and Story, fiction offered an opportunity to engage with emotions such as sympathy and to participate in a public sphere that brought men and women together, as both authors and readers, in a conversation that connected politics, law, and literary culture. These producers of legal theory were also consumers of fiction, gentlemen of letters who immersed themselves in female novelists’ work not as a means of escape, but because those novels offered insights into what they regarded as crucial political questions of individual sentiment and national character.