Wide reading in legal history provides a student with a greater understanding of the rapid pace of legal change, a sense of the ways in which legal doctrine evolves over time to address or adjust to social needs, and some badly needed context that will aid one’s comprehension of the cases one reads in core law school classes.
Lawrence Friedman’s A History of American Law (3d. ed. 2005), which takes the reader up to 1900, and the companion volume, American Law in the 20th Century (2002), remain the standard account of American legal history. Friedman’s work is flawed in some profound respects (not the least of which is the fact that it can be extremely dull in places), but because of the immensity of the task, his books are likely to remain the standard comprehensive work for years to come.
A second standard (but vastly more controversial) account is Morton J. Horwitz’s The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860 (1977) and The Transformation of American Law, 1870-1960 (1992), in which Horowitz argues that American legal doctrine has evolved over time to create and preserve the wealth and power of economic elites. G. Edward White’s highly readable The American Judicial Tradition (3d. ed. 2007), another standard work, provides short biographical essays on important American judges with an emphasis on their judicial styles.
Students interested in studying the historical origins of America’s constitutional and republican tradition might want to read two difficult but rewarding works, Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (enlarged ed. 1992) and Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1998), both considered among the most important works of American history ever written.
Another excellent (and more accessible) work on the origins and drafting of the Constitution is Richard B. Morris’s Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay and the Constitution (1985). Students with a particular interest in intellectual history may want to read Louis Menand’s acclaimed The Metaphysical Club (2001), which describes the origin and growth of pragmatism and its influence in American law and, in particular, the legal thought of Justice Holmes.
Students may also want to explore non-American legal history for comparative purposes. Barry Nicholas’s An Introduction to Roman Law (1962) is a short, highly readable introduction to the sophisticated Roman legal system, which provides the foundation for virtually all of the world’s non-Common Law legal systems, including those of most of Europe, Japan, Brazil, and South Africa. R.C. Van Caenegem’s brief The Birth of the English Common Law (2d ed. 1988) and Arthur R. Hogue’s slightly more expansive The Origins of the Common Law (1966) both provide excellent overviews of the origins of Anglo-American law. Theodore F.T. Plucknett’s A Concise History of the Common Law (5th ed. 1956) remains, despite its age, the best single volume work on English legal history.