Laura F. Edwards, "The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South" (UNC Press, 2009)


Do individuals have the right to “keep and bear” arms? Do “the people” have any collective rights to public safety? Now that the United States Supreme Court requires each side to argue based on the “history” and “tradition” of 1791 and 1868, what do scholars tell us about legal practices and public understanding in those times? Dr. Laura F. Edwards argues that Americans in the South transformed their understanding of inequality during the half century following the Revolutionary War. Drawing on extensive archival research in North and South Carolina, she outlines the changes in the legal system, highlighting the importance of localized legal practices that favored maintaining the "peace”: a concept intended to protect the social order and its patriarchal hierarchies. Ordinary people, rather than legal professionals and political leaders, were central to its workings. People without rights – even those enslaved – “had influence within the system because of their positions of subordination, not in spite of them.” Edwards documents how, by the 1830s, state leaders secured support for a more centralized system that excluded people who were not specifically granted individual rights, including women, African Americans, and the poor. The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (UNC Press, 2009) concludes that the emphasis on rights affirmed and restructured existing patriarchal inequalities, giving them new life within state law with implications that affected all Americans.

This award-winning 2009 book is now central to a new Supreme Court case (United States v. Rahimi) dealing with domestic violence and guns – and has been cited in the legal briefs.

Dr. Laura F. Edwards is the Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty at Princeton University and the award-winning author of four books. Most recently, she wrote Only the Clothes on Her Back: Textiles, Law, and Commerce in the Nineteenth-Century United States published by Oxford in 2022.

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Susan Liebell

Susan Liebell is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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