William Davenport Mercer
's Diminishing the Bill of Rights: Barron v. Baltimore and the Foundations of American Liberty
(University of Oklahoma Press, 2017) argues that if we want to understand how Americans in the early Republic viewed the sources of their rights, we need look no further than the mud at the bottom of Baltimore harbor. In the early nineteenth century, two men, John Barron, Jr. and John Craig, decided to buy a Baltimore wharf on credit. They were hoping to capitalize on rapidly-expanding commercial growth in city in the wake of the War of 1812. Instead, the city diverted water into the harbor, leaving Barron and Craig's wharf silted up and the pair with a pile of debt. The men sued, and eventually their case was argued before the Supreme Court. The decision in Barron v. Baltimore, as William Davenport Mercer shows, marked a key development in the history of American constitutionalism. In arguing that the Bill of Rights (and thus, the Fifth Amendment) applied only at the Federal level, the court rejected a multi-sourced view of liberties. The contentious politics of the era, Dr. Mercer argues, precipitated our modern turn toward locating the sources of rights exclusively in documents. Dr. Mercer teaches history and law at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.