The Trial in American History

HISTORY 103D.004

Fall 2015
3205 Dwinelle
Day & Time: 
F 10-12
This course examines the history of an important legal event: the trial. Trials are often portrayed as simple, adversarial contests in which someone wins and someone loses. Underneath, of course, there is often much more: trials affect such things as TV ratings, public policy, the meaning of the Constitution, and who gets to keep the kids. Most legal disputes never go to trial. And the court’s judgment is rarely the end of the story. None of these things is new. What are trials for? Why do people go to court? What is the trial process like? Who goes to court, who does not, and why? When, and in what sense, does a trial have legal meaning? This course approaches these and other questions through the prism of history. We will examine several trials, some famous, most not. Our goal is to explore American history from the records that trials leave behind. This is not a pre-law class but rather a humanities course that looks at law. The goal is not so much to think like a lawyer as to think like a social scientist, applying the tools of historical analysis and borrowing, when needed, from the related disciplines of literature, sociology, and anthropology.

Course Books

Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents by Thomas, Brook (ed.) Bedford/St. Martin's. ISBN: 0312137435 Required
Anatomy of a Murder by Otto Preminger (director) Columbia TriStar Home Video. ISBN: 9780767827959 Required
A Judgment for Solomon: The d'Hauteville Case and Legal Experience in Antebellum America by Grossberg, Michael Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN: 978-0521557450 Required
Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse by Bogira, Steve Vintage. ISBN: 978-0679752066 Required
Billy Budd, Sailor by Melville, Herman (ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr.) Univ. of Chicago Press. ISBN: 9780226321325 Required
Gideon's Trumpet by Lewis, Anthony Vintage. ISBN: 9780679723127 Required