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Rituals of Belief and Practices of Law in the 19th-century Americas

ENGL 799.301
W 12-3:00 PM



This course will be an attempt to make sense of the relation between legal practice and spiritual belief in the Americas. From its beginnings law traded on the lure of the spirit, banking on religion and the debate on matter and spirit, corporeal and incorporeal in order to transfer the power of the deity to the corrective of the state. Few of the topics under consideration are peculiarly English; indeed most of them (slavery, civil death, penance, and possession) form part of the general history of the Western world. But our primary readings will be strictly limited to the eighteenth-century British West Indies and the United States. Through a close analysis of literary fictions, we will deal with the emergence, orchestration and function of law and the sacred as a kind of epistemological double whammy that redefined persons and property, spirits and things. The process by which words (such as race, blood, sacrifice, redemption, and judgement) are specified and by which their precise meaning over time is determined will be crucial to ourinvestigations.


Primary readings: selected legal cases and sermons; the Bible (Leviticus, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Romans); Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland; Melville's Pierre and Piazza Tales; Poe's Eureka; Emerson's Essays and Journals; Lydia Maria Child, ARomance of the Republic; Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, George Balcombe; Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin; Frederick Douglass,Narrative of the Life.


Collateral readings: Locke, Essay on Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government; William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England; Edward Long, The History of Jamaica; Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon Writings; De Tocqueville, Democracy in America and On the Penitentiary System in the United States; Thomas R.R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States; James Kent,*Commentaries of American Law; Elsa Goveia, The West Indian Slave Laws of the Eighteenth Century.


Fulfills 2 & 4 requirements.

fulfills requirements