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Prof. Robert Gordon Assumes Presidency of American Society for Legal History

Robert W. Gordon, the Fred A. Johnston Professor of Law and professor of history at YLS, will become president of the American Society for Legal History (ASLH) at the conclusion of its annual meeting in Chicago this weekend, November 9-11.

The ASLH is an academic association "dedicated to fostering scholarship, teaching, and study concerning the law and institutions of all legal systems." It also publishes a journal, "Law and History Review."

Gordon admits that legal history may seem to some like a staid field--"a refuge for antiquarians," in his phrase. "But," he says, "I can't remember a time when the field of history seemed so fresh and relevant." He points out that "every year there's a flood of new books and articles" in the discipline, and it's infused with a significant number of young scholars (many originating from Yale). "The study of legal history in this country is in very good shape," the future president concludes.

So, Gordon?s aim for his term in office will be to encourage some of the trends he sees as contributing to this bounteous historical investigation. Primarily, he wants to encourage more work in comparative legal history--and all studies that cross national boundaries. This is an area that has been growing recently, in "a very welcome development," but could still benefit from more attention.

And Gordon thinks this sort of history is needed right now. With increasing globalization--the prevalence of international markets, networks, and culture--he sees a potential "clash of legal cultures." But along with the friction when these legal systems collide comes an opportunity to better understand their development. Do societies modernize in the same ways? Do their legal systems tend to converge?

"Where we are now has to do with various places where we started out," argues Gordon. The past is always a resource for comparative study of current developments. And by the same token, this moment of collision provides historians with vivid insight into how modernization has--and hasn't--developed in various societies.

Gordon uses a comparative approach in his own work in the history of the legal profession in America--comparing it with other cultures as well as other trades, such as medicine.

A second area of study that occupies Gordon is "the use of history in legal arguments." In other words, he examines the ways in which lawyers use particular views of history in contesting cases and making policy and judicial decisions.

Nearly all arguments rely on a narrative that traces trends of development and judges them beneficial or harmful, Gordon says. They look back at "some conception of an imagined past that serves as a source of ideals and images of the good life--or of nightmares." Ideological conflict is partly a contest between these historical narratives.

Gordon provides two examples where assumptions about the past can clearly influence current policy and legal arguments: Was the antebellum South an ordered place where whites were chivalrous and slaves content, or was it a land of servitude, domination, and pain? Is the legacy of the New Deal reforms greater social equality and security, or has it produced a colossal excess of bureaucracy?

Most people don't adopt one extreme position or the other in these clashes, but they use some view of history to inform their arguments--in individual cases as well as "the great debates that affect so much of what happens in the politico-legal system."

Gordon was elected to the position of president-elect of the ASLH two years ago by a vote of the entire membership and will automatically accede to the highest office this year. However, he modestly sees the appointment as only "one percent honor and ninety-nine percent various kinds of administrative detail."