American state supreme courts in the Jacksonian decade, 1828-1837 : an exploration of the role of early American court decisions in societal change



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This dissertation concerns the relationship between the American state supreme courts and American society during the Jacksonian Era. Many scholars have emphasized a view of American courts during this period as institutions that were either pro-development instrumentalities or mirrors merely reflecting the changes of the times. I argue that the Jacksonian Era state high courts functioned as interactive players in the push-pull of events in a society undergoing the stress of pervasive change. These high courts operated in a dialectic with the societal forces around them. Through written decisions, the courts addressed the issues of the day and, through the resolution of routine disputes, affected American society. The courts’ decisions record the rationales for the results of these resolutions revealing some of the general premises accepted by the Jacksonian society. The decisions also explain factors considered by the courts in resolving the disputes before them. More specifically, my research demonstrates that the Jacksonian state high courts were significant participants in the early American state building process. Through their everyday decisions, the courts shaped the relationship between society and all levels government of the American state. These courts also addressed issues related to commercial and social changes. And despite scholarly opinion to the contrary, these courts did not decide cases in a manner that routinely offered favors to commercial or entrepreneurial interests. The decisions reveal consideration for the needs of society and certain social groups often at the expense of business concerns. Finally, my research shows that the Jacksonian courts were institutions imbedded within a society. The courts operated in an interactive relationship with society in which the institution of the courts was shaped by society but also, at the same time, helped shape society in return. I suggest that this view of the Jacksonian courts as interactive participants in the development of early American society has potential as a framework for understanding courts as societal institutions in general. This is a relationship that may extend beyond the Jacksonian period and be at work in the general relationship between courts and societies.