Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Sarah B. Gordon


The private work of lawyers played a significant role in the development of commerce in nineteenth century America. “Legal Economy” examines that role by exploring the papers, account books, and student notebooks of lawyers who attended the Litchfield Law School. Litchfield was the most successful law school in the early Republic, and it transmitted a practical, private-law focused education that was reflected in the work of its graduates. Their papers, and those of their colleagues, illustrate that by the beginning of the nineteenth century law was a business in addition to a profession and the greatest demand for lawyers came from those active in commerce. Ironically, a legal culture that distanced lawyers from the acquisitiveness of the market ideally positioned them to practice commercial law throughout the country. For their clients, they engaged in routine, often out-of-court practice that has usually been overlooked. In aggregate, however, the day-to-day work of lawyers on behalf of commercial clients shaped the American economy in unexpected ways. Lawyers created liquidity, enforced property rights, encouraged investment, and knit together a national economy. By playing a central role in American economic exchange, lawyers governed access to the market and its benefits. Thus, though undertaken under the guise of “private law,” their legal work was never wholly private. Their seemingly mundane work strongly linked them to their commercial clients and furthered the development of the nineteenth century American economy.

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