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A sweeping history of American ideas of belonging and citizenship, told through the stories of fourteen legal cases that helped to shape our nation.
Spanning the period from colonial times to the present, Black Trials tells how the place of blacks in American society evolved through the actions of our courts of law. Some of the cases discussed are legendary, such as the ordeal of John Brown, the fiery abolitionist who was hanged for raiding Harpers Ferry in order to equip an army of insurgent slaves. Some are forgotten, such as that of Joseph Hanno, an eighteenth-century free black man charged not only with the brutal murder of his wife but with having brought smallpox to Boston. All of these cases compelled the legal system and the public to reconsider the place of blacks in America and, in so doing, to reconcile our founding ideals with the realities of American life. Drawing on a wealth of new archival sources, Weiner recounts the essential dramas of American civic identity–illuminating where our sense of minority rights has come from and where it might go.
Combining brilliant interdisciplinary analysis with riveting narrative, Black Trials offers a new way of thinking about inclusion and citizenship–and by extension about the meaning of America itself.
“The choices that Weiner makes . . . reveal not a little bravery of the intellectual variety . . . [He] is excellent at spinning these yarns. He creates genuine drama.” —Justin Driver, The New Republic
“Serious, deeply felt . . . This book is the best of its kind.” —Publishers Weekly
“Thorough and provocative.” —Kirkus Reviews
“From the annals of our judiciary and the shards of human lives, Mark Weiner re-creates more knowingly and vividly than anyone the evolving experience of blacks before the law, the experience that has compelled us to reexamine again and again what it is to be a citizen.”
—William E. Nelson, Judge Edward Weinfeld Professor of Law, New York University
“Mark Weiner is a great storyteller and a superb legal historian. Weiner’s subject is vast–the history of African-American slavery and freedom from colonial times to the present, and what that history teaches us about the meaning of America. He illuminates that whole terrain by tracing, in brilliant detail, the stories of fourteen legal cases. Only another historian can fully appreciate the originality and depth of Weiner’s research, but everyone will relish the results.”
—William E. Forbath, Lloyd M. Bentsen Chair in Law, Professor of History, University of Texas, Austin
“Black Trials performs the extraordinary feat of being both a compelling read for a general audience and a significant contribution to scholarship. By bringing alive fascinating legal cases involving black Americans, Weiner shows how real racial progress has been won–but also how African-Americans are still not a ‘people of the law’ like all others.” —Rogers M. Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
“Weiner is a very accomplished narrative historian. He writes clearly and gracefully, and with a novelist’s eye. His artistry makes the great race trials of the past come alive and brings the reader directly into the historical scene.”
–Robert W. Gordon, Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History, Yale University