On the shelf: ‘The History of Michigan Law’

By Marcie Beck, Grand Rapids Main Library


Don’t judge this book by its cover! It might be cliché, but in this case, fitting. The outward appearance of The History of Michigan Law belies the interesting content inside. Editors Finkelman and Hershock have organized a series of essays by twelve different authors surveying Michigan’s rich legal past. Readers can pick and choose a topic of particular interest or read chronologically from ‘Michigan’s Territorial Heritage’, to ‘The Struggle Against Sex Discrimination in the 1970s’.


In each essay, the author describes how the law in this area has developed over time. The dynamic nature of the law becomes clear as the authors discuss how the people of the state have shaped the law, carrying their traditions and values through changing economic and social circumstances.


In ‘Blood on the Tracks: Law, Railroad Accidents, the Economy and the Michigan Frontier’, Hershock reviews an important legal controversy of the 19th century: Who was responsible for keeping livestock off the railroad tracks? The new economy and its emerging technology were running headlong into traditional agricultural practices and the result was literally blood on the tracks. Hershock explains that developing stock laws, which required the fencing in of animals was an important step towards a modern economy.


In ‘The Promise of Equality and the Limits of the Law: From the Civil War to World War II’, Finkelman discusses some of the most significant legal developments of the 20th century. One of the functions of the law is to reflect the aspirations of a society, to hold up an ideal as a goal to be achieved. And yet it is important to remember that the law has limits.


Finkelman concludes, “Racism in Michigan could not be eradicated easily or immediately through legislation, prosecution or civil lawsuits. On the other hand, the persistent efforts of the Michigan legislature led to greater equality and greater opportunity for African Americans than they had in most other states.”


This important volume provides excellent background and worthwhile reading for both scholars and citizens as we face the legal challenges of the 21st century.

 

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