Christopher Waldrep (February 2005)

Prof. Christopher Waldrep holds the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Chair in American History at San Francisco State University (SFSU), and is both a member of the Publications Committee of the American Society for Legal History (ASLH) and an Editor of the Society's online discussion forum, H-Law. Prof. Waldrep received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University, and taught history at Eastern Illinois University before moving on to SFSU. An expert on the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, and particularly on extralegal violence and the history of lynching in America, Prof. Waldrep is the author of numerous works, including Roots of Disorder: Race and Criminal Justice in the American South, 1817-1880, which in 1999 won the McLemore Prize from the Mississippi Historical Society. The Legal History Project interviewed Prof. Waldrep in December 2004 and February 2005.

Can you describe the main features of the American Society for Legal History website and of H-Law?

The website is the electronic archive for the Society. We have information about upcoming meetings and also past programs. Current and past newsletters appear on the site. We are still building the site, but we are gathering information about past officers, award winners, and other such information that is proving hard to come by. I've got students researching our old newsletters – which are also hard to find.

H-Law is an electronic list for about one thousand people interested in legal history. It is sponsored by the ASLH and we make announcements for the Society, but we don't require H-Law subscribers to join the ASLH. We strongly recommend it. H-Law is a conversation about legal history and we talk about what ever the subscribers want to talk about. We also post book reviews. We have recently posted important reviews by Lawrence Friedman and Howard Gillman.

What role do the Society's website and H-Law play for the Society and its members?

The website and H-Law can instantly disseminate information of interest to Society members – particularly information about upcoming meetings. The site and the list also promote interest in legal history.

Are most of either website's users lawyers, or do people from other vocations take part?

All sorts of vocations. I am a historian and not a lawyer, but I can't give you any numbers on what percentage of our subscribers are either lawyers or historians or librarians or students. My sense is that perhaps half or more of the people who contribute messages might be lawyers while another half might be historians. But I am just guessing and some scholars are both lawyers and historians.

Do you find, given your experience with Society website and H-Law users, that interested non-lawyers have a hard time understanding legal history? What does the Society do to help such people?

Many non-lawyers are afraid of legal history and shy away from it, but anyone willing to read and submerge themselves in primary sources can do legal history. I'll just say that it appears to me that increasingly history departments do not offer study in constitutional history, which I think is a great misfortune. All students would benefit from the study of constitutional history. On the other side, law schools increasingly offer history classes. This is no doubt a good thing for lawyers, but understanding our Constitution is not something left to lawyers!

Turning to more personal topics, tell us about your own interests and work. What drew you to legal history?

I began thinking about history as a high school student, during the Vietnam era. I had an intense interest in foreign policy, especially in how wars start. After a while it dawned on me that if I wanted to do diplomatic history I would need to travel to presidential libraries and the National Archives – places I had no funding to cover. I noticed virtually every town of any size had a courthouse. Further checking revealed that many had primary sources with dramatic, life and death issues, and the documentation captures the conversation of ordinary people from the past.

You are one of the foremost experts on a grim subject, namely the American practice of lynching. Can you explain the scope of lynching both as a concept and as a practice? Can you also provide some insights into why such extra-legal assaults-as-punishment were as common as they were in America?

Mob violence, vigilantism, lynching, regulation, white capping – all these terms and more apply to a phenomenon pervasive in American history. It's amazingly under-studied, given how common the violence really was. I've come to believe that this kind of violence measures ordinary Americans' commitment to constitutionalism. And the hard truth is that throughout American history most Americans have not been truly committed to higher law, the idea that there are some rules that rise above politics. It's certainly not a popular idea now.

I also have learned that "lynching" is not unique to America. It's common to refer to this as a "peculiarly" American practice. It never was any such thing. Mob violence is worldwide and always has been. Americans just invented the word used to describe it.

Can any legal lessons be drawn from the history of lynching in America?

Oh, I think so: as I indicated above, I think lynching teaches us that Americans have always had only a tenuous commitment to higher law values.

What draws you to the history of the American South and particularly to race relations in the post-bellum South?

I was born in Tennessee and did some of my growing up in Meridian, Mississippi. I've always felt a strong attachment to Mississippi, I guess because that is where I started remembering things. As for race, I don't think you can study any topic in American history and not run into race pretty quickly. Especially in the American South.

Do you find it difficult from a research (and particularly legal research) perspective to be based in San Francisco and yet be so engaged in topics concerning distant regions?

Not really. I have an endowed chair and I can fly where I need to go pretty easily.

How did you get involved in the Society?

After I joined academia my mentor mentioned the Society to me and suggested I join.

How did you get involved in the Society's website and H-Law? What draws you to online media dealing with legal history?

I began H-Law in 1993 as part of H-Net. H-Law was in the earliest generation of H-Net lists after the first two. So, I have been with H-Net since its beginnings. After a few years of operation without any connection to the ASLH, the ASLH Publications Committee wrote an agreement linking ASLH and H-Law. We launched the ASLH website last summer.

What projects are you working on now?

I'm not sure if you mean me personally or H-Law. As I said above, our current project is to research the history of the ASLH, recovering lost documents so the website can really be an archive for the Society.

How about yourself? Are you currently working on any personal projects relating to legal history?

I have several projects underway. My book on Vicksburg and the Civil War should be out in the fall. I have an edited volume on violence generally and another on lynching in particular coming out later. I am continuing to work on lynching, especially efforts to use the law against lynchers.

Prof. Waldrep was interviewed by Peter C. Hansen.

© Peter C. Hansen, The Legal History Project.