In this book we meet Marretie Joris, a New Amsterdam entrepreneur who sues Gabriel de Haes for calling her a whore; peer cautiously at Christian Stevenson, a Bermudian witch as bad "as any in the world;" and learn that Hannah Dyre feared to be alone with her husband—and subsequently died after a beating. We travel with Comfort Taylor as she crosses Narragansett Bay with Cuff, an enslaved ferry captain, whom she accuses of attempted rape, and watch as Samuel Banister pulls the trigger of a gun that kills the sheriff's deputy who tried to evict Banister from his home. And finally, we consider the promiscuous Marylanders Thomas Harris and Ann Goldsborough, who parented four illegitimate children, ran afoul of inheritance laws, and resolved matters only with the assistance of a ghost. Through the six trials she skillfully reconstructs here, Crane offers a surprising new look at how early American society defined and punished aberrant behavior, even as it defined itself through its legal system.
This state of affairs will come as no surprise to those, like Friedrich Julius Stahl, who track the way people think, who know that ideas have consequences and that thought eventually feeds into practice. This is especially the case with legal philosophy. Here is where theory and practice confront each other, where the rubber meets the road. And the history of legal philosophy is the history of ideas having consequences.
This history can tell us a great deal about how we arrived at the current state of affairs. When we look at it, we find that the key player in this history is natural law. Once the mainstay of ethical and legal discourse, it is now a forgotten relic. But natural law paved the way for the triumph of subjectivism in the modern world. A strange thing, considering that natural law was supposed to embody an objective standard for judging man-made law. It ended up eliminating that standard. How this came about is the burden of The Rise and Fall of Natural Law.
Natural law was born of the Greeks and Romans, adopted by the Christian church, and converted into the bulwark of Christian ethical and legal science. But along the way it became disengaged from the church; and when it did, it played a central role in secularizing Western civilization.
Stahl follows this career, from its start in classical antiquity, through to its incorporation in the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, to its secularized versions in the Enlightenment, and culminating in the philosophy of Rousseau and the hard reality of the French Revolution. The subjectivist turn is especially emphasized in the work of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, whose focus on enthusiastic conviction and the primacy of the subject makes him the prophet of the modern world. Although Fichte wrote at the turn of the 19th century, it is in our day that his orientation has triumphed. His story, and the stories of those leading up to him – the leading characters in “the Rise and Fall of Natural Law” – are crucial to understanding the genesis of the modern world.