Machiavelli said: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.”
Examining the history of the law is an important way to understand our current human circumstance. In “The Law Book,” Michael H. Roffer, attorney, associate librarian, and professor of legal research at New York Law School, sifts through thousands of years of human history and presents the reader with a chronological collection of 250 milestones in the law.
Each legal milestone is presented in a one-page synopsis, and is accompanied by art, photography, or another depiction relating to the milestone. Roffer also includes observations of noted commentators concerning each milestone, thus placing each in context with the larger human history.
A famous witch once said, “It’s always best to start at the beginning,” and for Roffer, that means the oldest living will. The will was discovered by renowned archeologist Flinders Petrie and is dated around 2548 BCE. In the will, the decedent husband bequeathed to his wife all property given to the husband by his brother. The husband also instructed the wife in the ways in which he wished her to dispose of certain property (she could not destroy the houses left to her, but was permitted to give them to her sons). From this milestone, Roffer observes, we learn that our supposition that women of that period were mere chattels, unable to own property, is quite untrue.
The legal milestones Roffer reviews are reflected in legal codes, important court cases, and well-known historical events which resulted in the adoption of new legal principles. Roffer discusses some of the oldest formal legal codes, including the Code of Ur-Nammu, created c. 2011 BCE and the Code of Hammurabi, created c. 1792 BCE. These codes are the earliest evidence of societal expectations of acceptable conduct, and punishment for unacceptable conduct. For example, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is expressed in the Code of Hammurabi. Many of the principles in these legal codes have contributed to the development of law as it exists today.
Roffer also devotes segments to blockbuster legal codes—the Talmud, the Ten Commandments, the Quran, the Tang Code, the Magna Carta, the Napoleonic Code, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each of these legal codes vividly reflects the evolution of universal standards of conduct and acceptable individual and community behavior.
Roffer includes the enactment of laws that reflect society’s response to its deepest fears, such as the Eighteenth and Twenty-First Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (unchecked consumption of alcohol); The Emergency Quota Act (the unregulated flow of immigration); and the Alien Registration Act (the spread of communism and other nontraditional political beliefs).
Other laws reflect society’s commitment to equality (the Emancipation Proclamation; the Equal Rights Amendment; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act) and to the protection of our most vulnerable (the Mann Act; the Endangered Species Act; the Child Labor Act of 1916).
Legal trials are some of the best evidence of societal struggles with divergent viewpoints, innovations and values. Roffer includes several well-known trials that offer significant insight into important societal issues. The Salem Witchcraft Trials (religious persecution); Marbury v. Madison (federal versus state rights); Brown v. Board of Education (racial discrimination); Roe v. Wade (right to privacy); and Bush v. Gore (election of the president of the United States), among many others, are reviewed. Additionally, Roffer includes several splashy, media-saturated trials, like the Charles Manson trial, O.J. Simpson trial, and In the Matter of Baby M trial.
Legal historians may disagree as to the importance of a particular legal event in the course of history. However, in “The Law Book,” Roffer presents a thoughtful, thorough, and entertaining compendium of many of the most important events in legal history. I recommend the book to all who are interested in moving forward by learning from the past.