Applying digital text history techniques to the adoption of the Field Code

From the conclusion of Kellen Funk and Lincoln Mullen’s The Spine of American Law: Digital Text Analysis and U.S. Legal Practice (July 12, 2017), American Historical Review (February 2018):

[W]e have shown how digital history can also operate by starting with specific historical questions rather than particular sources. We have shown how a collection of methods from computer science, including minhash/locality-sensitive hashing, affinity propagation clustering, and network analysis, along with the concept of text deformance from literary studies, can be used to good effect in tracking the changes in the law, as well as any other discursive field whose texts can be readily divided into sections. Finally we have shown how it is possible to work on different scales, using network analysis, visualization, and algorithmic close reading, and thus to gain both a broad overview of the law’s migration, as well as a highly detailed view of the changes in the law.

Here’s the abstract:

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the majority of U.S. states adopted a novel code of legal practice for their civil courts. Legal scholars have long recognized the influence of the New York lawyer David Dudley Field on American legal codification, but tracing the influence of Field’s code of civil procedure with precision across some 30,000 pages of statutes is a daunting task. By adapting methods of digital text analysis to observe text reuse in legal sources, this article provides a methodological guide to show how the evolution of law can be studied at a macro level—across many codes and jurisdictions—and at a micro level—regulation by regulation. Applying these techniques to the Field Code and its emulators, we show that by a combination of creditors’ remedies the code exchanged the rhythms of agriculture for those of merchant capitalism. Archival research confirmed that the spread of the Field Code united the American South and American West in one Greater Reconstruction. Instead of just a national political development centered in Washington, we show that Reconstruction was also a state-level legal development centered on a procedure code from the Empire State of finance capitalism.

A very interesting contribution to an emerging field of digital text history of law. H/T to beSpacific. — Joe

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