Law Text Culture


K. Dolin


For the American legal historian Robert Cover, the writing of Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process was a political as well as a scholarly project. This study of nineteenth-century American judges who, despite their own opposition to slavery, ordered the return of escaped slaves in accordance with the Fugitive Slaves Act, provided an analogue for a contemporary conflict between law and conscience, the enforcement of compulsory military service in Vietnam. In his Prelude to Justice Accused, Cover offered a literary exemplum of this conflict: the story of Captain Vere in Melville's Billy Budd. He also proposed one of his "accused" judges, Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of Massachusetts and Melville's father-in-law, as a possible model for Vere. Since then, a number of legal-historical readings of Billy Budd, connecting Melville's narrative with the judicial practices of Shaw or his age, have been made. In this paper I review this line of interpretation, and then seek to develop it by focusing on shifts in the discourse of martial law.