Faculty Bookshelf: Deak Nabers

Victory of Law: The Fourteenth Amendment, the Civil War, and American Literature, 1852–1867

Deak Nabers


In Victory of Law, Deak Nabers examines developing ideas about the nature of law as reflected in literary and political writing before, during, and after the American Civil War. Nabers traces the evolution of antislavery thought from its pre-war opposition to the constitutional order of the young nation to its ultimate elevation of the U.S. Constitution as an expression of the ideal of justice—an ideal embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Nabers shows how the intellectual history of the Fourteenth Amendment was rooted in literary sources—including Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and William Wells Brown’s Clotel—as well as in legal texts such as Somerset v. Stewart, Dred Scott v. Sandford, and Charles Sumner’s "Freedom National" address. Not only were prominent writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass instrumental in remapping the relations between law and freedom, but figures like Sumner and John Bingham helped develop a systematic antislavery reading of the Constitution which established literary texts as sources for legal authority.

This interdisciplinary study sheds light on the transformative significance of emerging legalist and constitutionalist forms of antislavery thinking on the literature of the 1850s and 1860s and the growing centrality of aesthetic considerations to antebellum American legal theory and practice—the historical terms in which a distinctively American cultural identity was conceived.


"Combining legal, political, and literary history, Nabers has written an intellectual history of the Fourteenth Amendment. This is one of the most conceptually acute and intellectually forceful books in the field of law and literature I have seen in many years."— Samuel Otter, University of California at Berkeley, author of Melville’s Anatomies

"A sophisticated and learned defense of the ardor of law, as well as a probing study of both literary assumptions and literary practice. There is no question that Nabers' passionate and rigorous analysis of the ambiguities, both legal and literary, of Melville's Battle-Pieces is unprecedented. There is simply nothing like it in Melville scholarship. In recasting the boundaries between politics and poetics, and even the secular and the sacred, Nabers sets out to make good his identification of the Fourteenth Amendment as the 'American Civil War Poem.' Large and magisterial terms such as 'slavery' and 'race' gain depth through Nabers' thorough examination of legal terminology, his profound understanding of the dangerous intoxication of generalities, and his consequent demand for definition. A formidable and demanding book, Victory of Law rethinks the very nature of constitutional law, as it breathes new life into our understanding of the 'American Renaissance.'" — Joan Dayan, Vanderbilt University

"Nabers’ bold and pellucid book on the imagination of the Fourteenth Amendment is necessary reading for several skewed constituencies. Literary critics will be grateful for its trenchant and startling readings of American authors—Thoreau, Hawthorne, Stowe, preeminently Melville—whose work was importantly dedicated, content and form, to the legal problematics of emancipation. Legal scholars will be assured by Nabers’ erudition and charmed by his measured tribute to the legal imagination. (Like critics of the law, Nabers knows that the law is self-contradictory and ideological. But he treats self-contradictions as opportunities for the crucial mating of strange bedfellows—positive law and natural law, natural law and the Constitution—and is as apt to discover emancipative as repressive potential in American ideology.) Americanists will find cause for celebration in the precise elegance of Nabers’ choreography of ideology, law, history, and text. And, at every point of the conceptual history, the imaginative triumph of the Fourteenth Amendment comes into sharper and sharper focus." — John Limon, Williams College

"A dense, important, and thought-provoking book." — Michael Kent Curtis - Civil War Book Review

ISBN: 9780801883507