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Dominant Themes in American Legal History

Some of the Court's important decisions have been overly influenced by legal doctrines which have not stood the test of time. Overall, however, the American legal system has proved to be remarkably resilient and in tune with the needs of the times.

During the first two and half post-Civil War decades, most of the United States (other than the South) underwent tremendous economic growth and social change and endured severe boom and bust cycles during which social tensions among the classes intensified. The American legal system largely bent to accommodate the interests of the most powerful economic interests. In a long series of cases, the Supreme Court used the Commerce, Due Process (5th and 14th Amendments) and Contract Clauses of the Constitution to protect commercial interests against state interference.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field dominated judicial thinking during the first 20 years after the end of the Civil War. He saw the courts as a neutral force, whose principal function was to level the economic playing field so that the private and public sectors could cooperate in the public interest. He sought, said McCurdy (1975), through his 'public-use' doctrine to impose "constitutional limitations on the exercise of the state's inherent powers" (255). Some constitutional scholars, such as Thomas Cooley (1868), constructed a theory of jurisprudence which preached non-i


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