Atrocious Judges


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Atrocious Judges
Atrocious Judges


(LORD CAMPBELL, John) HILDRETH, Richard. Atrocious Judges. Lives of Judges Infamous as Tools of Tyrants and Instruments of Oppression. Compiled from the Judicial Biographies of John Lord Campbell, Lord Chief Justice of England. With an Appendix, containing the Case of Passmore Williamson. Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by Richard Hildreth. New York and Auburn: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1856. Octavo, original brown cloth; pp. 432. $1350.

First edition of the provocative attorney's challenge to the antebellum judiciary and congressional leadership, with Hildreth commenting on a British work by John Lord Campbell to proclaim American judges and attorneys complicit in a proslavery regime of "some two hundred thousand petty tyrants," and documenting the incendiary Passmore Williamson case, a handsome copy.

Historian, attorney and abolitionist Hildreth is "one of the more enigmatic figures in American intellectual history" (Schlesinger, Problem of Richard Hildreth, 223). Admitted to the bar in 1830, he stepped away from practice to donate his "legal services to fugitive slaves and those charged with helping them" (ANB). This work, which remains highly contentious, was his "direct response to the Passmore Williamson case and the role of the judiciary in maintaining the system of slavery" (Cover, Atrocious Judges, 1003). That 1856 case and the decision of Federal District Judge John K. Kane, documented herein, became "the precedent set in the federal and state courts" (Finkelman, Imperfect Union, 260). The Passmore Williamson case is also seen as triggering Dred Scott (1857) and "the legal crisis and the crisis in federalism that led to the Civil War" (Finkelman, Slavery, 41).

In Atrocious Judges, Hildreth draws on chapters chosen from a British work, John Lord Campbell's Lives of the Chief Justices (1849-57). "In England, Hildreth wrote, tyrannical judges were part of the 'Norman yoke'… personified in the divine right of monarchs to rule their subjects. In the American Republic, 'some two hundred thousand petty tyrants… in the shape of slaveholders,' exercised the divine right to rule through congressional prerogative and corrupt judges" (Sinha, Slave's Cause, 528). To 20th-century legal scholar Robert Cover, "Hildreth's carefully biased selection and Campbell's acerbic wit and bitterly honest appraisals make this little volume a delightful change from… almost all collected writings of jurists" (Cover, Atrocious Judges, 1003). His goal was to etch a line between a "select assembly of servants of tyranny and an American judiciary that was nearly uniformly proslavery in its decisions" (Strassfield, Atrocious Judges, 899-900). To Hildreth, who also authored a multi-volume History of the United States (1849-52) and was Lincoln's appointment as consul at Trieste, Italy, "the law seemed to interfere with the free workings of democracy, and he struck out at it," declaring precedent was the "main obstacle" to law reform, along with "the pecuniary interest which the lawyers think they have in keeping up with old abuses" (Schlesinger, 235). First edition, first printing: issued together with same year's Boston edition, no priority established. Containing preface by Hildreth dated in print, "Boston, November 20, 1855"; Appendix on Passmore Williamson (389-432). Sabin 31770. Contemporary owner inscriptions dated "Yale College. Dec. 24th 1858": possibly belonging to "Harry Gilbert Day." Later owner inscription on a separate blank page of John M. King. Text with minimal stray marginal marks.

Interior very fresh with mere trace of marginal dampstaining to rear leaves not affecting text, faint soiling, scant rubbing to original cloth. A scarce near-fine copy.

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