walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_The Early History of the Law of Bills and Notes_, James Steven Rogers

Subtitled: A Study of the Origins of Anglo-American Commercial Law
Published by Cambridge University Press, 1995, but the first paperback (which is what I read) was 2004. I actually bought this quite recently in paper.

It's a little risky writing a review of this, because it is legal history written by: http://www.bc.edu/schools/law/fac-staff/deans-faculty/rogersj.html, and I have three in-laws who are lawyers, one of whom is at a law school. There's a real risk I'm going to say something breathtakingly stupid and a family member will catch me at it. At least someone will find it amusing.

I like monographs. I like history. I'm currently very interested in payment systems, and while the law holds only limited appeal for me, Rogers has picked such an interesting topic, approach and rhetorical structure that I found this volume so good I am honestly tempted to re-start it from the beginning now that I am done with it, because I am very confident I'll get a lot more out of it the second time. I am not certain I have _ever_ felt that way about a non-fiction book, and it has probably been a decade or more since I've felt that way about _any_ book, ever. Will you enjoy it? Probably not.

Rogers' book is intended to explain how what we would call commercial law developed as bills of exchange became increasingly common and a form of currency in England and the United States. He is writing against a proposition that "Law Merchant" was a separate body of law, administered in separate courts, and incorporated into the common law. He asserts -- convincingly -- that idea grew over the ensuing centuries partly as a result of a misunderstanding of intervening partisan rhetoric. Rogers' has to explain, along the way, how the common law system of England changed during the relevant time frame: classification schemes changed and also the kinds of cases heard changed over the course of the early Industrial Revolution. He spends time showing how some jurists systemized common law by ensuring that cases that illuminated important -- even if largely non-controversial -- points were handled by the Westminster Court en banc (<-- real risk I got a technical detail here slightly wrong). He also does a really great job ensuring the reader understands economic theories prevalent at the time, so that the arguments made in court can be understood _as they were by the people making and hearing them_, not distorted by theories prevalent in our time.

It would have helped if I'd had any operational understanding of common law from the time period; this is something I kind of had to figure out as I was reading. Weirdly, a lot of background detail from novels (either written in the time period, such as Austen, or set in the time period, such as a f*ckton of romance novels) means I understood how people used bills during at least part of this time period.

It is ridiculously easy to write about the development of business and industry while completely ignoring the governance and judicial structures that shape markets. It is possible to write about the law as it has been applied to commerce while more or less ignoring changes in business practice over time. Rogers is doing something amazing here, by addressing a systemic misunderstanding of how the two interact, and, while a legal scholar, doing really excellent work as a historian in support of his argument.

So you probably won't really care for this, nevertheless, it is one of the best books I have ever read. I look forward to his more recent work on payment systems.

ETA: I should add that I really wanted to read his more recent work on payment systems, but it's expensive ($75 for the kindle version and the used copies run over $60) and I wasn't certain I would enjoy/trust this author. Reading this book -- which I had run across passages in google books when I was looking at stuff about accommodation bills -- has convinced me it's worth it). Also, it's not available on the e-ink kindle, only the Fire and other, similar displays.
Tags: book review, economics, politics
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