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Neglected Stories: The Constitution and Family Values

By Peter Bienstock

New York University Law Professor Peggy Coo­per Davis’s latest work, Neglected Stories: The Constitution and Family Values, defies characterization, It is a carefully researched, heavily footnot­ed, scholarly work and it is also written In simple language about common people. Similarly, it is a dispassionate exposition concerning the intersection of two American institutions – the family and slavery – that inspire intense passions. The duality Is partially explained by the fact that the book is actually two books Intertwined – continually shifting back and forth between the 19th century and the present. and between sociology (the day-to-day experiences of slaves, former slaves, slaveholders and abolitionists) and law (legal issues presented in Supreme Court cases).

At the outset, Professor Davis prescribes for herself a large, perhaps unrealistically large, undertaking: to relate the experiences of slaves, freed slaves and abo­litionists – those whose lives demonstrated the need for the Civil War Amendments (particularly the Four­teenth Amendment) and their implementing legisla­tion – to the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the reach of the Fourteenth -Amendment over the next century and a half. The life experiences are told in what professor Davis terms “motivational stories;” the court cases are described in what she calls “doctrinal stories.” Professor Davis’s thesis is not that the former can explain the latter, or that one can divine the original intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment from either, but rather that the motiva­tional stories “reflect the values and aspirations of those who inspired the Fourteenth Amendment’s con­ception and won its promulgation” and thus “are ap­propriate, albeit neglected, guides in an interpretation that is faithful to history and to tradition.”

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