February 18, 2003

Law for the Elephant, by John Philip Reid

This is a dry, dusty, obscure, scholarly book, and while I wouldn't call it a compelling read, I did manage to read the whole thing over the period of about a month, and I'm not sorry about it. What that says about me, I'm not sure, because This Is Not A Book For The Mass Market.

This is a book about the wave of emigration along the California and Oregon trails in the middle part of the 19th century, and in particular the understanding of law by the emigrants themselves, and in particular of law as it relates to private property (as, after all, most civil and criminal law does).

One gathers from a variety of snide (if exceedingly polite) comments that Reid makes in the text that there has been the tendency among historians to make one of two errors regarding the Overland Trail and the California mining camps. The first is to see them as "lawless", places where the usual societal norms didn't apply, and therefore places where every human impulse, no matter how base, is given free rein. This is (I paraphrase) utter hogwash. During the course of this long book, Reid builds a compelling case that the emigrants brought the law they had known in the east with them as they travelled west--despite knowing full well that they were travelling far beyond the bounds of any kind of coercive authority.

The Overland Trail was a place of great hardship. What with short water, short food, burning heat, bad water, disease, freezing cold, there was something bad for everyone. In such a desparate situation, we'd expect to see the have-nots stealing from the haves, and murdering if necessary to get the food and water and other supplies they needed. But Reid has surveyed the many diaries of the trip--and there were hundreds, at least, written by men and women from all classes and levels of education--and the picture is clear. Property rights were respected on the Overland Trail. There was remarkably little thievery. People bought what they needed, often at exorbitant prices, from other emigrants, or from the trading posts that sprang up. Basic honesty is taken to a surprising degree; emigrants finding a stray horse or ox or mule and taking it into their train would freely return it should the owner come and recognize it.

The Trail was a dangerous place, certainly, but the dangers did not include, for the most part, one's fellow man. And the emigrants recognized this: when the evitable need to lighten the load became extreme (everyone overpacked), one of the first things to go as being of no use were the guns.

Well, you might ask, what about murders for other reasons? Certainly there were some, though it seems to be have uncommon. Reid has written another book on that topic, Policing the Elephant, which I've not yet gotten to.

The other error historians have been prone to make is to see the Overland Trail as a place where the dictum, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," would naturally hold sway. But there is no Marxist paradise, and in fact even those in the deepest degree of need expected to pay (in money or in kind or in labor) for what they needed.

The conclusion seems to me to be inescapable. The emigrants were decent, God-fearing folk (and they were, too) when they left the east; they remained decent God-fearing folk as they travelled west. They brought their moral compasses with them.

I don't know what it says of historians that they seem to think that, once away from the coercive power of state and society, the emigrants would turn into slavering beasts with all the morals of, well, modern academics. But they didn't.

Posted by Will Duquette at February 18, 2003 04:44 PM