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Exploring 18th-19th Century Crime Broadsides Online
Harvard Law School Library
The goals of the assignment are to further a discussion of the symbolic aspects of legal rhetoric, or how legal rhetoric operates not only to decide the outcomes of legal cases but to shape communal values and norms, by having students conduct an in-class rhetorical analysis of texts and images describing crimes and the apprehension of criminals during the 18th-19th century when such information was widely disseminated in broadsides and public discourse regarding the investigation of crimes common. The assignment is also designed to facilitate the teaching of online research and communication techniques and to generate engaging class discussion.
In-class computers with internet access and a course blog.
In his book On the Contrary, rhetoric scholar Thomas Sloane writes, ”Rhetorical thought is—let us admit it—highly perverse and lawyerly in nature.” In this statement, Sloane not only alludes to the closely intertwined history of rhetoric and law from the earliest days of Western thought to the modern era, but highlights their shared promotion of an agonistic “art of controversy” which seeks to facilitate controversy through the practice of arguing both sides of a case, a practice classical rhetoricians called in utramque partem (“on either side”). The principal theorists of classical Greek and Roman rhetoric promoted agonistic contests in which speakers argued opposite sides of disputed issues, often with specifically judicial contexts in mind, and the American legal system’s adversarial system of justice is founded on a contest of accusation and defense between parties in which each seeks to persuade a judge or jury of disputed issues of fact and law on opposite sides of a case.
Despite the close relationship between rhetoric and law, however, and the fact that the lawyer remains, in the words of legal scholar James Boyd White, “the modern rhetorician in its purest form,” the modern professionalization of law has frequently attempted to deny or repress the rhetorical aspects of legal discourse and the agonistic conflict on which the adversarial system of justice is founded. Instead, modern law has promoted a view of legal discourse as a value-neutral “science” based on logical deduction and immune to social and political influence. This paradoxical relationship between law and rhetoric in modern legal discourse has produced a recent revival of questions about modern law’s denial of rhetoric, including important questions about the role of character and emotion in legal argument, the role of narrative in the analysis of legal evidence, the effect of the adversarial system of justice on social cohesion and division, and the relationship of legal rhetoric to democracy, coercion, and violence.
In this course, we will study these questions by first examining the forms of argument used in the legal profession today, focusing on arguments regarding the interpretation of circumstantial evidence in legal cases and the analogical, or case-based, form of legal argument known as “legal reasoning” which is used to argue for or against the application of judicial precedent to new cases. Specifically, we will study arguments regarding the evidence in controversial trials such as the 1935 Richard Hauptmann (“Lindbergh Kidnapping”) trial, the 1982 Lindy Chamberlain (“Dingo”) trial, and the 1992 Randy Weaver (“Ruby Ridge”) trial, as well as arguments and judicial opinions in U.S. Supreme Court cases regarding the minimum standards of effective legal advocacy found in the Sixth Amendment’s right to assistance of counsel. After examining the forms and purposes of legal rhetoric as it is actually employed in the legal profession, we will then consider contemporary critiques of the adversary system and the agonistic rhetoric on which it depends, including critiques implicit in public perceptions of the legal system and cultural representations of lawyers.
Previous discussion of legal rhetoric should have covered the symbolic aspects of legal rhetoric, or how legal rhetoric operates not only to decide the outcomes of legal cases but to shape communal values and norms.
To begin the assignment, introduce students to the Harvard Law School Library's online collection of crime broadsides. With students at their computers, demonstrate the site's search features and discuss a couple of sample broadsides as a tutorial of the site.
Inform students that their task is to isolate and analyze the ways in which norms and identity are rhetorically constructed in one of the broadsides from the site. (Alternatively, students could be instructed to isolate multiple broadsides to compare and contrast.) The remainder of the class is devoted to students conducting their own research and posting their broadsides along with a brief rhetorical analysis to the course blog. The blog posts may then be discussed collectively as a class with or without requesting individual students to present on their broadsides and analysis. The assignment may be completed in a single class period or span two class periods, depending on the details of the assignment.
In furtherance of our discussion of the symbolic aspects of legal rhetoric, or how legal rhetoric operates not only to decide the outcomes of legal cases but to shape communal values and norms, you will isolate and analyze the ways in which norms and identity are rhetorically constructed in one [or more] of the crime broadsides from the Harvard Law School Library's online collection of crime broadsides. Your task is to identify a broadside that reflects a particularly interesting example of a rhetoric of identity and post the broadside with a brief rhetorical analysis to the course blog. At the conclusion of the assignment, we will discuss your collective findings and analyses.
I've never graded this assignment. It's primarily designed to engage students in questions considered during the course and facilitate class discussion.
I've used this lesson plan with two classes and both found the broadsides and their rhetoric fascinating and enjoyed the assignment. Their contributions were often very engaged and insightful.