Justice Stephen Field: Shaping Liberty from the Gold Rush to the Gilded Age.
By Paul Kens. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997. Photographs, illustrations. Bibliography. Notes. Index. viii + 376 pages. $39.95 cloth.
Reviewed by Nicholas J. Aieta, Instructor of American History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Stephen Field is a fascinating character in both American legal studies and histories of the American West. Professor Paul Kens puts these two ideas in context within his study of Field’s life and influence on the American legal system. Kens is currently a professor of political science at Southwest Texas State University, yet his chosen discipline does not dominate this work in either style or content.
Kens stresses immediately that his purpose is not to simply tell the tale of Stephen Field’s life, but rather recount “a story about law, society, and politics during the last half of the nineteenth century” (p.1). Kens argues that Field is an excellent historical figure on which to base such a study due to his remarkable links to American legal doctrine during the period extending from the Gold Rush to the Gilded Age.
In each chapter, Kens demonstrates that he is decidedly not writing a typical biography. Oftentimes, Field himself becomes of minor importance as compared to the detailed background Kens presents. This can be both a strength and a detraction from the work. In chapter one, Kens sets out to briefly detail the struggles of those immigrants to California during the late 1840s and early 1850s. Stephen Field is but a small part of the story here, but Kens does a masterful job of interweaving Field’s experiences with those of the greater whole.
In chapter three, Kens focuses more on Field himself, although it is his legal wrangling and record as a justice of the California Supreme Court which are the at the forefront. Chapter two on the other hand, shunts Field so far to the background as to make him nearly invisible. In this chapter, Kens spends a great deal of time discussing the confusing legal situation that existed in California during the period prior to statehood. He also covers in great detail the prevalence of the Jacksonian mindset which he believes must have been of great importance to the early settlers of California. Field however, remains only a small part of the story. By the time Field has been appointed to the Supreme Court in 1863, the reader may be more than curious as to what qualifications he possessed for the job. His work on the California Supreme Court and in the California Assembly notwithstanding, his appointment may seem a bit unusual. From this point on, we are invited to examine some of Field’s more well-known cases, his personal prejudices, and the legacy he created with each new decision.
There is no doubt that Field made an impact on the Court. His decisions, each based on his strong belief in Jacksonian principles of liberty, are easily recognizable and served as the basis for future Court cases. What is less clear after reading Kens’ book is something of Field the man. Yes, Kens made the point at the outset that this would not be strictly a biography, but there could have been more time spent on Field as a person without taking away from the overall intent.
Justice Stephen Field does carry the reader in and out of the legalese of California and America as a whole from the 1850s through the 1890s. Kens however, does not carry us through the life of the man behind the decisions.