Professor Cynthia Nicoletti's Work on Legal History of Secession Earns Cromwell Fellowship

Cynthia Nicoletti

Cynthia Nicoletti joined the Law School in 2014 after earning her J.D. at Harvard and her Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia.

November 9, 2015

University of Virginia School of Law associate professor Cynthia Nicoletti recently earned a William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Research Fellowship for her work on the legal history of secession.

The $5,000 award, presented at the American Society for Legal History's conference Oct. 31, supports research and writing in legal history. Nicoletti is wrapping up a book manuscript, "The Fragility of Union: Secession in the Aftermath of the American Civil War, 1865-1869."

"I am extremely grateful to have received this grant from the Cromwell Foundation," Nicoletti said. "It will enable me to complete my book in a timely fashion, but more importantly, it represents the Foundation and the legal history community's support for this project as it goes forward."

Nicoletti's book explores whether the Civil War really resolved the question of secession's constitutionality.

"This question pitted the force of law against military might," she said. "The North's military victory established that the Union would survive, but Americans still wrestled with the legal arguments that supported the secession of the Confederate states from the Union in 1860-61."

By examining the potential prosecution of Confederate president Jefferson Davis for treason after the Civil War, Nicoletti tells a story of how Americans struggled with the idea that brute force was used to settle a legal question.

UVA Law's Program on Legal and Constitutional History was well-represented at the annual American Society of Legal History conference. Professor Risa Goluboff was co-director of the Student Research Colloquium; Professor G. Edward White and Nicoletti were on a panel honoring retired University of Virginia legal historian Chuck McCurdy; Professor Charles Barzun served on the panel "Legal Process Revisited: Rethinking the Relationship between Legal Process, Legal Realism, Criminal Law, and Civil Rights"; and University of Virginia history and law professor Paul Halliday was on the panel "Something Old, Something New: Legal Traditions, Innovations, and Property in the British Atlantic World, 1649-1781."

"The broader American public, as well as Davis' prosecutors, understood that his defense would implicate secession: his lawyers would argue that the secession of Mississippi -- Davis' home state -- in 1861 had severed his allegiance to the United States," she said. "Thenceforth, Davis was a non-citizen, incapable of betraying a duty of loyalty to the United States. Largely because his case raised such a fundamental — and potentially explosive — legal question, Davis was never tried."

Fellow legal historian Professor Risa Goluboff said Nicoletti's approach to the Civil War "represents the best kind of interdisciplinary scholarship."

"The Cromwell Fellowships are intended to support rising stars in legal history, and Cynthia clearly belongs in that category," Goluboff said. "In bringing her legal expertise to bear on a history often preoccupied with the war itself, Cynthia discovers that contemporaries themselves were less certain that the war had decided all the important questions. Her careful archival work is rich with such fresh and surprising insights, and her book will be a major contribution to the history of the Civil War, the Constitution and the country."

Professor G. Edward White, also a well-known legal historian, said the book offers something new to the field.

"Cynthia Nicoletti's forthcoming book will inject into Civil War historiography something that it has long lacked — a sophisticated understanding of the way in which contemporaries conceived and struggled with contested legal and constitutional issues that accompanied the potential disintegration of the American republic that the framing generation had created," White said. "The appearance of 'The Fragility of Union' will be a landmark in American legal and constitutional history."

Nicoletti received her B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and her J.D. from Harvard Law School. She previously received a prize from the American Society for Legal History for best dissertation in legal history, in 2011. Her forthcoming book is a revision of that work.


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