Professor Cynthia Nicoletti Wins Cromwell Book Prize

‘Secession on Trial’ Earns Award Recognizing Work in American Legal History
Cynthia Nicoletti

Cynthia Nicoletti is the Class of 1966 Research Professor of Law. Photo by Ian Bradshaw

November 12, 2018

University of Virginia School of Law professor Cynthia Nicoletti has won the Cromwell Book Prize for her work “Secession on Trial: The Treason Prosecution of Jefferson Davis.”

The award, announced Saturday at the annual American Society for Legal History meeting, is given by the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation each year for excellence in scholarship to an early career scholar working in the field of American legal history.

“I’m thrilled,” Nicoletti said. “Putting together the story in this book was great fun, but it required years of decidedly unglamorous toil in dusty old papers and then lots of thinking to figure out what it all meant.  It’s wonderful to be recognized by the ASLH for my work.” 

The book, published by Cambridge University Press in 2017, follows why Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was never tried for treason after the Civil War. Davis’ trial, which would have served as a test case for the legality of secession, was delayed for four years before ultimately being dropped. Among government officials, there was concern that the prosecution could backfire and prove the legality of secession — something U.S. officials didn’t want to do in the fragile years after the war.

Though there was no doubt Davis levied war against the United States — the definition of treason in the Constitution — it would not have been treason if Davis wasn’t a U.S. citizen at the time he did so.

The South seceded from the Union before officially declaring war. Many in the South, and even some in the North, believed states had the right to leave a union they voluntarily joined.

“The government was faced with a dilemma. They wanted to try him in order to show that secession was illegal and could not be a defense to treason,” Nicoletti said. “A conviction in a court of law could establish the legitimacy of the Union cause in a way that military victory never could.  But it quickly became clear that they also ran the risk — a very serious one — of losing the case.  And what would that mean? They worried it might undercut the moral weight of the outcome of the Civil War. That was a chilling prospect.”

Nicoletti, who earned her J.D. from Harvard Law School, also holds a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia.

Nicoletti previously received a William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Research Fellowship while she was working on the book, and the William Nelson Cromwell Prize for the best dissertation in legal history, awarded by the American Society for Legal History in 2011. 

She is now at work on a new book about emancipation and land redistribution during the Civil War.

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