Leonard W. Levy.
Ranters Run Amok: And Other Adventures in the History of the Law.
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000. xi + 239 pp. Bibliographic references. $26.50
(paper), ISBN 1-56663-277-3 .
R. B. Bernstein , New York Law School.
Scholarship, Anecdotage, Enthusiasm, and Anguish
Leonard W. Levy, who taught for many years at Brandeis University and then
the Claremont Graduate School, is in many ways the dean of American
constitutional historians. Ranters Run Amok--his third essay
collection and his third book in two years--contains eight essays. The
book is handsomely produced by Ivan R. Dee and presents its notes at the
bottom of each page, though it lacks both an index and information as to
these essays' provenance.
things are going on in these pages, and by inference in the mind of its
author. The first is more conventional--Levy's desire to collect his
recent treatments of historical subjects too short to justify independent
publication. This first group of essays displays the enthusiasm of a
veteran historian for his chosen field of inquiry.
first essay, "Ranters: Antinomianism Run Amok" (pp. 3-53), is a powerfully
written, disturbing account of this seventeenth-century English dissenting
Protestant sect, and their terrible ordeals of persecution and suffering
at the hands of religious adversaries armed with governmental power. It is
an offshoot of Levy's most recent major scholarly enterprise, an
examination of the history of the law of blasphemy (to which we return
below). The other three essays in this category are "Origins of the Fourth
Amendment" (pp. 141-172), a brisk and useful summary of the subject;
"America's Greatest Magistrate" (pp. 217-239), a deft and sympathetic
sketch of Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial
Court; and "A Humanist Confronts the Law" (pp. 52-56), a distillation
of Levy's guiding principles as a historian of American law and the
Constitution of the United States.
remaining essays in this book fall into a category far more personal than
the first, blending enthusiasm with what can only be called anguish. His
essay "Anecdotage" (pp. 57-64) is Levy's cheerful and irreverent account
of meetings with great, near-great, and not so great figures in American
history and law. At greater length, he recounts, in "Adventures in
Scholarship" (pp. 65-107), such recondite endeavors as sitting on four
Pulitzer History juries (his appalling stories of these episodes will
leave this reader, at least, forever skeptical of the merits of the
Pulitzer Prizes in History). In addition, this essay retells the familiar
but no less startling stories of the reactions of leading acolytes of
Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment to Levy's books on those
subjects. However, "Adventures in Scholarship" also hints at a more
painful story of the perennial clashes between author and publisher, and
between the demands of scholarly authorship and the claims of commercial
publishing's marketing departments. Levy's cautionary tale is well worth
reading by young historians and even not-so-young historians innocent of
the ways of the publishing world.
is "Harvard University Press, et al., v. A Book" (pp. 108-141), however,
that makes the most disturbing and painful reading in this book. In this
essay, Levy recounts his long and agonizing battle over his efforts to
write the history of blasphemy. The project was originally to be a book
for Harvard University Press, and in Levy's account, which he supplements
with verbatim transcripts of correspondence (these letters almost too
painful to read), one can only shake one's head in disbelief at the Kafka-esque
world into which Levy plunged. Harvard ultimately rejected the book, which
Levy published elsewhere.
Occupying the middle ground between the two categories of essays is "Origins
of the Fifth Amendment and Its Critics" (pp. 173-216), Levy's
combative reply to legal scholars and historians who have challenged the
argument of his Origins of the Fifth Amendment. This essay is
vintage Levy, for he is as well known for taking up cudgels against
critics of all sorts with vigorous glee, as for his more substantive
contributions to the field. Levy gives as good as he gets in this essay,
though he sometimes shades over into what eighteenth-century men of honor
would denominate as language demanding an explanation.
Run Amok is a confusing and wrenching experience. Some might well ask,
Why has Levy done this? His bitterness at his treatment by publishers and
critics alike is reminiscent of William Shakespeare's tragic hero Caius
Marcius Coriolanus. At the beginning of "Adventures in Scholarship," Levy
recounts an anecdote at once hilarious and ghastly (p. 65):
"Exposing raw prejudice in the halls of ivy is like fornicating on a
scared altar. I was shaken, therefore, when Professor Dumas malone, at the
defense of my doctoral dissertation in 1951, objected to my critical
assessment of the origins of the 'separate but equal' doctrine by
remarking in his pleasant drawl, 'When Ah was a boy in Mississippi we jes'
couldn't let a niggra go to a white man's school.' Noel T. Dowling, the
Harlan Fiske Stone Professor of Constitutional Law at Columbia Law School,
added, 'I associate myself with the remarks of the distinguished speaker.'
Henry Steele Commager, my dissertation supervisor, who sat next to me,
kicked me under the table, a warning to shut up and let the point pass,
while he deftly changed the subject."
Commager was in the habit of advising his students (including this
reviewer) never to answer reviews and never to let reviews get to you.
Perhaps a ghostly kick under the table would have given Levy some sober
second thoughts about the contents of Ranters Run Amok. And yet, in
some ways, we can understand his display of anguish in these pages if we
think back to a period on which he has done fruitful work--the era of the
recent work on the political culture of that time, Professor Joanne B.
Freeman of Yale University has identified a genre of political writing,
"the defense pamphlet." A lengthy, signed pamphlet bearing its author's
real name (rather than a pseudonym), the "defense pamphlet" is a bid to
rehabilitate the writer's reputation from charges deemed unfair or
unwarranted and thus especially damaging. It often contains extensive
transcripts of letters and other documents intended to bear out the
writer's claims. Levy's anguished essays in Ranters Run Amok fit
neatly within this genre of "defense pamphlet."
question remains, why write--or read--such a thing now? I suggest that, no
matter how painful, these pages of Ranters Run Amok deserve
thoughtful and sympathetic reading because of the perils facing scholars,
both established and new, in facing the linked ordeals of publication and
reviewing. It is all too easy for a publisher to dismiss a pathbreaking
monograph on the grounds that he or she cannot conceive how such a thing
will "sell," and it is all too easy for an overburdened reviewer, or one
with an axe to grind, to do the easy, comfortable, or superficial thing.
Taken as a whole, Ranters Run Amok is thus an unsettling and
important cautionary tale for all engaged in the scholarly enterprise.
Shaw was the subject of Levy's first book, The Law of the Commonwealth
and Chief Justice Shaw (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
1957, sadly out of print).
Leonard W. Levy, Legacy of Suppression (Cambridge, Mass.; Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press, 1960), and Leonard W. Levy,
Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side (Cambridge, Mass.:
Belknap Press of Harvard Univeristy Press, 1963; reprint, Chicago:
Quadrangle, 1972; reprint, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1989).
Leonard W. Levy, Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of
Blasphemy (New York: Schocken, 1981); see also Leonard W. Levy,
Blasphemy: Verbal Offenses Against the Sacred from Moses to Salman
Rushdie (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991; reprint, Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1995). In the interest of disclosure:
I had a very different experience with Harvard University Press in
publishing my first book. I have had similar experiences, however, with
other publishers; prudence forbears disclosure here.
Leonard W. Levy, Origins of the Fifth Amendment: The Right Against
Self-Incrimination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968; reprint,
New York: Macmillan, 1999).
Joanne B. Freeman, "Affairs of Honor: Political Combat and Character in
the Early Republic," unpub. Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1998,
esp. chaps. 2 and 4. A revised and expanded version of this study will
soon be published by Yale University Press.
Library of Congress
Call Number: KF4541 .L385 2000
* Constitutional history--United States
Citation: R. B. Bernstein . "Review of Leonard W. Levy, Ranters Run Amok:
And Other Adventures in the History of the Law," H-Law, H-Net Reviews,
September, 2000. URL:
“Ranters Run Amok is a collection of eight of
Levy’s recent essays, on a variety of more-or-less unconnected topics in
legal history. Three of these…are substantive works that will be of
interest to specialists…But the other five, which were, for this reviewer,
the more compelling, might be suggested as required reading for anybody
contemplating a career in the academy, certainly any fledgling legal
Stephan B. Presser,
review of Ranters Run Amok: And Other Adventures in the History of the
Law, by Leonard W. Levy, The American Journal of Legal History
44 (October 2000): 483-484.