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  • Sangitha Namasoo

A Look into the American Revolution and the Law of Treason


Professor Carlton Larson is an academic at the University of California, Davis, teaching courses in constitutional law and Anglo American legal history. He studied American history at Harvard and has a law degree from Yale. While it not uncommon for advocates to be historians, Professor Larson takes this connection between law and history even further. On this episode, he speaks about the legal profession at the time of the American Revolution and the way in which lawyers worked during the period.


One interesting aspect of the legal profession during the 18th century was that most of the lawyers had no formal training as there were no law schools. There was no requirement that they attend college either. However, many of them did attend college and afterwards trained for a year or two as an apprentice to a senior practitioner. Once they were admitted to a bar, they would have to take an oral examination in front of a judge, which served to filter the quality of lawyers.


This was a system devoid of standardisation as each apprentice received a different level of training from their master and had their oral examination conducted differently. The profession was also fused with lawyers being both barristers and solicitors. Further, with so few lawyers in practice, there was no specialisation into a particular area of law and lawyers essentially handled all matters that came their way.


Professor’s Larson’s research into the American Revolution is what led him to his current area of expertise, the law of treason. In particular, his interest was piqued by the fact that James Wilson, one of the leading lawyers of the era and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, had represented people who had sided with the British during the Revolution. This made him think about the workings of the law when something that was once a duty, in this case loyalty to the king, becomes a crime.


Today, the law of treason is considered in different contexts including the loyalty a person owes to their country when they hold more than one nationality. It has also been floated about in relation to the conduct of multinational companies and their payment of taxes. Join Professor Larson as he offers listeners a look into the American Revolution from a legal point of view and how the law of treason has evolved from what it was then into what it is today.


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