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Vanderbilt University Law School




This essay is a response to Professor Kerry Abrams’s article The Hidden Dimension of Nineteenth-Century Immigration Law, published in Vanderbilt Law Review. The Hidden Dimension tells the story of Washington Territory’s entrepreneurial Asa Shinn Mercer, who endeavored to bring hundreds of young women from the East Coast to the tiny frontier town of Seattle as prospective brides for white men who had settled there. Abrams locates the story of the Mercer Girls, as they were called, in the history of American immigration law. My response locates The Hidden Dimension in American legal historiography, both that branch of American legal historiography traceable to the work of Willard Hurst, and more recent work on continental expansion and colonization of the American West. Both Hurst and Abrams analyze the law’s operation on the same sociolegal terrain — the nineteenth-century “American frontier” — and wrestle with many of the same fundamental questions about law’s relationship to society. But the story of the Mercer Girls is most un-Hurstian in a fundamental respect. Hurst is often identified with the Cold War-era consensus school — a group of scholars who, in varying degrees, predicated their study of American history on the existence of a shared national vision and purpose. Abrams’s account of the Mercer Girls denaturalizes such assumptions. Instead, she uncovers a microhistory that speaks volumes regarding the law’s role in constituting a white, Christian American citizenry in the West — one that included white women as subordinated but fundamental participants in that nation-building project. Seen in this light, the story that Abrams tells is not only a chapter in immigration law history; it is also a part of the history of law’s colonizing function in the American West.


Article was later published as Boston University School of Law Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper No. 10-48.

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