Justice Reviewed

I’m about thirty pages into Robert Cover’s Justice Accused and I have two observations. First, Cover had a great talent for pulling out the just the right quotation from his sources. He quotes Montesquieu, “sarcastically derid[ing] arguments justifying Negro slavery on the basis of racial characteristics:

It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.

And here is James Otis on the slave trade:

Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast.

Richard Hofstadter, two centuries later, paraphrased Otis’s line as, “The slave trade … corrupted everyone connected with it …” My mother, the historian, however, remembered the Hofstadter as “The slave trade corrupted everything it touched,” a version I prefer.

Finally, here is Cover quoting one of Bentham’s many quotable lines ridiculing the concept of natural law:

Unless natural law is to be construed as simply an unclear and inelegant way of reformulating principles of utility, Bentham argued,

I see no remedy but that the natural tendency of such doctrine is to impel a man, by the force of conscience, to rise up in arms against any law whatever that he happens not to like.

On the other hand, Cover’s punctuation baffles me. He sticks commas in all sorts of odd places, and then omits them from places you’d expect to see one. Was it at one point the height of punctilious punctuation to separate one’s subjects from one’s verbs with a dramatic comma?