Cover: Habeas Corpus: From England to Empire, from Harvard University PressCover: Habeas Corpus in PAPERBACK

Habeas Corpus

From England to Empire

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Product Details


$30.00 • £24.95 • €27.00

ISBN 9780674064201

Publication Date: 04/02/2012

Academic Trade

512 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

Belknap Press


[A] monumental work… For anyone deeply interested in these issues it provides an invigorating blast against received ideas and intellectual complacency. Above all, it challenges us to think again about the foundation stones of personal liberty.The Economist

[A] splendid and important book… It is one of the great strengths of Halliday’s book that he is able to combine discussion of some of the international and continuing ramifications of habeas corpus with massive precise and forensic archival research into its English origins and evolution… It casts much brilliant new light on the subject.—Linda Colley, The Times Literary Supplement

[A] superb history of habeas corpus… Part legal drama, part subtle causal analysis, this book proves that a gripping history of a legal writ is no contradiction in terms… [A] lucid and learned account.—Adrian Vermeule, The New Republic online

The year’s most readable book about English common law came from an American history professor—Habeas Corpus. The legal wonder that Britain bequeathed the world has unlocked prison doors for so many who have been wrongly detained; Paul Halliday tells the story for general readers, and lets the lawyers grub around his copious footnotes if interested in the technicalities.—Geoffrey Robertson, New Statesman

Not the least merit of Paul Halliday’s enthralling and scholarly historical survey, focusing primarily on the years 1500–1800, is to remind us of what could be seen as the glory days of habeas corpus… Halliday’s researches not only illuminate the legal history of habeas corpus but also provide fascinating insights into the social history of the period he studies… Halliday’s researches yield a rich harvest of human stories which have all the vividness of the common law itself, yet fall into a discernible pattern which he traces with skill and clarity.—Tom Bingham, London Review of Books

[An] engaging book… [Halliday] has drawn on a detailed study of habeas corpus cases in the King’s Bench in London between 1500 and 1800. The book is a monument to his thoroughgoing investigation of original documents, most of them still kept in the British National Archives… Despite its detail, lengthy endnotes, and an index stretching over 160 pages (or a third of the book), Halliday realizes the simple truth that the cases he describes are all human stories. They show the law, in its busy daily work, where it matters most.—Michael Kirby, Australian Book Review

Timely, important and thought-provoking… Eschewing a Whiggish reliance on the triumphalist assertions of well-known legal writers, Halliday uses the ‘often filthy and rumpled’ writs, return to writs, enrolled copies, court orders and affidavits in the court of King’s Bench archives to construct a radically revisionist account of how the writ worked between 1500 and 1800.—Clare Jackson, Literary Review

[Halliday] challenges the way that most chroniclers go about drafting constitutional history… In order to better understand the history of the Great Writ, he went beyond the well-known commentaries of Blackstone and his countryman Edward Coke and turned to thousands of unopened parchment documents, concerning more than eleven thousand habeas cases from 1500 to 1800, from London’s National Archives… And as he worked through the documents, he discovered that they tell a very different story than the lofty historical writing about the writ might suggest… If habeas corpus is a tool of judicial power, its greatest enemy is often the elected branches that fear that power, particularly in wartime. That was precisely the rationale that Congress used in passing the Military Commissions Act, which barred more than four hundred detainees at Guantánamo from having access to the writ. When the Supreme Court found that action unconstitutional, it was, in many ways, just one more battle in a centuries-long fight over institutional power… Habeas Corpus is…full of colorful judges, unhappy sailors, and enough estranged wives to make these thousands of dusty old documents come vividly to life. But as a challenge to legal historians and their sacred-cow interpretations of the foundations of personal liberty—and, more essentially, as a methodological revision of the standard historical scholarship on the law—this book will change the landscape altogether. It serves as a critical reminder to the rest of us that even in wartime, at great distances, and across hundreds of years, the best way to judge the facts is to begin by looking at them.—Dahlia Lithwick, Bookforum

Halliday constructs an exhaustive and informative legal history of the English writ of habeas corpus from the 16th century to the present… Halliday provides an expertly developed analysis which draws multiple interesting connections between the writ of habeas corpus and sources of English law, many of which are connected to the U.S. Constitution… This book is highly recommended for…individuals who are seriously interested in this component of legal history.—Steven Puro, Library Journal

Halliday’s magisterial revisionist history is as impressive as it is indispensable.—David Armitage, author of The Declaration of Independence: A Global History

With grace, elegance, and insight, Halliday has taken a writ and found an empire. He has not only written a compelling account of habeas corpus, but provided an imaginatively conceived legal history that offers a new model for how to write meaningfully about procedures. This important book is a spectacular achievement.—Mary Sarah Bilder, Boston College Law School

A remarkable work, based on truly heroic research. Halliday explains why liberty in the English sense of the term could only be understood as liberty under the law, and he offers a robust revision of the whiggish view that has traditionally seen the rise of habeas and the rise of parliamentary democracy as part of the same process in the development of liberty. He provides a particularly illuminating account of how the older common law system of largely judge-made law actually worked. Ambitious, convincing, and penetrating, Habeas Corpus will surely stand as the authoritative account.—Christopher W. Brooks, Durham University

Halliday changes the way that we understand both habeas corpus and the power of legal processes more generally. He shows us how kingship helped to shape the writ, how the writ helped to shape the empire, and how historical circumstances helped to shape all three. Based on exhaustive research, this book breaks new ground and suggests new ways of thinking about both rights and liberties.—Cynthia B. Herrup, University of Southern California

A book that every historian of English government and Anglo-American law should read, this will be the starting point for anyone interested in the origins and interpretation of habeas corpus. It rests on deep, original research that is presented with subtlety and sophistication. Habeas Corpus will be an instant classic.—Daniel Hulsebosch, New York University Law School

This is a book of astonishing forensic brilliance that transforms our understanding of where the liberties of the Anglophone world came from and how they can still be deployed to stop overmighty rulers in their tracks when they abuse their democratic mandate. I have not read a more important history book for many years.—John Morrill, University of Cambridge

This book is superb. In a tour de force of archival research, Halliday singlehandedly reshapes our view of the historical scope and characteristics of habeas corpus. He demonstrates that the writ must be understood as a feature of the royal prerogative, allowing the king’s courts to demand an explanation for the imprisonment of the king’s subjects, whether citizen or alien. There is little doubt that this will become the standard account of the Great Writ.—James Oldham, Georgetown University Law Center

In clear, at times compelling, prose Halliday offers an outstanding work of historical and legal scholarship. I am unaware of any treatment of habeas corpus which covers so broad a canvas or rests upon such massive archival foundations. Halliday has convincingly demolished the traditional myth of habeas corpus. One might even say that the conceptual sophistication, evidential weight, and span of this book point towards a new way of doing constitutional history.—Wilfrid Prest, University of Adelaide

Awards & Accolades

  • 2011 Inner Temple Book Prize, Honourable Society of the Inner Temple
  • A New Statesman Favorite Read of 2010
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