Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Philosophy (Ph.D)



First Advisor

Timothy Milford

Second Advisor

Erika Vause

Third Advisor

Kristin M Szylvian


The history of American law in the nineteenth century reveals how antislavery activism, Westward expansionism, labor, and women’s rights activism tested the boundaries, strength, and authority of the federal government over states and individuals. At the turn of the nineteenth century, as people resisted against their social position during one of the most turbulent periods in American history prior to the Civil War, American law simultaneously evolved to recognize and delineate the private and public rights of individuals and communities. My dissertation explains how informal and formal socio-legal customs were used to resolve major ethical, social, and contractual disputes arising in the Louisiana Territory during the nineteenth century prior to the Civil War. These customs were rooted in notions of equity and anticipated the configuration of the doctrine of unconscionability. This dissertation examines the unconscionability doctrine as a set of legal practices that coalesced to resolve socioeconomic dilemmas that arose at the forward edge of an expanding republic, as early as the 1700s. Judicial opinions from the Great Gaines cases (1834-1891) and Dred Scott decision (1857), studied in this work, demonstrate how the maintenance of public order and national stability were balanced with the interests of bargaining parties seeking equitable relief as justice.

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