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City of Courts


  • 15 b/w illus. 8 tables
  • Page extent: 376 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.72 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 303.3720977311
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: HV9956.C47 W55 2003
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Criminal justice, Administration of--Illinois--Chicago--History
    • Justice, Administration of--Social aspects--Illinois--Chicago
    • Courts--Illinois--Chicago--History
    • Social justice--Illinois--Chicago--History
    • Chicago (Ill.)--History

Library of Congress Record

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 (ISBN-13: 9780521790826 | ISBN-10: 0521790824)

  • Also available in Paperback
  • Published March 2003

Manufactured on demand: supplied direct from the printer

$108.00 (C)

What could be more "liberal" than believing in society's responsibility for crime--that crime is less the product of free will than of poverty and other social forces beyond the individual's control? And what could be more "progressive" than the belief that the law should aim for social, not merely individual, justice? This work of social, cultural, and legal history uncovers the contested origins and paradoxical consequences of the two protean concepts in the cosmopolitan cities of industrial America at the turn of the twentieth century.


Part I. Transformations: 1. The price of justice; 2. A managerial revolution; 3. Rethinking responsibility for a social age; 4. Socializing the law; Part II. Practices: Interlude: Socialized Law in Action; 5. 'Keep sober, work, and support his family': the court of domestic relations; 6. 'To protect her from the greed as well as the passions of man': the morals court; 7. 'Upon the threshold of manhood': the boys' court; 8. 'Keep the life stream pure': the psychopathic laboratory; Part III. Misgivings: 9. America's first war on crime; Afterword.

Prize Winner

2004 William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Prize

American Historical Association's John H. Dunning Prize


"...painstakingly researched and beautifully written..." Social Service Review

"Willrich tells an important story; and he tells it very well. The research is rich and deep. This book is one of the best, most insightful, and provocative studies in American legal history that has appeared in recent years. It could serve, in many ways, as a model, in its adroit blending of social and legal history." H-Law

"Willrich's account is complex, insightful, and wide-ranging; City of Courts incorporates the history of science, legal history and political history in a narrative that casts new light on crime and punishment in the second largest city in the United States." The Times Literary Supplement

"Michael Willrich shares with Fyodor Dostoevsky and Theodore Dreiser an absorbing interest in the ancient riddle of whether crime should be reckoned as an individual or a social failing. He probes that riddle to magnificent effect in City of Courts, freshly illuminating the social, political and cultural landscape of Dreiser's own Chicago. This book announces the arrival of a major new scholar of the progressive era. It also surely heralds a rebirth of interest in that formative period when Americans struggled to define the ideas and institutions appropriate to the myriad challenges of the twentietth century. Indispensable reading for all students of the conflicted and consequential history of modern American liberalism." David M. Kennedy, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University and author of Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945

"By highlighting the social causes of crime, early twentieth-century Progressive reformers produced a dramatic transformation in American legal institutions. In this splendidly written book, Michael Willrich focuses on a preeminent example of Progressive legal reform--the Chicago Municipal Court--and shows how it exemplified both the complex interaction between social reform and social control and the long-term movement towards bureaucratic justice. It is a brilliant synthesis of social, legal, and institutional history." Morton J. Horwitz, Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History, Harvard Law School

"As industrial capitalism reached maturity around the turn of the century, it fashioned a densely interdependent world that discredited the liberal premise of autonomous selfhood....The result, as Michael Willrich shows in this wonderfully insightful case study of Progressive reform of the criminal justice system of Chicago, was an upheaval in the conventions of explanation and causal attribution--an upheaval that undeniably deepened understanding of the social sources of crime and injustice, but only at the expense of flirting with eugenics, imperiling the rule of law, and entangling liberalism in self-contradictions that have plagued it ever since. No one has shed more light than Willrich on the political and ethical dilemmas whose history is recounted here, which remain as relevant today as they were a century ago." Thomas L. Haskell, McCann Professor of History, Rice University

"Legal scholars and experts will welcome Willrich's keen analysis of both the evolution of US legal justice and the larger Progressive Era reforms of which it was a part... this is a valuable addition to existing literature.... Highly recommended." Choice

"City of Courts is a brilliant expostion of the legal origins of the administrative welfare state in Chicago...If we are ever to achieve true social justice, we need more books like this." - Christopher Capozzola, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"City of Courts is interdisciplinary history at its best; its audience includes American Historians, legal scholars, and criminal-justice public-policy experts. The focus is deceptively simple and local, an apparent moment in time--the creation and elaboration of the municipal court system in Progressive Era Chicago." - Barbara Y. Welke, University of Minnesota

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