Law School Prof. wins Cromwell Foundation Fellowship

Book focus on legality of secession following Civil War


The Cromwell Foundation has begun to switch from granting awards to historians at the beginning of their careers to granting aid to more established scholars, such as Nicoletti.

Law School Prof. Cynthia Nicoletti recently won the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Fellowship to aid in transforming her dissertation on secession following the American Civil War into a complete book.

The Cromwell Foundation focuses on providing support to historians pursuing the publication of works regarding American legal history and awards three to eight fellowships per year, each worth 5,000 dollars.

Nicoletti’s reception of the award represents a switch from granting awards to historians at the beginning of their careers to granting aid to more established scholars.

“The Cromwell Foundation historically has supported very junior scholars, basically people working on their dissertations,” Nicoletti said, “but this year they decided to help people who are slightly more senior — like me — and what they are looking for is a project in legal history and people who are at the stage of turning their dissertation into a book.”

The Fellowship allows Nicoletti to hire someone to help with the arduous restructuring of her book from its non-chronological format in her dissertation and to add visual aids to the work to prepare it for publication.

The book — titled “The Fragility of Union: Secession in the Aftermath of the American Civil War, 1865-1869” — provides a new perspective on the legality of secession by focusing specifically on the post-Civil War period. Nicoletti said most historians tend to treat the debate on the legality of secession as finished following the end of the Civil War.

Uniquely, Nicoletti presents an argument over secession’s legal basis by exploring Jefferson Davis’s trial for treason.

“The argument [at the time] was that if secession were legal Davis would no longer be a U.S. citizen and therefore incapable of committing treason against the United States, so his case raised the issue of secession’s legality,” Nicoletti said.

Another prominent topic in her book is the possible legal precedent established by war and how this affected 19th century Americans.

“I describe in the book...the idea of whether legal questions can be settled on the battlefield or whether war can act as legal adjudication,” Nicoletti said. “[Americans] felt very conflicted about whether they were going to let the results of the battlefield stand in for a legal verdict on the legality of secession.”

Nicoletti said she hopes to finish her book within a year and is currently awaiting review from the Cambridge University Press.

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