Bridging Revolutions examines the lives of North Carolina chief justice Richmond Pearson (1805–1878) and South Carolina chief justice John Belton O’Neall (1793–1863) and their impact on the South’s transition from a slave to a free society. Joseph A. Ranney documents how the two judges fought to preserve the Union and protect basic civil rights for both white and Black southerners before and after the Civil War.
Pearson’s and O’Neall’s lives were marked by contrarianism and controversy. Prior to the Civil War, they took important steps to soften slave law during times marked by calls for more discipline and control of slaves. O’Neall, a committed Unionist, resisted his state’s nullification movement during the 1830s and put an end
to that movement with a crucial 1834 decision. Pearson was the only southern supreme court justice whose service spanned the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras. During the Civil War, he stoutly defended North Carolinians’ civil rights against incursions by the central Confederate government. After the
war, he urged the South to accept “the world as it is” rather than oppose civil rights for freed slaves, and he did more than any other southern judge to protect those rights and to reshape southern state law. Examined in conjunction, the two judges’ colorful public and private lives illuminate the complex relationship between southern law and culture during times of deep crisis and change.