Legal Historian Jessica Lowe to Join UVA Law Faculty

April 23, 2012

Jessica Lowe, a legal historian who specializes in American legal history from the Revolution to the Civil War, will join the faculty of the University of Virginia School of Law.

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Jessica Lowe

Lowe, who is finishing up a Ph.D. in history at Princeton University, will join the faculty in September as an associate professor. Lowe received her law degree from Harvard University in 2002 and her undergraduate degrees in economics and political and social thought from UVA in 1998.

"I'm thrilled to be back in Charlottesville and I'm even more thrilled to be at a school that has not only such a wonderful academic reputation in general, but a real dedication to doing legal history," Lowe said. "This is an amazing opportunity to get to do what I love at a school that's supportive of it and integrates it well into the curriculum. It's a great match."

In the spring 2013 semester, Lowe will teach two courses, "Constitutional History I (to 1865)" and "Crime and Punishment in American History."

Lowe is currently working on a book based on her dissertation, titled "Murder in the Shenandoah: Commonwealth v. John Craneand Law in Federal Virginia." It follows a 1791 murder case in Virginia — though it occurred in what is now West Virginia, near Harper's Ferry — from the fight in which the victim was killed up until the time the defendant is executed.

"It uses [the case] as a story to take a look at law, criminal law, the courts and everyday life in Virginia in the 1790s and the ways in which the Revolutionary generation sought to change criminal law to reflect new ideas of self-government," she said. "The story's about a murder, but the murder is really a way into the legal world of that era."

When Lowe first stumbled upon the case, she was intrigued because the defendant had connections to a number of powerful families in Virginia but the governor still rejected his plea for clemency.

"At first it looked like any case, but I did some digging and realized, this guy is actually related to important people," she said. "I thought, 'Oh, surely he gets pardoned.' But he doesn't. It was really surprising to me. It suggests to me that, at this moment, there's a great respect for the rule of law in Virginia."

Historians have traditionally thought that violence in the South often did not result in trials or executions, she said. Her dissertation and book suggest an alternative view.

"I'm arguing that there's a moment right around the time of the Revolution in which Virginia and the South could go a lot of different ways and it doesn't have to end up in what becomes the Confederacy or the "Old South" of the antebellum era," she said.

While history was always Lowe's favorite subject, she became particularly interested in early American history as an undergrad at UVA. She worked part-time as a tour guide at Monticello and wrote her thesis on Thomas Jefferson.

"It was sort of a daily immersion in my subject, not only to be learning about it but also to be able to talk to visitors and field their questions," she said. "It was like being at the nexus between history and current life because I got to talk about history and then see people's reactions to history and discuss how it still matters today — especially [with regards to] issues like slavery and Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings."

Her immersion in history exposed her to the idea that history is not just what happened in the past, it can matter greatly to contemporary life, she said.

By studying law, she added, she was able to study an area in which this is especially true, since history can have a very important, sometimes dispositive, influence on modern legal disputes and understandings. Lowe is also working on a book, "Sacred Texts," which will be a history of American textualism.

"It looks at the ways Southerners interpreted their religious texts — their Bibles — and their legal materials, from the Revolution to the Civil War," she said. "And it tries to compare the ways they interpreted sacred texts with the way they interpreted legal texts...The do approach them the same way, more or less, by the Civil War, but I'm wondering how it got that way."

Lowe studied Christian ethics at Yale University's Divinity School from 1998-99. "I still have an interest in theology and religious studies," she said. "And so this next project is going to bring that back out of storage."

Virginia Law Professor Risa Goluboff, who is also a UVA history professor, said Lowe is "that rare scholar who combines a deep engagement with the law, immense creativity, and both wide-ranging interests and an ability to bore deeply into any subject."

Goluboff added that Lowe's interests in early American legal history will be an excellent addition to the Law School's line-up of legal historians.

"She is interested in so much — the history of American criminal law, the history of textualism in both constitutional law and Biblical interpretation in the South, understandings of law at the founding of the nation," she said. "Her work on southern legal history in the early Republic is groundbreaking in its ability to reveal a complex world of legal and social relations on the ground that prior historians have often overlooked. Her work is going to both revitalize and alter our understanding of southern — and American — legal culture."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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