Legal History

The history department at Duke has an unusually strong cohort of scholars with expertise in the history of legal institutions, legal culture, and the relationship between law and society.

Our greatest strength lies in American legal history.  Duke historians focus on areas as various as the relationship between legal authority and social hierarchies in the American South, including divisions based on race and gender, regulation of business and the credit system in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and early American property law.  Outside of the United States, the department boasts numerous faculty whose research overlaps with this growing and dynamic field.  Duke now has historians who grapple with legal development in Renaissance Italy, early modern Germany, the early modern British Empire, the eighteenth-century Caribbean, nineteenth-century France, Muslim West Africa from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, and twentieth-century Brazil, especially with regard to labor law, as well as the impact of maritime law on modern warfare.  Although the interpretive concerns and methodological approaches of these scholars differ significantly, they all tend to focus on the interactions between legal institutions, doctrines, and values on the one hand and economic, social and cultural experience on the other.

Duke offers a joint JD/MA degree to law students interested in simultaneously pursuing graduate work in history.  We offer graduate seminars in legal history as part of our general doctoral curriculum, and a number of our PhD students also pursue research in the field.  In the past and present, our graduate students have tackled topics as various as the moral and legal meanings of violence amidst the English Civil War, legal culture in early British India, divorce in eighteenth-century Mexico, infanticide in the early American Republic, freedom suits by antebellum American slaves, the development of commercial law in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Indian Ocean basin, the dynamics of legal activism within the American Civil Rights Movement, and agricultural regulation in twentieth-century America. 

Duke's libraries, in conjunction with those of other area universities, have impressive print and archival holdings in the history of law, with a particular strength in the legal history of the American South.  Our legal history community is also enriched by a large number of scholars who are based in other Duke departments and schools (especially the departments of cultural anthropology and political science, and the Law School) or at other area universities (NCCU, NCSU, and UNC-Chapel Hill).  This broader group of historians meets several times a semester at the Triangle Legal History Seminar (TLHS), an interdisciplinary faculty-graduate student seminar that discusses pre-circulated work-in-progress by area and visiting scholars. Seminar topics range across all historical eras and every region of the world.  Edward Balleisen also maintains a web portal, Legal History on the Web, which offers links to a wide array of online resources in legal history.

For more information, contact Laura Edwards or Edward Balleisen.


Edward J. Balleisen

Edward J. Balleisen, Professor of History

Office: 216 Allen Bldg, Durham, NC 27708
Phone: (919) 684-5783

My research and writing explores the historical intersections among law, business, politics, and policy in the modern United States, with a particular focus on the origins, evolution, and impacts of the modern regulatory state.  I have pursued a number of collaborative projects with historians and... full profile »

Laura F. Edwards

Laura F. Edwards, Peabody Family Distinguished Professor of History in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences

Office: 333 Carr Bldg, Durham, NC 27708
Phone: (919) 668-1435

My research focuses on women, gender, and the law in the nineteenth-century, particularly the U.S. South. In addition to articles on these topics, I have published four books: A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction:  A Nation of Rights (2015); The People and Their Peace:... full profile »

John D. French

John D. French, Professor of History

Office: 331 Carr Bldg, Durham, NC 27708
Phone: (919) 684-2536

I am a professor of History and African and African-American Studies at Duke University in Durham North Carolina. With a B.A. from Amherst College, I received my doctorate at Yale in 1985 under Brazilian historian Emília Viotti da Costa. Since 1979, I have been studying class, race, and politics in... full profile »

Thavolia Glymph

Thavolia Glymph, Professor in History

Office: Box 90719, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), 114 Campus Drive, Durham, NC 27708
Phone: (919) 668-1625

Thavolia Glymph, professor of history and law, studies the U.S. South with a focus on nineteenth century social history. Glymph is the author of Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and The Women's Fight: The Civil... full profile »

Nancy MacLean

Nancy MacLean, William H. Chafe Distinguished Professor of History and Public Policy

Nancy MacLean is an award-winning scholar of the twentieth-century U.S., whose new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, has been described by Publishers Weekly as “a thoroughly researched and... full profile »

John Jeffries Martin

John Jeffries Martin, Professor of History

Office: 323A Carr Bldg., 114 Campus Drive, Durham, NC 27708
Phone: (919) 681-5499

John Jeffries Martin is a historian of early modern Europe, with particular interests in the social, cultural, and intellectual history of Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He is the author of Venice’s Hidden Enemies: Italian Heretics in a Renaissance City (1993), winner of... full profile »

Philip J. Stern

Philip J. Stern, Gilhuly Family Professor

Office: History Dept, Durham, NC 27708
Phone: (919) 668-1695

My work focuses on the history of Britain and the British Empire, particularly in the early modern period (loosely defined). My first book, The Company-State, is a political and intellectual history of the English East India Company in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I am currently... full profile »