Teaching and Writing:
Confronting our Past without Losing Faith in America
As I finish my twenty-sixth year at Rhodes, I continue to live out my calling to teach and write about the history of the United States.
My work as a historian reflects my deep belief in the need for Americans to confront the difficult and disturbing aspects of our past. As one who has spent his career studying (and living in) the American South, I believe that historians need to reveal and explain, with honesty and clarity, the injustice and oppression that has played such a part in the history of the region--the dehumanization associated with slavery during the antebellum period, as well as the racial intimidation and violence that prevailed during the era of Jim Crow. That’s why I teach a range of courses on the South and the American Civil War and Reconstruction era, and it’s why I have written about such topics as the law of slavery, the pro-slavery ideology of nineteenth-century southern jurists, and the Dred Scott decision. And it’s why my students and I worked in 2017-2018 to erect a new marker at the site of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s antebellum slave mart in Memphis, an effort that garnered the attention of a local filmmaker as well as the national media. We must confront the horrific aspects of our past.
At the same time, my work also rests on the assumption that American ideals and institutions, as imperfect as they have been in practice, still offer hope for the preservation and advancement of liberty. I offer courses on the history of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the history of the Supreme Court, and in these classes I challenge my students to critically examine how the definition of liberty has evolved and expanded over time. My latest book, Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism specifically shows how African Americans advocated an agenda of freedom during wartime—how they sought not just emancipation, but the full panoply of rights they believed they were guaranteed under the Declaration of Independence. These continued attempts to claim America’s heritage of liberty—I call it “black constitutionalism”—helped to bring about a constitutional revolution. In the 1859 case Ableman v. Booth, the Supreme Court upheld in nationalistic language the rights of slaveholders to recapture fugitive slaves. Who could have imagined then that within a dozen years the full force of the federal government would be used for the opposite purpose—to uphold the voting rights of African Americans, those who had been described in the Dred Scott decision as having “no rights” at all? In this sense, African Americans helped create a new discourse of rights—one that focused not on the property rights of slaveholders but on the human rights of formerly enslaved people.
Such moments of constitutional change, whether through popular mobilization, constitutional amendment, or judicial decision, show that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, can, in Frederick Douglass’s words, “give us a platform broad enough, and strong enough, to support the most comprehensive plans for the freedom and elevation of all the people of this country.” In other words, I think it’s possible for us as a nation to confront the ugliness of our past without losing faith in America.
Teaching and writing are mutually reinforcing. My teaching reflects my enthusiasm for and commitment to examining this ugly, complicated, and triumphant story of the American experience. In 2004, I won the Clarence Day Award for Outstanding Teaching at Rhodes, and that same year the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education named me the Tennessee Professor of the Year. In 2011, my “Supreme Court in U.S. History” class was featured on “Lectures in History,” American History TV, C-SPAN 3, viewable at www.cspan.org. My writing, I hope, reflects this passion as well, as I attempt to address not only my scholarly peers but also a public audience. Over the years, my pieces have appeared in the New York Times, The Hill, and the Washington Post, as well as the Memphis Commercial Appeal. I’ve talked about my research at the U.S. Supreme Court, the National Constitution Center, and the American Civil War Museum.
Wherever I’m working—in the classroom, in the archives, or on the lecture circuit—I believe in deepening the public’s historical consciousness.
Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism (Lawrence, Kas.: University Press of Kansas, 2016).
[Edited with Kermit L. Hall], Major Problems in American Constitutional History: Documents and Essays, 2nd ed. (New York, Cengage, 2009)
The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. (Santa Barbara, CA, ABC-CLIO, 2003)
The Southern Judicial Tradition: State Judges and Sectional Distinctiveness, 1790-1890 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999).
Journal Articles, Book Chapters and Review Essays
“Shelby Foote, Memphis, and the Civil War in American Memory,” Southern Cultures, 21 (2015), 13-27. Co-authored with Madeleine McGrady.
“Roger B. Taney and the Slavery Issue: Looking beyond—and before—Dred Scott,” Journal of American History, 97 (June 2010), 39-62.
“Lincoln versus Taney: Liberty, Power, and the Clash of the Constitutional Titans,” Albany Government Law Review, 3 (2010), 615-643.
“Lawyer, Litigant, Leader: John Marshall and His Papers – A Review Essay,” American Journal of Legal History, 48 (July, 2006), 314-326. (Review essay of Hobson, et al, eds. The Papers of John Marshall, v. 1-12).
“Judicial Independence in an Age of Democracy, Sectionalism, and War, 1835-1865,” in James W. Ely, Jr., ed., A History of the Tennessee Supreme Court, Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 2002, 61-98.
"The Roots of Fairness: State v. Caesar and Slave Justice in Antebellum North Carolina," in Christopher Waldrep and Donald Nieman, eds., Local Matters: Race, Crime, and Justice in the Nineteenth-Century South, (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 29-52.
"Campus, Community, and Civil Rights: Remembering Memphis and Southwestern in 1968–A Panel Discussion," edited and transcribed with Benjamin Houston, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 58 (Spring, 1999), 70-87.
"Judge John Hemphill, the Homestead Exemption, and the ‘Taming’ of the Texas Frontier," Western Legal History, 11 (Winter/Spring, 1998), 65-85.
"Divided Loyalties: Justice William Johnson and the Rise of Disunion in South Carolina, 1822-1834,"Journal of Supreme Court History, (1995), 19-30.
"The Consolidation of State Judicial Power: Spencer Roane, Virginia Legal Culture, and the Southern Judicial Tradition," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 102 (January, 1994), 47-72.
"Encouraging Economic Development: Joseph Henry Lumpkin and the Law of Contract, 1846-1860,"Journal of Southern Legal History, 1 (Fall/Winter, 1991), 357-375.
"Joseph Henry Lumpkin and Evangelical Reform in Georgia: Temperance, Education and Industrialization, 1830-1860," Georgia Historical Quarterly, 75 (Summer, 1991), 254-274.
B.A. (Phi Beta Kappa), University of Miami