Jessica K. Lowe

History, PhD candidate

Graduate Associates

 129 Dickinson Hall<br />Princeton University<br />Princeton, NJ 08544

 Curriculum Vitae




Jessica Lowe is a Ph.D. candidate in the Princeton University History Department.  In the fall of 2012, she will become an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Jessica received her J.D. with honors from Harvard Law School in 2002; after law school, she clerked in the District of Connecticut and on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and practiced appellate law in Washington D.C., where she worked on a number of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. She is admitted to practice in the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Virginia. She received her B.A. (high honors) from the University of Virginia and also studied at Yale Divinity School, where she was a Marquand Scholar.

Jessica studies eighteenth and nineteenth century American legal history, and specializes in the history of the American South. Her teaching interests span both law and history, and include American legal history, the history and legal theory of the Revolutionary and early national eras, Southern legal history, criminal law and sentencing, American religious history, and Christianity and legal theory. She has held a number of fellowships, including an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship and a Princeton University Center for Human Values Graduate Prize Fellowship.  In 2011, she received the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni's Award for Excellence in Teaching.


Jessica's dissertation explores criminal law and republican law reform in Virginia after the American Revolution and demonstrates, in contrast to recent scholarship, an enduring connection between early national state and local courts.  Titled Murder in the Shenandoah:  Commonwealth v. John Crane and Law in Federal Virginia, it focuses on a 1791 murder in Virginia’s lower Shenandoah Valley – in modern-day West Virginia – in which a young gentleman killed his neighbor’s harvest worker and later invoked a “lunacy” defense.  The dissertation tells the story of the case as it wound its way through the various stages of Virginia's court system.  In the process, it de-centers traditional dichotomies that have characterized the history of the region – state and local, East and West, gentry and non-gentry – to reveal the ways in which what was arguably the new nation's most politically and legally influential state was, in the critical era of the 1790s, a world in motion.

Next Project:

Jessica's next project traces the comparative hermeneutics of biblical and legal interpretation in the American South between 1776 and 1865, and uses it to write a history of Southern textualism. By the Civil War, the South's most vocal leaders had developed a clear hermeneutic on both biblical and constitutional matters. They interpreted both texts strictly, using certain Bible passages to sanction slavery, and reading the Constitution in a close fashion to solidify the institution in the states. But how did they get there? The project looks at the transition from the natural law arguments and evangelical anti-slavery of the Revolutionary era to the legal and biblical "strict construction" that dominated the South on the eve of the Civil War. In the process, it explores how ideology and interest interacted during the first ninety years of republican governance, and how they coalesced into a firmly-held cultural hermeneutic that encompassed both legal and religious texts. Textualism has a longstanding, reputable transatlantic pedigree, but is also twisted with the worst of the American past. As such, it needs to be interrogated -- and deserves its own history.


Lowe, J. K. (2011), A Separate Peace? The Politics of Localized Law in the Post-Revolutionary Era. Law & Social Inquiry, 36: 788-817.

Law is often seen as peripheral to Southern life before the Civil War, and the South as an outlier in the American legal history of that era. In The People and Their Peace (2009), Laura Edwards demonstrates the profoundly legal nature of Southern society, and takes an important step towards integrating the legal history of the South with that of the nation. Edwards identifies two dueling legal cultures in North and South Carolina between 1787 and 1840: the law of local courts, which she terms localized law, and the state law of professionalized lawyers and reformers. This essay questions Edwards's dichotomy between local law and state law and her depiction of the popular content of localized law, while building on her innovations to suggest a new direction for Southern legal history.

"Guarding Republican Liberty:  St. George Tucker and Judging in Federal Virginia." In Sally Hadden and Patricia Minter eds., Signposts:  New Directions in Southern Legal History (Athens University of Georgia Press, forthcoming 2012).

This essay, drawn from chapter four of Jessica's dissertation, examines the jurisprudence and legal thought of Judge St. George Tucker, American editor of Blackstone's Commentaries, who presided over the 1791 trial of John Crane. In 1791, judging in Virginia was a messy business. This was certainly true literally, as judges like Tucker trudged around the state on their circuits to sit at district courts dispersed throughout Virginia's vast territory. But it was also the case jurisprudentially. On one hand, the Commonwealth's laws and legal system were rapidly changing; independence had brought new structures of power, new statutes, and new legal questions. On the other hand, America's legal heritage remained the same, and Virginia's judges confronted the disjunction between these two realities in nearly every case.

Law was changing, but something else was emerging, too: a new conception of the judicial function. From Tucker's suggestion in Commonwealth v. Caton (1782) that courts could declare acts of the legislature to be void, to the discussions about precedent versus written law in Commonwealth v. Posey (1787), questions about text (constitutional and statutory) and its relationship to the judiciary were increasingly the most important questions of the new republic. Indeed, the process of judging - of exercising power in order to restrain power, at the very point where that power met the people - was becoming, in the 1790s, one of the most important acts of republican citizenship.