Laura F. Edwards

Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty; Professor of History
Office Phone
221 Dickinson Hall

Laura F. Edwards is a legal historian whose research focuses on the nineteenth-century United States. She holds a B.A. in American Culture from Northwestern University, a Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and taught at Duke University for twenty years before coming to Princeton. She is the author of five books:  Gendered Strife and Confusion:  The Political Culture of Reconstruction (1997), Scarlet Doesn't Live Here Anymore:  Southern Women in the Civil War Era (2001); The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (2009), A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction:  A Nation of Rights (2015), and Only the Clothes on Her Back:  Textiles, Law, and Commerce in the Nineteenth-Century United States (2022). Edwards is also associate editor, with W. Fitzhugh Brundage and Jon F. Sensbach, of A New History of the American South (2023).

Her work has been recognized with prizes and fellowships. The People and Their Peace received the Charles Sydnor Prize for the best book in southern history from the Southern Historical Association and the Littleton-Griswold Prize for the best book in law and society from the American Historical Association.  Only the Clothes on Their Back has been award the Merle Curti Prize for the best book in social history from the Organization of American Historians, the Best Book Prize from the Society for the History of the Early Republic, and the John Phillip Reid book prize from the American Society for Legal History.  Edwards has been awarded fellowships from the  American Council of Learned Societies, the American Bar Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Humanities Center, the Newberry Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Smithsonian Institution.  She holds an Old Dominion Research Professorship from the Humanities Council at Princeton University for the academic year 2023-2024.

Current Project

Prof. Edwards is now working on a project that traces the material consequences of the shift from unwritten to written forms of law in the lives of women in the nineteenth-century United States. While that transition is widely acknowledged in the scholarship, little is known about the consequences in everyday life:  about the ways that written forms of law altered people's relationships to each other, the material world, and the institutions of law and governance.  The focus is on women, because the results for them were so profound.  In fact, the legal changes usually associated with women’s legal empowerment—such as married women’s property acts—were as much about the ascendance of writing in law as they were about women.  From that perspective, it is possible to see how the implications contributed to women's economic dispossession, not their economic progress.  But, while chilling, dispossession is not the most interesting part of the story.  The most interesting strand of the narrative deals with the changes in law and governance wrought by the slow, but steady acceptance of writing as a form uniquely suited to express legal authority.  The elevation of writing not only recast women’s relationship to property, but also naturalized their legal powerlessness by making it seem as if it was an artifact of the past and not the modern creation that it was.


Princeton Talks: A Public Lecture with Professor Laura Edwards

"Property Ownership Through Practice: How People Made Common Law in 19th-Century United States"

Teaching Interests

Prof. Edwards teaches courses in the history of law in the United States at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Selected Articles

“The South and the New Nation, 1783-1820,” in The New History of the American South, in W. Fitzhugh Brundage, ed. (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2023), pp. 165-197.

“James and His Striped Velvet Pantaloons: Textiles, Commerce, and the Law in the New Republic,” Journal of American History 107 (September 2020): 336-61.

“The Legal World of Elizabeth Bagby’s Commonplace Book: Federalism, Women, and Governance,” Journal of the Civil War Era 9 (December 2019): 504-523.

“Sarah Allingham’s Sheet and Other Lessons from Legal History,” Journal of the Early Republic 38 (Spring 2018): 121-47.

“The Reconstruction of Rights: The Fourteenth Amendment and Popular Conceptions of Governance,” Journal of Supreme Court History 42 (November 2016): 310-328.

“Status Without Rights: African Americans and the Tangled History of Law and Governance in the Nineteenth-Century U.S. South,” American Historical Review 112 (April 2007): 365-393.

Photo credit: Sameer A. Khan / Fotobuddy

Area of Interest
African American
Constitutional History
Consumer History
Cultural History
Gender & Sexuality
History & Public Policy
Labor History
Legal History
Material Culture
Political History
Social History
Home Department & Other Affiliations
19th Century
20th Century
American South
North America
United States