Laura F. Edwards

Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty; Professor of History
Office Phone
221 Dickinson Hall
Office Hours
Tuesday: 1:30 pm-3:30 pm

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 and a Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She taught at Duke University for twenty years before coming to Princeton. She is the author of four books and has received numerous awards, including the Southern Historical Association’s Charles Sydnor Prize for the best book in southern history, the American Historical Association’s Littleton-Griswold Prize for the best book in American Law and Society, and 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.

Current Project

Prof. Edwards has just published a new book, Only the Clothes on Her Back: Textiles, Law, and Commerce in the Nineteenth-Century United States, which tells the history of law and commerce in this period of the United States by foregrounding textiles, the legal principles associated with them, and the people who used them. The legalities associated with textiles existed not in statutes or treatises, but in social and cultural practices, commonly known then, but now long forgotten. Those principles and practices had incredible legal power at the time and made textiles—which included clothing, cloth, bedding, and accessories, such as shoes and hats—a unique form of property that people without rights, even enslaved people, could own and exchange. Reconstructing the colorful dynamics that turned the stuff of daily life into law, the book reframes our understanding of the new republic’s economy and legal system in the process.


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

“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
(In alphabetical order)
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