Matthew A. Axtell

Supreme Court Fellow, Federal Judicial Center

Matthew A. Axtell studies the interplay between disruptive economic innovation, radical politics, and the subversion of legal form in the American past. A doctoral candidate in Princeton's History Department, he is also serving as a Judicial Fellow at the Supreme Court of the United States during the 2014-2015 academic year.

Matt's dissertation, titled "American Steamboat Gothic: Subversive Commerce and Slavery's Planned Liquidation, 1832-1861" is a history of economic self-emancipation that begins well before the Thirteenth Amendment, focusing upon the volatile private commercial law of the 19th-Century American waterfront. Drawing upon the papers of river laborers, runaway slaves, steamboat captains, attorneys, financiers, and court officers, Matt's work shows how the bustling nature of the U.S. steamboat economy gave rise to egalitarian legal doctrines upending balances of power between debtors and creditors, buyers and sellers, and masters and slaves prior to the Civil War.

Matt is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley (B.A., History, Highest Honors) and the University of Virginia School of Law (J.D., Traynor Prize for Best Writing by Law Graduate), and the recipient of research fellowship and grant support from the Harvard Business School, the Institute for New Economic Thinking, the Smithsonian Institution, the Kentucky Historical Society, the Filson Historical Society, and Indiana University-Bloomington.

During the 2012-2013 academic year, Axtell was a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship of Scholars Fellow at Princeton University. In the 2013-2014 year, he served as the Samuel I. Golieb Fellow in Legal History at the New York University School of Law. In 2013, he was also named a Kathryn T. Preyer Scholar and William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Fellow by the American Society for Legal History, and selected to participate as a Fellow at the J. Willard Hurst Summer Institute in Legal History at the University of Wisconsin Law School.


"Towards a New Legal History of Capitalism and Unfree Labor: Law, Slavery, and Emancipation in the American Marketplace," 40.1 Law & Social Inquiry __ (Winter, 2015)

"What is Still 'Radical' in the Antislavery Legal Practice of Salmon P. Chase?" 11.2 Hastings Race & Poverty Law Journal 269-320 (Summer, 2014)

"Customs of the River: Governing the Commons within the Nineteenth-Century Steamboat Economy," (under revision for Law & History Review)

Review of Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina by Christopher Morris in 13.2 ;Ohio Valley History 91-93 (Summer 2013)

“Natural Law,” in Encyclopedia of American Environmental History, ed. Kathleen A. Brosnan (New York: Facts on File, 2010).

“Bioacoustical Warfare: Winter v. NRDC and False Choices Between Wildlife and Technology in U.S. Waters,” 72/3 The Minnesota Review 205-218 (Fall 2009/Spring 2010)

“Last Lake Standing: Clean Water Act Jurisdiction in the Alaskan Frontier after Rapanos v. United States,” 38:7 Environmental Law Reporter 10,473-10,479 (July 2008).

“Garbage Can Music!: Rube Goldberg’s Three Careers,” 7 Columbia Journal of American Studies 30-65 (2006).

“Parting the Waters: A Mestizo Perspective on the Mexico/U.S. Border,” 1:3 Virginia Eagle 15-17 (2002).

“Pleasure Grounds and Iron Fences: Local and Federal Battles for Open Space in the Presidio of San Francisco,” 27 Journal of Law and Politics 797 – 852 (2001).

Dissertation Title:

"American Steamboat Gothic: Natural Histories of Commerce and Collective Action Within the Ohio River Basin, 1819-1879"

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