Jessica Lowe Interview

Jessica Lowe is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, where she specializes in Early American legal and cultural history. She 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. In 2013 Professor Lowe received her PhD in American History from Princeton University. She is a fellow at CTI during the 2014-2015 academic year.

Joshua Mauldin:  Typically when we talk about interdisciplinary inquiry we think of scholars in one discipline in dialogue with scholars in some other discipline. As someone who has studied and practiced law, and also earned a PhD in American history, and who now teaches legal history in a law school, it’s clear that for you working across academic disciplines is nothing new. What do you see as the primary challenges to interdisciplinary conversation in the academy?

Jessica Lowe: This is a great question. There are, I think, really two types of “interdisciplinary” experiences.  One type is a gathering of scholars from a number of different disciplines, where you know that everyone is coming from their own perspective – LAPA (the Program in Law and Public Affairs) here at Princeton is a fabulous example of this.  These, in my experience, tend to work really well, because it is accepted as a given that there will be a variety of approaches on the table.  The second type of interdisciplinary experience is when, as a scholar from one discipline, you attempt to enter the discourse of, or discussion in, a different discipline.  This is, I think, much harder, because disciplines, by their very nature, have a lingo and field of reference (relevant scholarship, important debates, etc.) that is considered essential for “good” work in that discipline.  To do good work in my discipline, I have to be current – my work should reference things that historians are talking about.  But those same things may not make sense in, say, theology, where you have different ideas that are “current” and a different set of background debates.  So it can almost be like speaking two different languages, and that (as we’ve seen at times!) can be quite hard.  One way this comes up as a legal historian is that if I talk about history in terms of current questions, I have to be careful about committing what is, in many ways, the cardinal sin of the historian, since one of our foundational tenets is that the past is a different country.  Or, if my work engages with mainly legal sources and scholars, it becomes what we pejoratively call “law office history,” which means history mined for present controversies.  But for legal scholars, if something is fundamentally different and just about the past, it can quickly seem irrelevant.  So, it is a hard line to walk, although there are some scholars who do it quite well.  And, of course, the great thing about interdisciplinary work is that you get to meet lots of interesting people.

JM: Your project at CTI is titled ‘Sacred Texts, Sacred Interpretation: How America Became a Nation of the Word.’ What are some of the main themes of the project, and how did you come to be interested in these aspects of textual interpretation in early American culture?

JL: As I’ve mentioned this year, one of my favorite books is Mark Noll’s America’s God, where he talks about how, over the course of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, American theology changed and became focused less on systematic understanding (sort of the old scholastic model) of scripture and more on reading the Bible’s plain text – what he calls a “common sense” reading. This reading, he argues, was drawn from certain ideas about knowledge that were current at the time and from Enlightenment and “republican” ideas about reasoning, and led to an American style of theology that was different from the rest of the world’s – even from evangelicalism in, say, Britain.  One of Noll’s arguments is that it was this American insistence on “plain text” that got us all tied up in the theological battle over slavery, with both sides insisting the Bible was on their side. There are currently a few different aspects to this project, and I’m not sure which will win out. Drawing off of Noll’s work, I’m particularly interested in America’s peculiar fascination with text, often at the expense of more holistic ideas of meaning, and the extent to which this might – just might – come from the prominent place of law in our founding and national life.  But the aspect that has gotten the most attention this year is the relationship between slavery, law, and moral reasoning – and its legacy.  As we talked about during my seminar this spring, before the Civil War, Southerners tended to eschew moral or religious reasoning in their court cases – it was too much associated with antislavery, and too easily led there. They insisted that they wanted their judges to stick to “the law.”  After the war, I’ve found strong references to morality and the Bible as pushing back against law, or as worthy of legal consideration.  I think this is partly because the war is really a hothouse for a fusion of political and religious identity, as some scholars have noted; afterwards, morality pushes the other way, against legal reforms forced from outside and towards a notion of Southern identity.  But, the project could still take lots of different directions.

JM: Your other book project, which is based on your dissertation and is a history of a controversial 1791 Virginia murder case, sounds equally fascinating. What do you hope your reader takes away from the book?

JL: I really love this book.  It’s what I’m calling an experiential history of law in early national Virginia, and I use the case to try to show both how the idea of “law,” or the rule of law, was essential to understandings of democracy in late eighteenth Virginia – which, of course, was the home and formative culture of many of the “founders” – and also how what that meant was in flux, still being negotiated and renegotiated.  The story also highlights how fragile the world seemed to the people living it – how people were moving east and west, and up and down the social scale.  And, most important to me, it’s a narrative, written for a general audience – the narrative is actually the crux of the argument, essentially contending that to understand how the law worked you really need to see how it moved, from moment to moment – that law is best seen an extended encounter, not a standard or an outcome.

JM: Having spent some time studying at Yale Divinity School, you’re no stranger to theology and the study of religion. How has the year at CTI and conversations with colleagues in theology influenced your own work?

JL: Wow, it has been really interesting to be back in the theology world!  It had been a long time.  This year has put me back in debates that I once studied but hadn’t thought about for a while – about “public reason,” the role of faith in the public sphere, etc.  It has helped me feel a bit more current in those debates – something I’ve wanted for a long time.  And I know that I will be drawing on the theological knowledge of my CTI colleagues as I work more on this second project.

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