All posts by Kelsey Salvesen

Coming Soon: Erman’s Almost Citizens

Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire is coming soon! Publication is expected in November-December 2018. To get up to speed on the project before it is published, you can watch the below video in which Professor Erman summarizes his book and the major arguments it makes. A transcription of the video follows.

The book is titled Almost Citizens and it’s the story of how in the early twentieth century formal empire became constitutional in the United States. It makes three arguments. The first argument is that individuals without formal legal training make a difference at law. Here, I enter into a part of the field that is concerned with individual agency and with claims-making. The second argument of the book is about the idea that law changes outside the courts. I argue that people in congress, federal bureaucrats, the President, even individual litigants and lawyers, change the meaning of the constitution over time. The third argument is that people’s thinking about race and gender could never be separated from their understandings about what the law was and what it should be. The idea is that the law does not just develop because of legal logics, but our own biases; how judges see the world more generally, and how others see the world, profoundly shapes what the law is and what it can become.

Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America

Michael A. Schoeppner. Forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in March 2019. Available to pre-order now via Cambridge University Press and Amazon.

Between 1822 and 1857, eight Southern states barred the ingress of all free black maritime workers. According to lawmakers, they carried a ‘moral contagion’ of abolitionism and black autonomy that could be transmitted to local slaves. Those seamen who arrived in Southern ports in violation of the laws faced incarceration, corporal punishment, an incipient form of convict leasing, and even punitive enslavement. The sailors, their captains, abolitionists, and British diplomatic agents protested this treatment. They wrote letters, published tracts, cajoled elected officials, pleaded with Southern officials, and litigated in state and federal courts. By deploying a progressive and sweeping notion of national citizenship – one that guaranteed a number of rights against state regulation – they exposed the ambiguity and potential power of national citizenship as a legal category. Ultimately, the Fourteenth Amendment recognized the robust understanding of citizenship championed by antebellum free people of color, by people afflicted with ‘moral contagion.’

About the Author:

After taking his Ph.D. in American legal history from the University of Florida in December 2010, Michael Schoeppner accepted a two-year fellowship with the American Council of Learned Societies. In 2013, he joined the faculty at the University of Maine-Farmington, where he currently serves as an assistant professor of history. His research explores the relationship between race, migration, and American constitutional development, especially in the nineteenth century. He has published work in the Journal of American History and Law & History Review. The College of Charleston’s CLAW  (Carolina Lowlands and Atlantic World) program awarded Moral Contagion its 2017 Hines Prize for the best book manuscript by a first-time author.

The First Modern Risk: Workplace Accidents and the Origins of European Social States

Julia Moses. Cambridge University Press, June 2018. Available to purchase via Cambridge University Press and Amazon.

During the late nineteenth century, many countries across Europe adopted national legislation that required employers to compensate workers injured or killed in accidents at work. These laws suggested that the risk of accidents was inherent to work and not due to individual negligence. By focusing on Britain, Germany, and Italy during this time, Julia Moses demonstrates how these laws reflected a major transformation in thinking about the nature of individual responsibility and social risk. The First Modern Risk illuminates the implications of this conceptual revolution for the role of the state in managing problems of everyday life, transforming understandings about both the obligations and rights of individuals. Drawing on a wide array of disciplines including law, history, and politics, Moses offers a fascinating transnational view of a pivotal moment in the evolution of the welfare state.


‘Based on detailed work in three countries and languages, this book looks broadly and comparatively at how governments dealt with workplace accidents in the nineteenth century, one of industrialization’s earliest dilemmas. With both empirical substance and theoretical sophistication, it also illuminates the more general problem of the contemporary state first undertaking what is now its foremost task, managing modernity’s ever-growing risks.’

–Peter Baldwin, University of California, Los Angeles

‘In this masterful and path breaking study, Moses identifies the genealogical origins of European social states in the neglected sphere of workplace accidents and the social policies that governments adopted to address what they came to recognize as the ‘first modern risk’. Weaving together a stunning array of research – from law and moral philosophy to state theory and citizenship studies – this book charts the shifting responsibility for the inevitable perils of industrial capitalism, from the personal agency of freedom of contract to state management of an increasingly social distribution of risk. This is a book as timely as it is profound. As neoliberalism’s unremitting assaults on today’s social states have given rise to brutalizing levels of inequality, nothing could be more urgent than our learning from Moses’ deep analysis of the social and political conditions that once created and sustained national commitments to egalitarian social rights.’

–Margaret Somers, University of Michigan

About the Author:

Julia Moses is a senior lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She studied at Barnard College/Columbia University (New York), Oxford, and Cambridge (as a Gates Scholar). Before joining the Department of History at Sheffield in September 2011, she was a lecturer at Pembroke and Brasenose Colleges, Oxford. She has been a visiting scholar at the Berlin Collegium for the Comparative History of Europe at the Free University; a professeur invitée at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris; an International Guest Lecturer at the University of Bielefeld; a Research Associate at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin; and a Marie Curie Fellow at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Göttingen.

Devastation without Representation in Puerto Rico

In an opinion piece for the LA Times, published on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Professor Sam Erman writes of devastation without representation in Puerto Rico. You can read the piece here. Learn more about Erman’s work by viewing his video interviews and reading about his forthcoming book with the series, Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire (Cambridge University Press, October 2018).

Murder in the Shenandoah: Making Law Sovereign in Revolutionary Virginia

Jessica K. Lowe. Forthcoming from Cambridge University Press (December 2018). Available to pre-order now via Cambridge University Press and Amazon.

On July 4, 1791, the fifteenth anniversary of American Independence, John Crane, a descendant of prominent Virginian families, killed his neighbor’s harvest worker. Murder in the Shenandoah traces the story of this early murder case as it entangled powerful Virginians and addressed the question that everyone in the state was heatedly debating: what would it mean to have equality before the law – and a world where ‘law is king’? By retelling the story of the case, called Commonwealth v. Crane, through the eyes of its witnesses, families, fighters, victims, judges, and juries, Jessica K. Lowe reveals how revolutionary debates about justice gripped the new nation, transforming ideas about law, punishment, and popular government.


Advance praise: “In Murder in the Shenandoah, Jessica K. Lowe deftly investigates a deadly brawl to illuminate the legal culture of the new nation’s most influential state, shortly after the American Revolution. Filled with plot twists, surprising revelations, colorful characters, and rich insights, this book will reward anyone interested in the roots of American criminal law.” –Alan Taylor, author of American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804

Advance praise: “Elegantly written and copiously sourced, Jessica K. Lowe’s book is a must-read for specialists and students alike. Lowe upends the accepted notion that southerners went outside the law to resolve conflicts because of the culture of honor that was inextricably embedded in slavery. She uses criminal law to open a window into social change in postrevolutionary Virginia and to set the stage for antebellum-era conflicts in imaginative and unexpected ways.” –Victoria Saker Woeste, American Bar Foundation

Advance praise: “Jessica K. Lowe’s beautifully crafted account of murder and justice powerfully illuminates the reconstruction of criminal law in the early American republic. Lowe skillfully turns the story of a single Virginia killing into a compelling meditation on how people, high and low, struggled over the meaning of equality and the rule of law in the aftermath of revolution. A formidable piece of scholarship, Murder in the Shenandoah is also a gem of historical narration and analysis, at once tough-minded and humane.” –Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

Advance praise: “Professor Lowe has produced a volume that is both a murder mystery and a mini-treatise on the history of criminal law in colonial Virginia. Hard-nosed legal history has seldom been presented in such fascinating, readable form. Behind the legal story is an equally important story of social change in early Virginia. Lowe knows her Virginia law, and applies to it the questions of a modern historical sensibility. Readers will be surprised and intrigued by this admirable volume.” –Stanley Katz, Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies

Advance praise: “In Jessica K. Lowe’s poetic telling of a murder trial in the Shenandoah Valley on Independence Day in 1791, we see how issues of class, violence, and the rule of law came together to lead to the execution of a Virginia patrician. Lowe’s beautifully written book shows the law in motion. Wage workers, slaves, jurors, and the legal and planter elite all cross her stage as the values of democracy made a new American law.” –Alfred L. Brophy, author of University, Court, and Slave: Proslavery Thought in Colleges and Courts and the Coming of Civil War

About the Author: Jessica Lowe specializes in 18th- and 19th-century American legal 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. Lowe also practiced appellate law at Jones Day in Washington, D.C., where she worked on a number of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. She is admitted to practice in Virginia and the District of Columbia. Lowe received her B.A. (high honors) from the University of Virginia (1998). She then studied at Yale Divinity School (1999-2000), where she was a Marquand Scholar. Lowe received her Ph.D. in American history from Princeton University in 2014.  Her dissertation was awarded the St. George Tucker Society’s Bradford Dissertation Prize for best Southern History dissertation. Murder in the Shenandoah is her first book.

Lowe has held fellowships from, among others, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Princeton University Center for Human Values and the Center of Theological Inquiry (a Templeton Foundation grant), and participated in the 2013 Hurst Institute for Legal History at the University of Wisconsin. In 2011, she received the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Lowe teaches legal history, constitutional history, and classes in crime and punishment at the University of Virginia School of Law. She is the founder of the interdisciplinary Legal History Writing Group, which brings together scholars from the Law, History, Politics and Religious Studies departments once monthly for informal discussions of works in progress, and co-coordinates the Law School’s Legal History Workshop series. In 2013, she co-organized a conference commemorating the 100th anniversary of Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913). Lowe has also served as a fellow at Brown College, the undergraduate residential college, and is a member of the Early American Studies colloquium at the International Center for Jefferson Studies.

Erman Discusses Puerto Rico on the Podcast BackStory

Sam Erman, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, appeared in a recent episode of the podcast BackStory, titled “After Hurricane Maria: The History of Puerto Rico and the United States.” The episode, which aired September 7, 2018, examines the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico across history and includes Erman’s discussion of Puerto Rico’s constitutional status. You can read more about Erman’s book, Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, October 2018), on the SLH website.

Erman on the Gonzales v. Williams Case

Professor Sam Erman, author of Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in October 2018), discusses the pivotal Gonzales v. Williams case that shaped the status of Puerto Rico and its citizens in the eyes of the United States government. A lightly edited transcription follows the video. You can read more about the book here.


The Gonzales v. Williams case is a Supreme Court decision from 1904 that began when a woman traveled from Puerto Rico to Ellis Island and she was stopped at Ellis Island as an alien who was undesirable for entry. She sued and said “I’m not an alien; I’m an American.” The argument was that you [the United States] annexed Puerto Rico in 1899 and that transformed all of us [residents of Puerto Rico] into Americans, and thus U.S. citizens. This was important, not primarily because of Puerto Rico, but because the U.S. had also annexed the Philippines–which was much larger and more populous and which most Americans considered to be much more racially “degraded” at the time (and so more of a threat). But Isabel Gonzalez, the woman who took this trip, was the test case. And what the Supreme Court decided was that she was not an alien—she was allowed to enter. But they didn’t decide if she was a citizen. And this was important (to my book, and to legal history more broadly) because it was part of a trend of how the Supreme Court dealt with the expansion of the United States into overseas islands in the early twentieth century. Rather than say that colonialism as a whole is okay, or say that we are not going to allow anything like colonialism in this country, the Supreme Court equivocated. So, in this case, they said, “well, you’re not an alien. We won’t decide if you’re a citizen.” That opened up the possibility that there were Americans who weren’t citizens—other than American Indians, which had always been a special case. And in other cases, the Supreme Court said “we’re going to say that there are places that maybe don’t have to become states,” which violated a longstanding rule that all U.S. territory other than the capitol was a state or would become a state. And they also said that there were Americans living in the United States with less than full constitutional rights. It had been thought, prior to 1898, that every American within U.S. jurisdiction had to have the full gamut of constitutional rights. So I use this case in order to try to illustrate how the Court uses strategies of evasion and ambiguity in order to kind of nudge the nation to a position that seems simultaneously to somewhat honor the constitution and to accommodate certain forms of empire.

Erman on the Inspiration for His Book and Its Relevance Today

Professor Sam Erman, author of Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in October 2018), discusses the inspiration for his book, as well as its contemporary relevance. A lightly edited transcription follows the video. You can read more about the book here.


I’m interested in the question of citizenship. I think it is an interesting thing to study, because citizenship is something that matters to people in general, and that also is a formal legal category, so it’s a nice place to look at how the government and structures of power and individuals just living in the world interact with each other. The place to look for citizenship is where it is being fought about. Puerto Rico was a promising place because after it was annexed, nobody knew if Puerto Ricans were citizens and Puerto Ricans brought lots of claims trying to establish that they were citizens. So, by looking there, I’m able to see people fighting over the meaning of citizenship; when they do that, they reveal their underlying thoughts about the category.

I think the book resonates in two ways with the present. One is in a very technical way, which is that courts are still deciding constitutional questions that were raised in the period I study. Such as, if you’re born in a U.S. territory that’s not a state, are you a citizen? That question was left open in the early twentieth century and the Supreme Court has never decided it. So, I write amicus briefs and I submit them to courts and tell them “here’s what the history is on this question, and that might help you decide this case.” The other way the book seems relevant in this moment is that, in the period I study, it was not a period of dog whistle politics. People’s racism and sexism was right out in the open—people thought it made sense to just talk about these things, and they were incapable of seeing the world without putting on these racist and sexist lenses. And so, in a moment when our politics have become coarser, when questions of race and sex seem more on the surface, I think remembering a prior time when that happened (and how it affected the way judges decided cases and politicians decided issues) can be very helpful.

Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire

Sam Erman. Forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in November 2018.

Almost Citizens lays out the tragic story of how the United States denied Puerto Ricans full citizenship following annexation of the island in 1898. As America became an overseas empire, a handful of remarkable Puerto Ricans debated with US legislators, presidents, judges, and others over who was a citizen and what citizenship meant. This struggle caused a fundamental shift in constitution law: away from the post-Civil War regime of citizenship, rights, and statehood and toward doctrines that accommodated racist imperial governance. Erman’s gripping account shows how, in the wake of the Spanish-American War, administrators, lawmakers, and presidents together with judges deployed creativity and ambiguity to transform constitutional meaning for a quarter of a century. The result is a history in which the United States and Latin America, Reconstruction and empire, and law and bureaucracy intertwine.

Listen to Erman discuss his book as part of the SLH video series here.

In the News:


About the Author:

Sam Erman is an Assistant Professor of Law at the USC Gould School of Law. He came to USC from the Smithsonian Institution, where he was a postdoctoral fellow in Latino studies. Erman’s primary areas of research include the history of Puerto Rico and its relations with the United States. His dissertation, Puerto Rico and the Constitution: Struggles around Status and Governance in a New Empire, 1898-1925 examines closely the United States’ promise of citizenship to Puerto Rico.

Prior to his fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, Erman was a Raoul-Berger-Mark DeWolfe Howe Legal History Fellow at Harvard Law School. He clerked for Judge John Paul Stevens and Judge Anthony M. Kennedy of the United States Supreme Court and Judge Merrick B. Garland of the United States Court of Appeals. He received his JD from the University of Michigan Law School, summa cum laude, and his PhD in American Culture from the University of Michigan. He completed his AB in English at Harvard College, cum laude.

You can read a longer bio of Professor Erman on the USC website here.