Legal Historian Farah Peterson Joins Faculty, Becomes Fifth Addition this Summer

Farah Peterson

Farah Peterson, a legal historian whose work focuses on statutory interpretation and judicial authority, has joined the Law School’s faculty from the University of Virginia School of Law, becoming the University of Chicago’s fifth new law professor this summer and marking the most successful hiring year in recent memory.

Peterson, a professor of law, joins Professor Sonja Starr and Assistant Professors Bridget Fahey, Hajin Kim, and Joshua Macey, who also started July 1 and whose arrival was announced last month. Peterson, who visited the Law School during the spring quarter, taught at the University of Virginia for three years. She holds both a JD and a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale and a PhD in history from Princeton. She has clerked for US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Judge Guido Calabresi on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

“Professor Peterson is an extraordinary scholar whose intellectual energy, curiosity, and thought-provoking research makes her an excellent addition to our faculty,” said Dean Thomas J. Miles, the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Law and Economics. “We are enormously pleased to welcome her as a colleague, and we continue to be grateful to our entire Appointments Committee, whose hard work has once again yielded an exceptional result.”

Professor Lee Fennell, who co-chaired the Law School’s Appointments Committee, said the faculty is “absolutely thrilled that Farah is joining our community.”

“She is doing interdisciplinary work of the highest caliber,” Fennell said. “Her impact will be transformative.” 

Peterson’s work focuses on 18th- and early-19th-century American legal history. In a piece forthcoming in the Yale Law Journal, Peterson explains that the flexible, purposive approach to constitutional interpretation that is so often contrasted with a restrictive “originalist” reading is, in fact, as old as the document itself.

Another recent paper, "Constitutionalism in Unexpected Places," explores the Revolutionary-era belief that Americans were governed not only by the new Constitution but by unwritten commitments that pre-dated the Founding and, among other things, validated popular, or “mob,” action in the streets.

“I make the argument that just because the Founders wrote a constitution down doesn't mean they completely relinquished their old ideas about what the word ‘constitution’ means, and that included a direct role for the people,” said Peterson.

Peterson has also written pieces that connect early American history to present-day events. In an American Scholar essay, “Black Lives and the Boston Massacre,” Peterson explored crowd action by examining John Adams’ successful defense of British soldiers who fired on a mob in Boston in 1770. The soldiers killed five people, including a Black man named Crispus Attucks, who is widely regarded as the first American killed in the Revolution. Adams’ defense of the soldiers, Peterson wrote, relied in part on his characterization of the protesters as outside agitators and his ability “to convince the jury that his clients had only killed a black man and his cronies.”

“Crowds have long been a part of the American story and have influenced how law has moved forward and developed. What’s more, the color of the participants has always mattered. Race has always played a role when those in power are deciding whether crowd actions are legitimate protests or riots,” Peterson said. “This amazing outpouring of emotion and patriotic intent that we see right now with people out marching for Black Lives Matter has a long history—so do the criticisms of it.”

In another recent essay in American Scholar, “The Patriot Slave,” Peterson took on the myth that large numbers of enslaved Black Americans essentially chose not to be free by supporting the patriot cause in the Revolutionary War. In fact, four times as many joined the British in response to promises of emancipation, she explained.

“In this critical election year, candidates are once again vying for the ‘black vote,’ ” Peterson wrote. “At the same time, some states, bowing to political and economic pressure, have begun to ease the stay-at-home restrictions that diminish the spread of COVID-19, a disease that is far from contained and that has proved disproportionately deadly to black Americans. It may therefore be time to review the history of a persistent national delusion: that blacks are happy to die for the liberty and prosperity of those who would keep us powerless and poor. We are not.”

Alison LaCroix, the Robert Newton Reid Professor of Law and an associate member in the University’s Department of History, said Peterson will “add tremendously to our faculty, especially in the areas of public law and legal history.”

“Farah brings a formidable depth of knowledge, real creativity in choosing and shaping her topics, and an unparalleled ability to connect historical analysis with urgent modern-day issues of scholarly and public debate,” LaCroix said.

Peterson said her interest in history began in high school and grew from “a strong sense of patriotism and love of country that I expressed through examining its intricacies.”

“I have an obsession with the American story that is very like the obsession that many of us have with our own family history,” she said. “We want to know everything about our families—the good, the bad, the things that have hurt us, the things that have helped us.”

When she started her PhD program, she realized that the stories she was most interested in telling were tied to the law.

“There is something very concrete about the history of American institutions and the way those institutions work on a citizen’s life,” she said.

Peterson, who said she is looking forward to joining the Law School’s “vibrant intellectual community,” will teach courses on legislation and American legal history, as well as a Constitutional Law workshop that she will teach with Fahey.

Teaching, Peterson said, is an opportunity to carve out a space where both she and her students can “become more informed about not just history, but the things that history can reveal.”

“It can feel so dangerous to talk about important issues because it seems like every word is scrutinized,” she said. But in the classroom, she said, everyone is there to learn.

“That’s why they’re there,” she said. “And one of the things that I'm promising them is that they will leave my hands more sensitive, more informed, and better able to speak about things that matter to them.”