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Christopher L. Tomlins

Christopher L. Tomlins headshot

Affiliated Research Professor

  • Berkeley Law (JSP)
  • 2240 Piedmont Avenue
  • Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
  • Phone: 510-642-9049
  • Fax: 510-642-2951
  • Contact

Joint appointment

Professor of Law, University of California Berkeley School of Law


Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University (1981)

Curriculum vitae


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Christopher Lawrence Tomlins is Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley and an Affiliated Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation. Before joining the American Bar Foundation in 1992, he was Reader in Legal Studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne (Australia). He has a Ph.D. in History (Johns Hopkins) and a fine collection of Masters’…

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Research focus

My research has focused on topics in Anglo-American legal history across a broad front, from the “early modern” era (the beginning of the sixteenth century) into the later twentieth century.  My most recent published work engages with the intellectual history of Nat Turner and with the event known as the Turner Rebellion (the Southampton County, Virginia slave uprising of August 1831).  More information here and here.  Since 2012, this work generated a series of overlapping research papers through which I developed a series of interpretive perspectives on Turner, his rebellion, and the rebellion's intersection with race and slavery in post-Revolutionary Virginia (see my CV for details).  All are available in initial manuscript draft on my SSRN author page, here.

Prior to commencing work on the Southampton Revolt, my principal research focus had for some time been the history of  English colonizing of mainland America.  This work generated numbers of articles and essays, culminating in my most recent book, Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580-1865 (also available here) published in 2010.  Freedom Bound is a history of migrants and migrations, of colonizers and colonized, of households and servitude and slavery, and of the freedom all craved and some found. Above all it is a history of the law that framed the entire process. Freedom Bound tells how colonies were planted in occupied territories, how they were populated with migrants – free and unfree – to do the work of colonizing, and how the newcomers secured possession. It tells of the new civic lives that seemed possible in new commonwealths, and of the constraints that kept many from enjoying them. It follows the story long past the end of the eighteenth century until the American Civil War, when – just for a moment – it seemed that freedom might finally be unbound.

Freedom Bound gathers together several related fields of scholarly research and inquiry - the history of colonizing; the historical relationship between migration, labor force creation and law; the history of the relation of master and servant (labor and employment law), and of the legal structure of the employment relationship;  and the law of slavery and of civic identity.  The result is a book about the origins of modern America – a history of the mainland from the beginnings of English presence on the mainland until the Civil War - that according to the eminent historian of Early America, Jack P. Greene, "may well turn out to be the most important work published in American history over the past quarter century."  In November 2010 Freedom Bound was named one of  Atlantic's "20 Books of the Year," and in March 2011 it was awarded the Bancroft Prize, given annually by the trustees of Columbia University.  Freedom Bound has also been awarded the Hurst Prize of the Law and Society Association, the John Phillip Reid Prize of the American Society for Legal History, and named a Choice "Outstanding Academic Title" for 2011..

Freedom Bound was a major preoccupation of mine for a long time (since I published my last major book, Law, Labor and Ideology in the Early American Republic, in 1993), but it was not all that I worked on while an ABF Research Professor.  In another major project that finished in 2008 after ten years work, Michael Grossberg and I saw the Cambridge History of Law in America into publication.  Apart from those books (and others detailed in my CV accessible on this site) I have recently written essays addressing (1) the historiography and theory of legal history; (2) the history of law’s interactions with social science disciplines in general and with the discipline of history in particular; (3) the history of legal education; (4) the history of "republican law" during and after the American Revolution; and (5) the history of contemporary legal thought.  I also have an abiding interest in the legal philosophy and historical materialism of Walter Benjamin, which is manifest in my more historiographical and theoretical work.  For details see my CV and SSRN author page.


Cover of Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580-1865 Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580-1865
Cambridge University Press
Cover of The Cambridge History of Law in America (3 vol.s)
Volume 1, Early America (1580–1815); Volume 2, The Long Nineteenth Century (1789–1920); Volume 3, The Twentieth Century and After (1920–) The Cambridge History of Law in America (3 vol.s) Volume 1, Early America (1580–1815); Volume 2, The Long Nineteenth Century (1789–1920); Volume 3, The Twentieth Century and After (1920–)
Cambridge University Press
Cover of In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History

All publications »


Debt, Death, and Redemption: Toward a Soterial-Legal History of the Turner Rebellion
Aug 2013
Styron’s Nat: Or, the Metaphysics of Absence
Aug 2013
The Confessions of Nat Turner: Paratextual Cadences
Jul 2013

All presentations »

Professional Service & Recognition

  • Organizer, University of California Irvine School of Law Conference, Law As… II: History as Interface for the Interdisciplinary Study of Law, March 2012
  • Editor, Cambridge Hitorical Studies in American Law and Society
  • Co-Editor, Cambridge New Histories of American Law
  • Member, Editorial Committee, Annual Review of Law and Social Science
  • Member, Editorial Board, Law & Society Review
  • Member, Editorial Advisory Board, Labour/Le Travail
  • Chair, Honors Committee, American Society for Legal History
  • Chair, Internationalization Subcommittee, American Society for Legal History
  • Member, Fellowships and Awards Committee, American Society for Legal History
  • Member, Board of Trustees, Law & Society Association
  • Member, Law & Society Association Publications 
  • Scholar-Advisor to the American Bar Association Division of Public Education Project,  Civility and Free Expression in a Constitutional Democracy – A National Dialogue
  • Member, American Antiquarian Society, 2011
  • Chancellor’s Professor of Law, University of California Irvine, 2009
  • Director, Irvine Program in Law and Graduate Studies, 2010


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