Christopher Tomlins

Research Description

Christopher Tomlins joined the Berkeley Law faculty in 2014. Trained as a historian at The Johns Hopkins University, his teaching career began in 1980 at La Trobe University, Melbourne, where he was successively Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, and University Reader in Legal Studies. In 1992 Tomlins joined the research faculty of the American Bar Foundation, Chicago, where he remained until 2009, then became Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California, Irvine (2009-14). Tomlins’ primary affiliation at Berkeley Law is with the Jurisprudence and Social Policy (Ph.D.) program, in which he teaches courses on legal history and the history and law of slavery. He also teaches in the undergraduate Legal Studies Program.

Tomlins' most recent book investigates the "Turner" (slave) Rebellion, which occurred in 1831 in Virginia.  The book, In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), pays particular attention to the religious persona of Nat Turner, the legal history of the rebellion, and the political economy of slavery in Virginia at the time of the rebellion.  Other recent books include the Oxford Handbook of Legal History (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), co-edited with Markus Dubber; and Searching for Contemporary Legal Thought (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017) co-edited with Justin Desautels-Stein.  Tomlins also works on the materialist jurisprudence of Walter Benjamin, and the phenomenology of Gaston Bachelard.  He is currently engaged in research on the American modernist writer John Dos Passos, while also contemplating a legal-economic history of the nineteenth century entitled The Ego's Era.

Earlier books include Freedom Bound: Law, Labor and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580-1865 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Law, Labor and Ideology in the Early American Republic (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993); and The State and the Unions: Labor Relations, Law, and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880-1960 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985). He is also editor, with Michael Grossberg, of The Cambridge History of Law in America, 3 volumes (2008); with Bruce H. Mann, of The Many Legalities of Early America (2000); with Andrew J. King, of Labor Law in America: Historical and Critical Essays (1992); and with Ian W. Duncanson, of Law and History in Australia (1983). He is sole editor of The Supreme Court of the United States: The Pursuit of Justice (2005). Other publications include some 200 chapters, articles, editorial essays, reviews, and working papers. Tomlins has been the editor of the Law and History Review (1995-2004), and Law and Social Inquiry (2005-09). Currently he is academic editor of two Cambridge University Press book series: Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society, and (with Michael Grossberg) New Histories of American Law.

Tomlins’ scholarly work has been awarded the Surrency prize of the American Society for Legal History, the Littleton-Griswold prize of the American Historical Association, the John Phillip Reid prize of the American Society for Legal History, the James Willard Hurst prize of the Law and Society Association (twice), the Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians, the Richard Slatten Prize of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, and the Bancroft Prize of the Trustees of Columbia University. He has been the recipient of fellowships and distinguished visitorships from The Johns Hopkins University; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the Harry S. Truman Library Institute; The Charles Warren Center for the Study of American History, Harvard University; the Commonwealth Center for the Study of American Culture, and the Institute of Bill of Rights Law, both at the College of William & Mary in Virginia; the University of Sydney; the University of Technology Sydney; Tel Aviv University; The Institute for Advanced Studies, Hebrew University, Jerusalem; the University of Haifa; and the University of London (Queen Mary).

Tomlins hosted the Minor Jurisprudence in Historical Key conference in December 2016.

Here is more information about Tomlins’ research.


B.A., Oxford University (1973)
M.A., University of Sussex (1974)
M.A., Oxford University (1977)
M.A., The Johns Hopkins University (1977)
Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University (1981)

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