The idea behind the Brian Simpson Lecture in Legal History is to reinforce the longstanding ties between U-M’s Law School and Department of History by bringing distinguished scholars to campus. It’s fitting, therefore, that in celebrating 10 years of the Simpson Lecture, a scholar who got her academic start on campus—Kate Masur, a 2021 graduate of U-M’s doctoral program in American culture—returned to campus to speak at the Law School recently.

The biennial Simpson Lecture, co-sponsored by the Law School and the Department of History, honors A.W. Brian Simpson, a former member of the faculty who died in 2011. Internationally recognized as one of the most gifted and wide-ranging historians of English common law, his work spanned the medieval to modern eras, focusing on the social, economic, and intellectual currents that shaped—and were shaped by—the law. 

The eponymous lecture series brings his scholarly worlds together.

“The University of Michigan has a great law school just across the street from a great history department. But that doesn’t by itself guarantee that we will cross South University Avenue and talk with each other as often as we might,” said Rebecca Scott, the Charles Gibson Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Law and a founding organizer of the lectures. 

“The Dawson-Simpson events provide an occasion for historians and legal scholars, both students and faculty, to gather together, listen to innovative scholarship, and discuss what they have just heard. That is how good ideas get even better.”

Recognizing interdisciplinary scholarship with global influences

With a career that took him across three continents—Europe, Africa, and North America— Simpson’s scholarship reflected his global perspective on life, history, and the law. His books ranged from Cannibalism and the Common Law (University of Chicago Press, 1984) to Human Rights and the End of Empire: Britain and the Genesis of the European Convention (Oxford University Press, 2001).

The five Simpson Lectures have encapsulated Simpson’s spirit. 

In 2015, Dirk Hartog (Princeton University) inaugurated the series with his lecture, “Gibbons v. Ogden, without the Commerce Clause: Of Steamboats, a River, Slaves, a Quarrelsome Family, a Bank, and the Legal Lives of Two Old Men.” 

In 2017, Annette Gordon-Reed (Harvard University) delivered the second lecture, “Policing Black Citizenship: From the Founding to Ferguson.” 

Risa Goluboff (University of Virginia) discussed “Constitutional Change and Constitutional History” during the 2019 Simpson Lecture. 

And after a pandemic-induced delay, Dylan Penningroth (University of California, Berkeley) most recently contributed the fourth lecture in the series, “Race in Contract Law,” in 2022.

2024 lecture examines rural society at “critical inflection point” 

In her Simpson Lecture, “Abortion and Patriarchy in Small Town New England ca. 1860,” Masur, a professor of history at Northwestern University, talked about her newest research project, which explores mid-19th century feminism in rural Vermont.

Masur specializes in the history of race, politics, and law in the United States. Her latest book, Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction (W.W. Norton, 2021), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History and won numerous honors, including the Littleton-Griswold Prize from the American Historical Association.

Masur’s new paper discusses women, law, and reproduction in 1800s America, focusing, in part, on the case of a young woman from rural Vermont who died from complications of an abortion in the winter of 1858. The doctor, who was accused of other crimes that included sexual assault and malpractice, was convicted of killing his patient under an 1846 state statute that outlawed most abortions. 

In the Vermont Supreme Court decision denying the doctor’s appeal, the chief justice noted that the purpose of the statute was to regulate women’s behavior—in contrast to modern-day anti-abortion legal arguments that center on protecting the life of the fetus.

Masur became fascinated with the larger sociocultural context of the case, the “convergence of different strands of the law and different visions of how women should live,” as she told the audience. 

Looking deeper, Masur uncovered “provocative evidence of nascent feminism” in rural Vermont during that time, especially through archival papers of a woman who was involved in a local literary journal and debating society. Masur called the papers “a condensed archive of female rage.” 

To encourage women to express their ideas and opinions publicly, women in Bradford, Vermont, had started the literary journal, which became the center of a raging debate over women’s place in society. The death of several women seeking to terminate their pregnancies around that time likely added fuel to the fire, Masur noted.

“It was a moment of inflection in a nation that was on the cusp of civil war and engaging in larger debates not just about slavery and racism but also about women’s roles in society. Rural communities were not stagnant. There was an amazing amount of dissent.”

The Brian Simpson Lecture and corresponding John P. Dawson Proseminar are funded by the Green Legal History Endowment Fund, which was established by Simpson’s friend and fellow legal historian Tom Green and Green’s wife, Ruth. 

When the gift was announced in 2014, Green, who is the John P. Dawson Collegiate Professor of Law Emeritus and professor emeritus of history, said, “Establishing the endowment seems an appropriate step to take, as the activities of [the history and law] communities—as with all scholarly communities—are as much a matter of building a foundation for those who will inherit and shape the future of the enterprise as they are a manifestation of present interests.”