Nelson honored at two-day legal history conference

William E. Nelson ’65, Judge Edward Weinfeld Professor of Law, has been associated with the NYU School of Law for nearly half a century, and has been an active legal historian for almost as long. He has spent more than 30 of those years as a professor. A two-day conference on May 6 and 7, “Making Legal History,” honored the depth and breadth of Nelson’s influence, not only on countless colleagues and students at NYU Law, but in the broader fields of legal history and history more generally.

Nelson has helped to cement the Law School’s reputation as a legal history leader. He serves as moderator of the Legal History Colloquium, the oldest of NYU Law’s colloquia, founded nearly three decades ago. Nelson has also played an integral role in the Samuel I. Golieb Fellowship in Legal History Program, the oldest fellowship of its kind, which brings young legal history scholars to NYU to conduct research and present their work in the colloquium.

Former Golieb Fellows presented original scholarship in panels over the course of the conference, on topics such as common law and statutory regulation, 19th-century U.S. legal history, writing the legal history of race, and courts and judges. Panel chairs included Vice Dean Barry Friedman, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Professor of Law; Professor Daniel Hulsebosch; Deborah Malamud, AnBryce Professor of Law; Troy McKenzie ’00, assistant professor of law; Vice Dean Liam Murphy, Herbert Peterfreund Professor of Law and Philosophy; and John Phillip Reid (LL.M. ’60, J.S.D. ’62), Russell D. Niles Professor of Law Emeritus.

Hulsebosch, who organized the conference, wanted to harness the power of the scholarship from the Golieb Fellows whom Nelson has been instrumental in influencing. “He’s had so much influence and he’s touched so many people in the field over the last 30 years," said Hulsebosch, a former Golieb Fellow himself, "so I thought it would be nice to have a tribute to that influence and the network that he’s responsible for creating.... The Goliebs represent some sizeable proportion of all legal historians who have come out of graduate school or law school over the last generation.... I wanted the focus in large part to be on the scholarship, to show how much of an influence Bill has had on all these people who are producing the best work in the field.”

At a tribute panel on the first day of the conference, colleagues discussed Nelson’s influence in the field of legal history. More than one panelist invoked “generosity” as the honoree’s primary characteristic.

Morton Horwitz, Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, recalled the days when he and Nelson were Charles Warren Fellows at Harvard, each researching their first books. Nelson tirelessly combed various courthouse archives in doing his primary research, Horwitz recalled, but, more remarkably, freely shared the fruits of his labors with Horwitz.

“I have not seen that in the remaining 40 years of my academic life,” Horwitz said. “It was a sense of generosity and an investment in a common purpose. We were going to make legal history a field; we needed to try to help each other as best we could. Bill really did make a big difference in my understanding of that which I was working on.” Horwitz and other panelists pointed to Nelson as a pioneer of digging through original sources to examine everyday cases, in order to better understand developments in the history of the law.

Professor David Konig of Washington University in St. Louis School of Law said, “I wouldn’t be in the academic profession today if it weren’t for Bill,” and stressed how many publications have been generated by Nelson’s Legal Scholarship course. Nelson’s work, Konig noted, is a triumph of substance over style: “His scholarship doesn’t flaunt the theoretical veneer that’s so de rigueur in legal scholarship today, but it does have embedded within it a sophisticated understanding of the legal and historical process. The impact results from what is usually unstated, but is embedded in the narrative quality of his work rather than explicitly flaunted theory.”

Larry Kramer, the dean of Stanford Law School, praised Nelson’s willingness to contribute to the greater interests of NYU Law. “Bill is a wonderful scholar who’s been incredibly prolific and done work across a ridiculous number of subjects, especially for a historian. Nonetheless, I think his greatest legacy will be the enormous number of students and colleagues and Goliebs whose lives he’s influenced and whose careers he’s shaped.”

Professor Lauren Benton of NYU’s Department of History, also an affiliate professor at NYU Law, pointed out that Nelson’s readiness to lend his support extends far beyond the Law School to history graduate students from all over. She suggested that Nelson’s extensive uncovering of colonial legal sources would have a deep historical impact in the future.

Benton said she found Nelson “singularly helpful in building bridges between the History Department and the Law School. In addition to claiming him as a global legal historian I want to claim him as a historian, as someone who is comfortable working in a law school but is really a historian in the way that he thinks.”

“Bill has had a profound influence on me and on many who work outside American legal history,” Benton concluded. “He is a global comparative legal scholar, he is a model historian.... He is an institution builder, a field shaper, and a friend.”

Posted on May 21, 2010

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