CONGRATULATIONS TO THE ASLH 2023 HONORARY FELLOWS!
Election as an Honorary Fellow of the American Society for Legal History is the highest honor the Society can confer. It recognizes distinguished historians whose scholarship has shaped the broad discipline of legal history and influenced the work of others. Honorary Fellows are the scholars we admire, whom we aspire to emulate, and on whose shoulders we stand. Please join us in congratulating these most distinguished colleagues!
Sarah Barringer Gordon
Sarah Barringer Gordon, the Arlin M. Adams Professor of Law and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, is a renowned legal historian, known far and wide for her insights into law and religion in American history. Sally has left a lasting impression on the field through her scholarship, her generosity of spirit, her wise counsel, and her inspired leadership.
Sally’s prize-winning first book, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (2002) is, in the view of scholars in the field, “essential reading for anyone hoping to understand the history of the relationship between church and state.” It is “a powerful political and constitutional history,” making contributions in legal-economic, religious, cultural, and western history, and offering strikingly original contributions to what leaders in the field have come to call “the American Studies of American legal history.”
The Mormon Question manages to combine innovative methodological turns with a powerful demonstration that the Mormon encounter “was a central episode not only in the development of the law of church and state but also the history of federalism.”
Sally’s subsequent scholarship has left deep impressions. Her second book, The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America (2010), led the way, as one scholar has put it, “in the study of rights claims and constitutional rights discourses in modern American religious life.” Her article “The First Wall of Separation between Church and State” made the case that religious disestablishment was at once a landmark in the arrival of modern liberalism and a tool for the protection of human enslavement. Further articles with extraordinary range, from western massacres to religion, race, and the unexpected uses of corporate law in the early republic, have won distinguished prizes. Such work joins some three dozen articles, essays, book chapters and reviews to constitute a giant contribution to the literature.
For decades, Sally has been an unsurpassed contributor to the life of our field. She served as president of the Society and as co-editor of the Cambridge Press series, Studies in Legal History. She is a director of the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation and has served as member or chair of countless committees of the Society, including its all-important annual conference Program Committee.
She is widely known as “relentless in her work on behalf of the field.” Colleagues know that Sally “calls colleagues on weekends, emails people in the wee hours, and regularly buttonholes people in hallways, hotel lobbies, and airplanes to advance initiatives for the common good of legal historians. She does so with so much wit and charm that her interlocutors usually agree to help before they have quite understood what is involved.”
In recent years alone, Sally launched the campaign to endow fellowships for the Hurst Sumer Institute, establishing permanent funding for the training of a new generation of scholars in legal history. Along with Ray Solomon, Sally established the Wallace Johnson First Book Program, which assembles workshops and offers early guidance to aspiring book authors.
In her role as editor, Sally has shepherded a generation of ground-breaking and prize-winning books into print. Sally is famous, in the words of one of her distinguished authors, as a “hands on” editor “from start to finish,” acting “as a second set” of eyes and ears and making sure authors see “the forest for the trees.”
And of course Sally is a “famously dynamic and inspiring teacher,” offering up a trademark mishmash of “charisma, style, and fun.” Visitors to her courses may find her sporting a pointy black hat to teach the Salem witch trials. Or they may find her describing with analytic precision the intertwined histories of racial exclusion and religious disestablishment.
In teaching and beyond, Sally has crafted an astonishing legacy in the study of law and history at Penn, making it one of the finest programs in the world. By the rough count of Sally’s colleagues, she has formally advised more than two dozen graduate students and informally mentored countless others. Sally’s mentorship involves, in as one of her closest colleagues puts it, “equal parts blunt criticism and effusive encouragement.” And always love.
At a recent festschrift in Sally’s honor former Society president Laura Kalman announced that “We all stand on Sally’s shoulders.” The Honors Committee agrees wholeheartedly. Professor Sarah Barringer Gordon has touched us with her love and her special genius in ways big and small. It is hard to imagine a better model for the Honorary Fellow role.