Renowned MIT Historian delivers Annual Lecture in Law and Society

18 May 2012

The Annual Lecture in Law and Society 2012 was delivered by the renowned historian Professor Pauline Maier, who charted the dramatic evolution of the American Federal Bill of Rights, from its eighteenth-century ratification when it was criticized for constraining individual freedom, to the near religious significance it has taken on today.

Professor Maier, Professor of American History at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, delivered her engaging and wide-ranging lecture entitled The Strange History of the American Federal Bill of Rights: England, the United States, and the Atlantic World, at Jesus College Ship Street Centre on 17th May. Tracing the origins of the US Bill of Rights to the English Declaration of Rights of 1688, she sought to identify at what point the first ten amendments to the US Constitution became known in the current parlance as a Bill of Rights.

By recording the number of instances of the use of the term 'bill of rights' in the New York Times, Professor Maier identified the 1920s as a watershed period for rights discourse, when widesread awareness of rights consciousness and the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union signalled a new era for civil rights.

The lecture illustrated a number of key developments in American history, such as the abolition of slavery and the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, which, coming at the time of the 150th anniversary of the ratification of bill of rights, was seen not just as an attack on US soil but also a symbolic attack on the American way of life.

Professor Maier is widely known as a leading historian of the American Revolution and a regular contributor to the New York Times and popular history series, and joins a distinguished line of Annual Lecturers, which includes the Chief Justice of South Africa Pius Langa and the former President of the Supreme Court of Israel Aharon Barak.

The lecture followed a workshop earlier that day to mark the end of the three-year programme on The Social and Political Foundations of Constitutions, held at Wolfson College. The programme has explored a series of case studies of constitutional development in countries around the world, and will culminate in a book to be edited by Professors Denis Galligan and Mila Versteeg, which will be published by Cambridge University Press next year.

The concluding case studies of Lesotho and Eritrea illustrated some of recurring theoretical concepts of the programme, such as the diffusion of certain key constitutional principles, through the colonial experience in the case of Lesotho, and the process of mobilization of village councils and engagement of the Diaspora in the consitution-making process in Eritrea.

Professors Galligan and Versteeg then brought the workshop to a close by leading a panel review of the programmme's work and findings, covering the theoretical approaches of scholars such as Professors Russell Hardin, Ran Hirschl, and Tom Ginsburg, as well as the empirical study of the country case studies.