Professor of Law
Originally published in the 2005 issue of the Law School magazine.
Like any historian worth his salt, Daniel Hulsebosch is adept at uncovering the past—even his own. Hulsebosch, a legal historian specializing in both early American legal and constitutional history and the legal history of the British Empire, traces his love for the field back to fifth grade. With notebook and Polaroid in hand, he reported on the history of the colonial era houses in his Westchester neighborhood. “The physicality of history struck me,” he says. “I was fascinated by its layered quality, the way an old house was actually made up of a series of additions, each built by a different generation,” Hulsebosch says with characteristic eloquence. “Later I came to see intellectual history in much the same way: ideas are structures built over time, each part added by a new generation.”
Hulsebosch, 39, who joins the faculty in September, has a reputation among his colleagues as a kind of Rumpelstiltskin who can turn the driest material into gold. “Legal history doesn’t produce good stories naturally,” says Eben Moglen, Hulsebosch’s professor at Columbia Law School. “He has the ability to find stories that reflect larger social truths and to tell them in a way that makes for good reading. He’s an inventive writer of history with an eye for the vignette.”
Brought up with four siblings, Hulsebosch had “to develop verbal skills pretty early on, or else get lost in the shuffle,” he says. He became a serious student at Colgate University in sleepy Hamilton, New York. “The best attraction in town was the library. There wasn’t much else to do but read, so I started spending much of my time buried in books.” He majored in history, minored in literature, and, as the editorial editor of the school newspaper, developed his writing style. During his junior year, he studied abroad in London, which cemented his love for history. He spent a good deal of his time at the Public Record Office researching the relationships between American and British officials, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, on the eve of the Second World War. “It was thrilling to reach through the archives and read letters written by Churchill, and more importantly, by the civil servants who worked with him,” he says. “I became fascinated in the second tier of leadership, the names we don’t remember but who informed and advised key leaders.”
He carried that fascination into his first book: Constituting Empire: New York and the Transformation of Constitutionalism in the Atlantic World, 1664-1830 (University of North Carolina Press, 2005). In it, he reinterprets the role that familiar characters like Alexander Hamilton played in shaping the Constitution, while also restoring forgotten characters, like loyalists Sir William Johnson and William Smith Jr., to their deserved places of prominence.
In his current project, tentatively titled Writs to Rights: The Transformation of Professional and Popular Conceptions of the Common Law, 1790-1850, Hulsebosch asks why the early U.S. didn’t develop a civil service in the way that European nations did. “My short answer is the legal profession became the unofficial civil service and helped generate the administrative glue made elsewhere by government officials.” He’ll look at the lawyers who transformed British common law into the American system of laws we know today.
“Dan’s important, in part, because he represents a new wave of scholarship in early American history that we call Atlantic History,” says Stanley Katz, professor of public and international affairs at Princeton. “Dan has done a brilliant job of putting a legal perspective on this movement,” he says.
After earning his J.D. in 1991, Hulsebosch went on to Harvard University, getting his Ph.D. in History of American Civilization in 1999. He was a 1998-1999 Samuel I. Golieb fellow at the NYU School of Law and also received a 1996-1997 Whiting Fellowship in the Humanities at Harvard. In 1999 he started teaching at Saint Louis University School of Law, where he became a tenured associate professor in 2004. He won an American Society for Legal History’s Surrency Prize for the best article published in the Law and History Review in 2003.
Hulsebosch is ambivalent about the relevance of historical work to modern lawmaking. On the one hand, “I usually find that the past I’m uncovering is more different from the present than it is the same, though that itself is an important lesson,” he says. But legal historians can offer decision makers guidance. For example, he helped draft an amicus brief (led by Law School colleague Professor Michael Wishnie) to the Supreme Court that looked at whether the founding fathers would have interpreted the writ of habeas corpus to have extended to the military base at Guantánamo Bay.
Hulsebosch spends his free time exploring New York in much the same way he did in fifth grade, strolling down the city’s streets and noticing how houses from one period sit side by side with those from others. Always the historian, he likes to tease his colleagues who live in the West Village by telling them: “In the colonial period, their apartment building would have been under the Hudson River.”