OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Paul Finkelman

Portrait of Paul Finkelman

Paul Finkelman is the president of Gratz College. He has published more than fifty books, more than two hundred articles, and numerous op-eds on the law of American slavery, the First Amendment, American race relations, American legal history, the U.S. Constitution, freedom of religion, and baseball and the law. His most recent books include Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation's Highest Court (2017) and Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (3rd edition, 2014). He has lectured at the United Nations, throughout the United States, and in more than a dozen other countries, including China, Germany, Israel, and Japan. He previously taught at the University of Saskatchewan, Duke Law School, the University of Tulsa Law School, the Albany Law School, the University of Ottawa School of Law, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. His work has been cited in four decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and in many appellate briefs. He was an expert witness in the famous Alabama Ten Commandments Monument Case (Glassroth v. Moore) and in the lawsuit over the ownership of Barry Bonds’ 73rd homerun ball (Popov v. Hayashi).

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Baseball has been a central part of American culture for more than a century. It is probably the most complicated sport in the world, with an elaborate rule book and even lifelong fans may not fully understand. This lecture argues that baseball creates a legal or constitutional system, and teaches American citizenship and a respect for the rule of law, even as it entrains us and leads to endless arguments of who was “the best,” or whether the umpire got the call right.  At the same time, baseball was a key force in ending segregation and leading to some other aspects of social progress in nation.
Finkelman was the expert witness in the lawsuit over the ownership of Barry Bonds’ 73rd Home run ball, and has written on this subject in scholarly journals and public media, such as The Atlantic and The New York Times.
Americans have a great fascination with the Underground Railroad. We celebrate those who took the risk to flee from enslavement and we also celebrate those Americans, Black and White, who helped freedom seekers. But we often forget that those who helped fugitive slaves were in fact breaking the law. Some went to jail for their humanitarian acts; others suffered tremendous financial losses. How do we explain this? And how should Americans today think about this. This lecture explains the fugitive slave laws and the risks people took in violating them and explains the difference between “rescue” and humanitarian civil disobedience – which describes the Underground Railroad – and violent opposition to law or the political process either for personal gain or ideologically based anger.
In three decisions, starting in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court has rewritten the law on firearms regulations.  All three decisions are predicated on how the Court understands the historical meaning of the 2nd Amendment.  This lecture examines the Court's use and or misuse of history. Finkelman's scholarship on this issue has been cited in two of these Supreme Court decisions.
This lecture helps us understand the relationships between slavery and the American Revolution. Finkelman notes that there was no meaningful antislavery movement in the Colonies or Great Britain on the eve of the Revolution.  But during the Revolution and in its aftermath nine states (including the new states of Vermont and Ohio), either abolished slavery outright or set it on the road to extinction through gradual abolition statutes, Congress limited and then banned the African Slave Trade, and active antislavery movements emerged in the Northern states. These states also began to protect the civil and political rights of free African Americans, who voted, participated in public life, and even on a few occasions, held public office.

 
American history has been marked by vigorous written and spoken protests.  Even before there was as First Amendment social activists such as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, John Peter Zenger, John Woolman, and Thomas Paine have asserted the right to speak freely, in speeches and in print.  Following the Revolution to the end of the Nineteenth century, freedom of speech was the vehicle for opponents of slavery and racism, supporters of women’s suffrage, labor organizers, and founders of new religions. In the Twentieth century, opponents of child labor, supporters of women’s rights, supporters of industrial reform and workers’ rights, opponents of war, environmentalists, advocates for equality have all competed (and often succeeded) in the marketplace of ideas.  The great civil rights movement of the mid-Twentieth century was rooted in free speech and the right to protest.  Justice Brandeis asserted that “to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” This lecture explores this history raises the question if traditional notion of free speech remains viable in the age of the internet, cable t.v., and changing methods of technology.
In the last decade there has been considerable political debate over the “birth right citizenship” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and its application to children of undocumented immigrants.  This lecture shows that, in fact, the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment were fully aware that there were “illegal immigrants” in the U.S. in 1868 and there had been such persons since the early 1800s.  The lecture argues that this history – often forgotten – demonstrates that those who wrote the Fourteenth Amendment assumed anyone born in the United States (except the children of diplomats) would be citizens at birth, no matter what the status of their parents.
 
As we move toward the 250th anniversary of the Revolution, this lecture explores the participation of Jews in the conflict with England truly changes the nature of religious liberty in the United States. During the Revolution and its aftermath, Jews held elected and appointed public office, voted, served as military officers, practiced law and served as judges, and actively (and mostly successfully) lobbied for full political equality in the new nation. In Europe or other New World colonies there were no Jewish military officers and Jews could not do all or most of these activities. For example, Jews were not permitted to serve as military officers or be admitted to Inns of Court in England or vote in England’s Caribbean colonies for more than a half-century after the American Revolution began.  

At the Constitutional Convention James Madison said the "fittest" (most proper) way to elect the president would be by a popular vote.  But he thought that was impossible because it would harm the southern states because enslaved people could not vote.  Thus, the electoral college folded the three-fifths clause into the election of the president.  Slavery is gone, but its legacy remains in the electoral college.