OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Holly Brewer

Portrait of Holly Brewer
Image Credit: John Thomas Consoli, University of Maryland

Holly Brewer is the Burke Professor of American History and an associate professor at the University of Maryland. She works on debates about justice in early America and the British Empire through the revolutionary period and into the nineteenth century. She is the author of By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2005), which won three national prizes in legal history, as well as of the prizewinning "Entailing Aristocracy in Colonial Virginia" (The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 2 April 1997). She is currently finishing a book on the ideological origins of slavery in early America and the British Empire for which she received a Guggenheim fellowship. She is a keen supporter of K–12 history education and has provided content lectures on the prerevolutionary period for AP U.S. history teachers.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

In this lecture I argue that the deleted clauses of the declaration of independence are crucial for understanding the debates about slavery during the era of the American Revolution. In Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration, three of the twenty clauses that complained about the actions of the English king related to slavery. Two of those clauses, both of which blamed the king for supporting that "execrable commerce" in people, were deleted from the final draft, after some debate and strong objections to the clauses by South Carolina's delegates to the Continental Congress. While historians have tended to ridicule these clauses on the grounds that Jefferson owned slaves and that the colonists themselves were solely responsible for slavery, I argue that Jefferson understood both a history and a political and legal structure that we have forgotten. This lecture therefore helps to provide a history, as well as a political and legal structure, for understanding the debates over the Declaration's principle that all men are created equal.
In order for slavery to develop in the British empire, it needed a legal basis. This lecture explores how that legal basis was created in the face of parliament's refusal, in the 1660s and 1670s, to pass a slave code for the empire. With the support of Charles II and James II, high court judges in England created the legal foundation for considering people as property, crafting a common law foundation for slavery across the empire, one that had immediate impact in the expansion and financing of slavery. When those high court decisions began to be challenged in England itself during the eighteenth century, parliament stepped in to reinforce them for the empire. These decisions laid the basis for legal and financial claims for property in people that anchored slavery in all American states where it continued to be legal in the nineteenth century. But from the very beginning some argued that no one can have property in another. This lecture therefore provides two centuries of debate on the question of property in people that preceded both Dred Scot (1857) and the Civil War. In doing so it traces how arguments about who was a subject versus who was an alien (and what rights aliens have) contributed to the development of American slavery.
In this lecture I explore the connections between family order and political order, arguing that family order and the status of children were questions closely connected to the political order in the early modern period. In the seventeenth century children could become kings and lords, could be elected to legislatures, could serve on juries at age 14, and bind themselves to labor--or marriage--when under age ten. In order to challenge the hereditary powers of kings, it was necessary to develop a theory of government based on the consent of the governed. But who should consent? To be valid, consent could not be coerced or too strongly influenced; the consent of children was invalid on both counts, as they could be both forced and influenced. Indeed until children developed reason, they were the exemplar of those who should not be able to create binding consent, for if a child could consent, it invalidated the entire principle. Neither should consent be hereditary, and binding upon the next generation. Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these debates began to influence both common and statute law in England and its empire, particularly during periods of revolution. In the long term these arguments led to changes in how old one must be to hold office (e.g. in the U.S. Constitution), to broad public support for education, to America's juvenile courts, and other crucial public policies. But they have also left us with enduring debates about the rights of those whom we deem unable to legally consent.
Responding to a 1699 report that Governor Francis Nicholson “made an order against taking up land for the importation of negroes,” John Locke wrote “well done.” The spindly marks of his quill—among the voluminous reports of imperial administration—gave me goose bumps when I first read them. I had spent several years retracing the struggle over slave law in Virginia in the decades surrounding the Glorious Revolution of 1688. That it was an imperial struggle was fascinating, even without his involvement. But the particular nature of Locke’s involvement illuminates longstanding debates about the origins of slavery in the Anglo-American empire and within democratic political systems. Efforts to find the ideological origins of slavery have long assumed that the English empire arose within a liberal context, and that America was attached to “distinctive English freedoms” from the beginning, if only for whites. In this lecture I argue that slavery developed from the same origins as the divine right of kings, and that both Locke's Two Treatises of Government as well as his involvement in the administration of empire (on the Board of Trade) in the 1690s, show that he took steps to challenge slavery. Locke's political theory and practical policy developed over an arc during his lifetime, such that at first both he and Shaftesbury, his mentor and the founder of the Whig party, cooperated with the Stuarts and compromised with principles of the divine right of kings and hereditary status for everyone. But Locke and others then began to sharply challenge the Stuarts, which led to the Glorious Revolution and more than a decade of legal and constitutional struggle over slavery and over rights more generally. This lecture is for those who care deeply about political theory and how it mixed with the politics of empire.
In this lecture I argue that America has a much longer & deeper tradition of censorship than we usually acknowledge, and that it has shaped how we tell our history. Most American colonies had no printing press until the 1720s, and even then publications were heavily censored via the common law of seditious libel, which allowed people to be punished for simply criticizing those in power, regardless of whether what they said was true. Despite the rejection of these principles, on some level, after the expiration of the alien and sedition acts in the early 1800s, censorship of anti-slavery literature, for example, was normal in the antebellum south. Sedition continues to be a crime for those in the U.S. military, even today. This lecture ends by reflecting on how the censorship of what we read influences how we see the world--as modern voters--and as historians.