Holly Brewer

Holly Brewer

Fellow: Awarded 2014
Field of Study: Constitutional Studies

Competition: US & Canada

University of Maryland

Holly Brewer is Burke Professor of American Cultural and Intellectual History and Associate Professor at the University of Maryland. Her work crosses boundaries between Early American and British history, cultural and intellectual history, and political and legal history.


Marked by slow and methodical research, her work tends to ask questions that others have not asked, to see old debates from new perspectives. Her first book began with a question: why did so many of the political theorists of the early modern period write so much about children, and did those debates impact real children’s lives? She found that in the transition from monarchy to democracy, from power based on hereditary status to power based on consent, children’s status was key. The new arguments for power required not only that government should be based on the consent of the governed, but also a judicious definition of who could consent and on what basis; they had a deep impact on children’s lives. By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority, won several prizes: the 2006 J. Willard Hurst Prize from the Law and Society Association, the 2006 Cromwell Prize from the American Society for Legal History, and the 2008 Biennial Book Prize of the Order of the Coif, the honor society of the Association of American Law Schools, for a “book that evidences creative talent of the highest order.”

While researching that book she stumbled across evidence that “feudalism” was alive and well in early America via laws that often enforced inheritance by the oldest son, practices that helped to create aristocracies. “Entailing Aristocracy in Colonial Virginia: Ancient Feudal Restraints and  Revolutionary Reform,” published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1997, won three prizes,  including the 1998 Clifford Prize from the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies for the “best article on any aspect of Eighteenth Century Culture” and the 2000 Douglass Adair Memorial Award for the best article published in the William and Mary Quarterly in the previous six years.

Her new book-in-progress, Inheritable Blood, which she plans to complete during her fellowship, had its origins in that article. At first she sought merely to explore the origins of colonial laws that enforced aristocratic and archaic privilege and to explain how they connected to the development of slavery. Why did colonial legislators pass them?  The answer it turned out, is deeply entwined with the power of the old world; indeed, it is inseparable. As she traced her way from archive to archive and clue to clue, her book has become very deeply about empire. It raises hard questions about the connectedness of so-called “feudal” and monarchical privileges, slavery, and early capitalism. It traces the ideological and practical origins of slavery in the American colonies and the British empire from the seventeenth century to the American Revolution, showing how power shaped even the evidence we easily see as historians. It has received support from the Huntington Library, National Endowment for the Humanities and National Humanities Center.

In addition to her research and teaching and substantial university service, she co-edits a book series, Studies in Legal History, published by Cambridge University Press, for the American Society for Legal History. In addition she serves on the Council of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. She is proud of her work supporting K-12 education and in trying to foster connections between universities and schools.  She is also the mother of Isabella, Everett, and Oliver, and wife to Roland and appreciates their loving support.


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