AHA Member Spotlight: Amalia D. Kessler

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected and then contacted by AHA staff. If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.

Amalia D. Kessler is the Lewis Talbot and Nadine Hearn Shelton Professor of International Legal Studies and professor (by courtesy) of history at Stanford Law School. She resides in Palo Alto, California, and has been an AHA member since 2002.

Alma mater/s: BA, Harvard; JD, Yale; MA, PhD, Stanford

Fields of interest:

Legal history, especially of France and the United States, with a focus on issues concerning commercial law and market culture, as well as procedural ordering and its implications for the formation of national identity and culture.

When did you first develop an interest in history?

I’ve been fascinated with history for as long as I can remember. I think my interest was sparked primarily by my maternal grandmother’s stories of what life was like in Romania before, during, and immediately after WWII—stories of how she and her family managed to survive. 

What projects are you working on currently?

I’m working on a new book, tentatively titled Inventing Procedure: The Origins of American Adversarial Legal Culture, 1800–1865. The book seeks to problematize the assumption that American legal culture is innately adversarial. It inquires into the origins of American adversarialism, and in so doing, seeks insights not only into legal procedure, but also into the processes by means of which the new nation forged its identity in the turbulent decades preceding the Civil War. Towards this end, I eschew the traditionally internalist, doctrinal approach that has dominated research into the history of legal procedure. Instead I adopt a law-and-society perspective, which seeks to explore the interrelationship between procedural law and practice, and a much broader array of socio-cultural, political, and economic developments. 

What is the last great book or article you have read? 

It’s hard to say since I’m lucky to spend my time doing a lot of great reading. Emma Rothschild’s engaging The Inner Life of Empires is definitely very high on the list.   

What do you value most about the history profession?

I love a great many things about history and the history profession. But as someone whose primary appointment is in a law school, I think what I love most about history is that it serves as a valuable corrective to the hubris that sometimes attends policy-oriented disciplines like law. While I have the deepest respect for the law as a tool for bettering our world, I am also painfully aware of the many ways that even our best efforts have gone terribly awry. History can teach humility—a lesson that many of our leaders very much need to absorb.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?

Another difficult question, but the answer would probably have to be traveling—an interest not unrelated, admittedly, to my love for history.

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