Jessica Lowe
University of Virginia, School of Law

Sacred Texts, Sacred Interpretation: How America Became a Nation of the Word

Project description:

Since the early nineteenth century, America has been a nation of the word. From the moment when Americans officially embraced written constitutions at the founding, interpreting text took on a heightened significance. Subsequent political questions – over internal improvements, expansion, and especially slavery – would be framed not just in terms of their desirability, but as matters of constitutional interpretation. Throughout the tumultuous events of the nineteenth century, America revealed itself to be a nation whose most important battles – whose very notions of political and theological orthodoxy – would be centered, even fixated, on textual interpretation. Should text be interpreted strictly and examined on its face or for its meaning at the time it was written? Does one look at particularities or the “spirit”? These battles, which continued throughout American history, began in earnest in the first half of the nineteenth century. Although religion had, in America, been in most ways disestablished, it and the state remained in constant conversation.  Indeed, this project explores whether a new type of battle over orthodoxy arose to in some ways fill the gap – a battle focused on text, and its interpretation.


Jessica Lowe completed her Ph.D. in the Princeton History Department in 2013, and is now an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Virginia, where she helps to direct the program in Law and History.  Jessica works at the intersection of legal, cultural and intellectual history.  Her first book manuscript, "Murder in the Shenandoah," won the St. George Tucker Society’s Bradford Prize for best southern history dissertation.  She is beginning work on a second project, looking at ideas of textual interpretation in early American culture.