Welcoming Anne Twitty

Professor Anne Twitty joined the history department in August 2023 as Associate Professor (Teaching). Her work explores American legal and public history. She is the author of 'Before Dred Scott: Slavery and Legal Culture in the American Confluence, 1787-1857' (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

How did you become interested in 19th century American history?

As morbid as it sounds, I always loved going to old cemeteries with my paternal grandmother as a child, and when you’re from the American Midwest, “old” means the nineteenth century. Headstones only contain a handful of details but can inspire so many questions. They beg us to ask about the lives and deaths of those whose names they bear—about the ravages of war and disease, about staggering maternal and childhood mortality rates, about social class and an individual’s place in the center or on the margins of a family or community, and about so much else. Cemeteries in general, meanwhile, are just as suggestive about a given locality. Who was buried in this place—and who was excluded? Whose graves are even marked? How did a place change demographically over time? Trying to understand the experiences of ordinary Americans and their communities has been a source of fascination ever since. 

What texts inspired you the most in your career? Why?

In the fall of my senior year of college, I read Christine Stansell’s City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860—a book I’ll be reading again this fall with students enrolled in my seminar on Antebellum America. City of Women is a beautifully written social history of white working women in New York City in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is an unflinching account of the brutality and drudgery that defined so much of their lives, but also the often-thrilling possibilities urban life presented for erstwhile farm girls and housewives. For me, though, the central contribution of City of Women may well be the skill with which it renders those who populate its pages. It treats historical actors with deep empathy. And while its primary focus is a much-degraded group, it nevertheless takes seriously the choices they could and did make.

Your book draws on an untapped collection of nearly 300 hundred freedom suits filed in a region defined by fluid boundaries and legal ambiguity. How did you come across this collection? 

Ironically, my admiration for City of Women led, in a roundabout way, to my discovery of the remarkable collection of freedom suits I wrote about in my first book, Before Dred Scott: Slavery and Legal Culture in the American Confluence, 1787–1857. After reading Stansell’s book, I subsequently applied to work with her on a PhD at Princeton. For a project in her graduate course on Metropolitan Life, she encouraged me to work with a set of recently digitized lawsuits that originated in the St. Louis circuit court. Once I started reading these so-called freedom suits—legal proceedings initiated by enslaved people who asserted that they were entitled to their freedom—I was hooked. Freedom suits provide an incredible window into the lived experience of slavery and the ways ordinary Americans used formal law to advance their own interests.

Which topics will you be teaching at Stanford? 

I hope to be able to teach broadly in American history, including courses that explore the rise and fall of American slavery, legal history, and history of gender and sexuality. As someone who has been actively engaged in conversations surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments and the history of slavery on university campuses, moreover, I would also like to teach about historical memory, especially as it relates to campus settings.

You are a prolific public historian. What are some opportunities and challenges of conducting public history during the 21st century?

Among the American public, I think there is currently a widespread interest in a whole host of historical questions that professional historians—whether they’re found in the classroom, at historic sites, in virtual arenas, or elsewhere—are poised to answer. Often these historical questions revolve around difficult episodes in our past that can be challenging and unpredictable to navigate. But we have an obligation to confront them patiently, directly, and honestly—and in all their complexity. That may sound easy, but it can be really hard in practice.