Lea VanderVelde is the Josephine R. Witte Professor of Law at the University of Iowa College of Law. She writes in the fields of employment law, property law, 19th century legal history, and constitutional law.
Lea VanderVelde's latest book is Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott (Oxford University Press 2014).
Redemption Songs is based upon the discovery of almost 300 freedom suits brought by slaves in the St. Louis courts. Those file are now available on the web. An article describing Lea VanderVelde's role in their discovery can be found in the Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2003.
Redemption Songs follows her 2009 book, Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier. Lea VanderVelde has actually published two works on Harriet, the hidden protagonist in the infamous Supreme Court decision, Dred Scott v. Sandford. The first work is an article, Mrs. Dred Scott, published in the Yale Law Journal with Subramanian, is a feministic analytic demonstrating how the double subordination of marriage and enslavement masked the pivotal role that Harriet played in bringing and sustaining the significant law suit.
The second work Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier (Oxford University Press 2007) is a full-scale biography of the slave woman's life. This is a biography which many said couldn't be written and is one of the first of its kind because Harriate was illiterate and left no letters in her own hand. Instead, the book meticulously reconstructs her life from hundreds of documents documenting the context in which she lived as well as the agendas of the masters she served.
Recently she has re-invented her approach to legal research by using digital technology and big data, much of which she collected in the process of writing her books. For the last two years, she has been the principal investigator for The Law of the Antebellum Frontier project at the Stanford Spatial History Lab. This project seeks to digitally analyze the legal and economic mechanisms at work on the American frontier territories in the early 1800s by big data and text mining methods. Understanding these mechanisms contributes to the understanding of American identity as well as studies of how empires expand. The American expansion into Ohio and Mississippi river basins during the Antebellum period also shaped the Constitutional amendments after the Civil War. The project uses several techniques -- GIS mapping, geolocation, social network modeling and text mining -- to examine the vast amount of very old texts and documents about the antebellum frontier. More about the project can be found at the website listed above. New digital research technologies and the digital availability of increasing amounts of historical documentation allow us to visualize the expansion of the American nation, both social and legal, in the critical years before the Civil War in new ways. Her focus has been how law served the process of expanding American empire.
Lea VanderVelde has authored more than 20 other works, including major texts in Property and in Employment Law and articles in leading law reviews. her work frequently looks deeply into a famous case or series of cases which concern subordinated persons in their working lives. Many of her works concern emancipation, the abolition of slavery by the 13th Amendment of the constitution and similar legal changes in the status of working people. Several of her works focus on gender and supplement long neglected areas of women's legal history resulting in new and more probative understandings of those areas of law. Her works on contract doctrine, The Gendered Origin of the Lumley Doctrine and intentional tort and rape, The Legal Ways of Seduction, are thought to be path-breaking and comprehensive. A Singular Conscience: In Re Summers drew on interviews of Clyde Summers before he died about the events surrounding a United States Supreme Court decision in 1946 that upheld the denial of his admission to practice law in Illinois because he had taken conscientious objector status.
She is also at work on several monographs and several articles for the 150 year celebration of the enactment of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. One entitled, The Master Narrative of 19th Century Law, explores how master-servant law resisted change in the 19th century to continue to be relevant in modern employment relations. Another, Taliaferro's Law, explores an Indian Agent's role in attempting to bring western norms to the warring Dakota and Ojibwa nations in wilderness Minnesota. A third, Slaves in the Land of Lincoln, explores the long overlooked contradiction of slave-holding in free states in the settlement process.