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William Davenport Mercer

Senior Lecturer


I am a historian of early America. My scholarship focuses on the legal history of the early American republic as well as the nineteenth century more generally.

My current book, Diminishing the Bill of Rights: Barron v. Baltimore and the Foundations of American Liberty is the first monograph devoted entirely to this case. In Barron, the Supreme Court in 1833 denied reimbursement to two Baltimore wharf owners who alleged that their property was taken by the city without compensation, ruling that the Fifth Amendment and, indeed, the entire Bill of Rights did not apply to the states.

Though this decision was a shrewd political maneuver given the events that seemed to be pushing the Union to the brink of disunion in the early republic, it also helped hasten the reconceptualization of rights, from a multi-sourced concept toward our modern view of rights as granted by written documents.

My research is focused on incorporating sources and methodologies often used in the humanities. I consider law not as a question of doctrine, but as a social and cultural artifact. As such, a focus on using non-legal sources is critical to understanding historical change. To that end, my current projects include a study of a nineteenth century trial approvingly referred to as the fastest death penalty case in the history of the U.S., as told through a lost Appalachian murder ballad, as well as a project examining the interplay between free speech rights, blue laws, and stand-up comedy.

I hold a joint appointment between the History Department and the UT College of Law. At the History Department, I offer courses on the history of colonial America and the early American republic, a range of legal history topics, and constitutional history, both American and comparative. I also teach classes on public history and advanced writing seminars.

At the law school, I offer seminars on legal and constitutional history as well as serve with the clinical faculty in the Prosecution and Defense Criminal Law Externship courses. I am also responsible for the introductory law courses for students pursuing the 3+3 accelerated BA/JD program through the UT College of Law.

Before coming to the University of Tennessee, I practiced law for fourteen years in Tampa and Gainesville, Florida, first as a commercial litigator and later practicing public interest law exclusively through legal aid.


Ph.D., University of Florida (2011)

M.A., University of Florida (2007)

J.D., Stetson University College of Law (1997)

B.A., Mercer University (1994)

Selected Publications

  • Diminishing the Bill of Rights: Barron v. Baltimore and the Foundations of American Liberty (University of Oklahoma Press, forthcoming March 2017)

  • “At the Intersection of Sovereignty and Contract: Traffic Cameras and the Privatization of Law Enforcement Power,” 43 University of Memphis Law Review 379 (Winter 2012).

Contact Information

  • 915 Volunteer Boulevard
    6th Floor, Dunford Hall
    Knoxville, TN 37996-4065

  • Phone: 865-974-7094
  • E-mail: