Distinguished Professor of History
James Epstein is a historian of modern Britain, specializing in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century political culture. He is author of The Lion of Freedom: Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist Movement (Croom Helm Ltd, 1982), which re-evaluates the national character of the Chartist movement and its main leader. He is co-editor, with Dorothy Thompson, of The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working Class Radicalism and Culture, 1830-1860 (Macmillan, 1982), which is a collection of essays emphasizing the cultural and lived experience of those involved in what was the largest and most sustained movement for democratic rights in Britain during the first half of the nineteenth century. Professor Epstein has also authored Radical Expression: Political Language, Ritual, and Symbol in England, 1790-1850 (Oxford University Press, 1994), which explores the ways in which plebeian radicals gave expression to their political beliefs. Radical Expression won the British Council Prize in the Humanities for the best book in British studies, 1800 to the present, published in either 1993 or 1994. Professor Epstein’s article "Understanding the Cap of Liberty: Symbolic Practice and Social Conflict in Early Nineteenth-Century England,” published in Past and Present (1989), was awarded the Walter D. Love Prize by the North American Conference on British studies. More recently, Professor Epstein is author of In Practice: Studies in the Language and Culture of Popular Politics in Modern Britain (Stanford University Press, 2003). In Practice offers a series of responses to the changing terrain of historical studies, sustaining an argument about the terms governing the production of political meaning, and about how these terms can be negotiated without collapsing the “logic of practice” into the logic of language itself. His new book, Scandal of Colonial Rule: Power and Subversion in the British Atlantic during the Age of Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2012), opens in 1806 with the trial of General Thomas Picton, Britain's first governor of Trinidad, for the torture of a free woman of color named Louisa Calderon. The book uses the trial to open up a ranges of issues explored in subsequent chapters, including colonial violence and norms of justice, the status of the British subject, imperial careering, visions of colonial development, slave conspiracy, and the colonial archive. Scandal of Colonial Rule has been awarded the 2013 Stansky Prize, from the North American Conference on British Studies, for the best book in British Studies, post 1800.
Professor Epstein has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, the National Humanities Center, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Huntington Library.
From 2000 to 2005, Professor Epstein co-edited, along with Nicholas Rogers, Journal of British Studies. Over his career at Vanderbilt, Professor Epstein has taught a wide range of undergraduate and graduate courses on the history of modern Britain and Europe. Professor Epstein no longer takes new graduate students who seek him as a dissertation director. However, he does teach graduate courses in the history department, and serves on dissertation committees.