James W. Ely Jr.

Milton R. Underwood Professor of Law Emeritus
Professor of History Emeritus
Lecturer in Law

James Ely is a renowned legal historian and property rights expert whose career accomplishments were recognized with both the Brigham-Kanner Property Rights Prize and the Owner Counsel of American Crystal Eagle Award in 2006. He is the author of several books that have received widespread critical acclaim from legal scholars and historians, including The Guardian of Every Other Right: A Constitutional History of Property Rights, The Fuller Court: Justices, Rulings and Legacy in which he examines the work of the Supreme Court between 1888 and 1910, and Railroads and American Law in which he systematically explores the way that the rise of the railroads shaped American legal culture. He also served as an editor of both the second edition of the Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court, and the second edition of the Oxford Guide to Supreme Court Decisions. Professor Ely received the Tennessee History Book Award in 2002 for A History of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Between 1987 and 1999, he served as an associate editor of the American Journal of Legal History. Since Professor Ely joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1972, he has been frequently recognized by students as one of the law school's outstanding teachers. He is currently working on a book dealing with the history of the contract clause of the Constitution.

Research Interests

Legal history, property law, property rights

Representative Publications

  • The Law of Easements and Licenses in Land, Thomson Reuters/West (revised edition March 2016) (with Jon W. Bruce)
  • "The Constitution and Economic Liberty," 35 Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 27 (2012)
  • “The Progressive Era Assault on Individualism and Property Rights,” Symposium on Natural Rights, Individualism and Progressivism in American Political and Legal Philosophy, Liberty Fund, Perrysburg, Ohio, May 11-14, 2011
  • "Whatever Happened to the Contract Clause?" 4 Charleston Law Review 371 (2010)
  • “Is Private Property Necessary for Liberty?,” Constitution Day Lecture, Rhodes College, September 19, 2011
  • “Property Rights and the Supreme Court in the Gilded Age,” Supreme Court Historical Society, Washington, D.C., May 2, 2012
  • The Guardian of Every Other Right: A Constitutional History of Property Rights, Oxford University Press (3rd ed. 2008, 2nd ed. 1998, 1st ed. 1992)
  • "Rufus W. Peckham and Economic Liberty"
  • Panelist, “Post-Kelo Reforms,” Federalist Society Faculty Conference, New York, January 4, 2008
  • Commentator, “Taking Property Rights Seriously?”, Conference on The United States Supreme Court: Contested Constitutional Doctrines, Michigan State University, March 27-29, 2008

Contact Information

(615) 322-2615 (voice)
(615) 322-6631 (fax)

Curriculum Vitae



Ph.D. and M.A. (History) University of Virginia
L.L.B. Harvard University
A.B. Princeton University