William Davenport Mercer

Senior Lecturer

William Davenport Mercer

Areas of Expertise

Constitutional and Legal History, Law and the Humanities, Public Interest Law


PhD (History), 2011, University of Florida
MA (History), 2007, University of Florida

JD, 1997, Stetson University

BA, 1994, Mercer University


Mercer focuses on the legal history of the early American republic as well as the nineteenth century more generally. His 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 nation to the brink of disunion, Mercer argues that it also helped hasten the reconceptualization of rights, from a multi-sourced concept toward our modern view of rights as granted by written documents.

Mercer’s research is also focused on using sources and methodologies more often found in the humanities, considering law not as a question of doctrine, but as a social and cultural artifact. As such, he stresses the importance of incorporating non-legal sources into his research. To that end, his 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.

Mercer holds a joint appointment between the College of Law and the History Department. At the law school, he offers seminars on legal and constitutional history as well as serves with the clinical faculty in the Prosecution and Defense Criminal Law Externship courses. He is also responsible for the introductory law classes for students pursuing the 3+3 accelerated BA/JD program.

Before coming to the University of Tennessee, Mercer practiced law for 14 years, beginning in commercial litigation and spending the remainder in legal aid practicing public interest law exclusively.