Jefferson Cowie's work in social and political history focuses on how class, inequality, and labor shape American politics and culture. The Nation magazine described him as “one of our most commanding interpreters of recent American experience.” In 2023, he won the Pulitzer Prize for History for his book, Freedom's Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power (Basic, 2022). Cowie holds the James G. Stahlman Chair in the Department of History at Vanderbilt University. He moved there in 2016 after teaching at Cornell University for nineteen years.
His latest book,Freedom's Dominion, tells the dramatic tale of generations of local fights against the federal government that prop up a particular version of American freedom: the freedom to oppress others. Advance praise calls it "magisterial," written with "eloquence and with brilliance," and Cowie's "most extraordinary book yet."
The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics was released in early 2016 and attempts to reinterpret a wide swath of American political history in the twentieth century. The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne Jr. called it “one of the year’s most important political books."
Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, draws together labor, politics, and popular culture into a vibrant narrative about the decline of class in American political culture. It received a number of “best book” awards, including two of the profession’s most prestigious: the 2011 Francis Parkman Prize for the Best Book in American History and the Merle Curti Award for the Best Book in Social and Intellectual History. Critics said, “Stayin’ Alive will long stand as the finest and most sophisticated portrait of politics and culture in the American 1970s, and also as a model for how to talk about both political and cultural transformations without shortchanging either.” Joan Walsh at Salon.com called “one of the best books of 2010,” and scholarly reviews compared it favorably to the work of E.P. Thompson.
Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy Year Quest for Cheap Labor charts the relocation of one firm through four different cities, two countries, and a great deal of social upheaval. It accounts for what made each community attractive for an industrial location and what changed to make the company relocate again. The book received the 2000 Phillip Taft Prize for the Best Book in Labor History, and was hailed by Michael Kazin as “a conceptually rich and deeply humane book [by] a rare historian who illuminates the future by explaining a vital part of the past.”
In addition to his scholarship, Cowie’s essays and opinion pieces have also appeared in the New York Times, TIME magazine, Foreign Affairs, Chronicle of Higher Ed, American Prospect, Politico, Democracy, The New Republic, Inside Higher Ed, Dissent, and other popular outlets. The recipient of several fellowships, including the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, the American Council of Learned Societies and Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Society for the Humanities at Cornell, and the Center for US-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego, he has also appeared in a variety of media outlets including CNN’s The Seventies, C‐Span’s Booknotes, NPR’s Weekend Edition, as well as documentaries, podcasts, and radio broadcasts.
Cowie is a passionate and dedicated educator, garnering a number of teaching awards during his career. From 2008 to 2012, he served as the first House Professor and Dean of William Keeton House on Cornell’s innovative West Campus where he and his family lived with three hundred undergraduates. He serves on the Board of Trustees for Deep Springs College.
Above all, he points to raising his kids as the most important experience of his life. Raised in the Midwest, he was educated at UC Berkeley, UNC Chapel Hill, and, most importantly, while climbing in the mountain ranges of the world.