NACBS remembers our dear friend and colleague, David Lieberman. David died tragically during a hiking trip in September 2022. He will be deeply missed as a witty, kind colleague and a generous, inspiring mentor. As a historian of eighteenth-century British legal culture, David dedicated himself not only to rigorous, impeccable scholarship in the field, but also to his students, colleagues, friends, family, and the Berkeley community. David was 69 at the time of his passing and had retired only two months earlier from a long, successful career at UC Berkeley Law School.
David Lieberman was born on May 21, 1953 in Canton, Ohio and grew up in Rockville Centre, New York the youngest of three children. His parents, George and Sylvia Lieberman, took the family to England where his father, a rabbi and scholar of comparative religions, had a sabbatical. David attended Saint Paul’s School in London and later read history at St Catherine’s College at Cambridge, where he made many life-long friends. There he worked with John Brewer and Quentin Skinner and graduated in 1974 with first-class honors. After a short stint back in the US, David returned to England and University College London where he discovered what would become his life-long intellectual interest in the life and work of Jeremy Bentham. Returning to Cambridge in 1978, David earned his MA and stayed on as a research fellow at St. Catherine’s College. He earned his PhD with J. H. Burns, the editor of the Bentham Papers, from London University in 1980. He then became a fellow and Director of History at Christ’s College, Cambridge.
David spent most of his professional life at Berkeley’s Law School where he became affiliated with the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program. He served in several important roles at the law school including his appointments as the James W. and Isabel Coffroth Professor of Jurisprudence, Associate Dean, and Chair of the Undergraduate Legal Studies Program. A stalwart presence in the legal studies community, he remained committed to British Studies and taught classes for the Berkeley History Department on eighteenth-century Britain. He became a leading authority on Bentham and published numerous books and articles on eighteenth-century legal theory. David’s gifts as an erudite intellectual, sparkling speaker, charming raconteur, and, most of all, a superb colleague, won him numerous invitations around the world as a visiting scholar at Princeton, the University of New South Wales, Zehngzhou University, Yonsei University, Tel Aviv University, Stanford, and the University of Chicago.
David was never too busy or too important to serve on committees small and large, read colleagues’ work, or attend his students’ conference panels. His commitment to others manifested itself in an astonishing array of professional activities and public service including—just to highlight a few—helping to revive UC Berkeley’s Jewish Studies Program, volunteering at the Homeless Meal Program at Temple Beth El in Berkeley, and serving as a commissioner on the California State Bar’s Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission. David also served as past President of the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies and played a central role in bringing younger scholars into leadership roles in the organization. He often gave papers at PCCBS and NACBS and cheerfully served the organizations whenever asked.
After an arduous recovery from a near-fatal bicycle accident in 2016, David started again regularly attending and participating in PCCBS and NACBS with the enthusiasm and brilliant humor we had always known. He always made time for former students, never failing to remember the names of spouses, children, and pets. Meeting David for a meal or a coffee often felt like no time had passed since we had last met. He was as generous with his time and intellectual support as he was with his kind words. He was light-hearted, very funny, at turns sarcastic and silly, impishly but gently teasing, willing to poke fun at himself, but above all else empathetic and deeply engaged. Things felt possible after spending some time with David. Maybe it was his unmistakable laugh or the discerning nods usually followed by a reassuring smile. Whatever it was, David was always good company and a joy to know.
Since David’s death, there has been, unsurprisingly, an outpouring of remembrances written by friends and colleagues, parents of his undergraduate students, neighbors, old classmates from Britain, former students across the globe, in short, a world of people who share in their admiration and love for a truly extraordinary person. Despite—or maybe because of all of this—it still seems as if David is still with us. We may not be able to join him for coffee or dinner but we can cherish our recollections of his generous spirit, hilarious stories, brilliant intellectual insights, and infectious, but inimitable giggle. He gave us so much, so often, and this when he also gave so generously to all his students, colleagues, friends, and family, especially his beloved wife Carol, daughter Hannah, and sons George and Aaron.
Even when confronted by life-changing health obstacles, David remained committed to the profession and to the hard work of illuminating Bentham’s jurisprudence in what will have been his final book manuscript. NACBS joins his numerous other friends and colleagues in paying tribute to David’s life and legacy and commemorates his many contributions to the British Studies community.
The PCCBS has set up a prize to honor David’s memory and his commitment to the study of law, society, and culture. The inaugural David Lieberman Presidential Doctoral Student Fellowship was announced at PCCBS in Riverside, CA in March 2023. It was awarded to Eva Vaillancourt from UC Berkeley, one of David’s doctoral advisees, to support her dissertation work on the imperial history of traffic laws. If you would like to contribute to the endowment of this fellowship, please email Erika Rappaport, the current PCCBS president, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Lisa Cody, the current treasurer, at email@example.com.
Lisa Cody and Michelle Tusan
Lisa Cody took David’s 18th-century Britain class. When she returned from dissertation research she immediately added him to her dissertation committee and sat in on numerous of his classes for the remainder of her time at Berkeley. Michelle Tusan also took David’s 18th century Britain class as a grad student at Berkeley and later served with him on the PCCBS executive.