Finkelman grew up in Watertown, New York, where he attended public schools. He received his undergraduate degree in American studies from Syracuse University in 1971, and his master's degree and doctorate in American history from the University of Chicago in 1972 and 1976. At Chicago, he was a student of Stanley N. Katz and John Hope Franklin and a contributor to the volume, The Facts of Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of John Hope Franklin, edited by Eric Anderson & Alfred A. Moss, Jr. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, c1991). Finkelman was also a Fellow in Law and Humanities at Harvard Law School, 1982-83.
Reputation and career
Called an "excellent legal historian", even by scholars who disagree with him, Finkelman has served as an expert witness against Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in Glassroth v. Moore (Al. 2002), the "Ten Commandments" case. He was an expert witness for the plaintiff in Popov v. Hayashi (S.F. Sup. Ct. CA, 2002), to determine who owned Barry Bonds's 73rd home run ball. Professor Finkelman has also been part of amicus curie briefs for cases related to Guantanamo Bay detainment camp, gay marriage in New York State, affirmative action, and separation of church and state. In 2013, he was the lead named amici in briefs before the Supreme Court involving affirmative action (Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action) and prayer delivered at public meetings (Galloway v. Town of Greece). His legal scholarship has been cited in three U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Finkelman has also appeared in several historical films, including Ken Burns's documentary on Thomas Jefferson (for which he was invited to the Clinton White House), and a documentary about the Barry Bonds' home run ball, Up for Grabs. He has been an analyst on numerous television and radio programs, including NPR, PBS, CNN, and ESPN. He has served on numerous editorial and advisory boards. He has given over one hundred and fifty papers and lectures in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, Colombia (SA), and China.
He has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the Library of Congress, Yale University, Harvard Law School, and the American Council of Learned Societies. He has been a scholar resident at numerous institutions including Transylvania University, Mississippi State University, the University of Seattle School of Law, and St. Bonaventure University. In 2009, he gave the Nathan A. Hoggins lectures at the W.E.B. DuBois Center at Harvard University and has lectured on behalf of the U.S. State Department in Colombia, Germany, Japan, and China. Since 2001, he has served as a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.
He has published op-eds and blogs in the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Baltimore Sun, the Huffington Post, and the Root.com. In 2012, he published an op-ed on Thomas Jefferson's relationship to slavery entitled "The Monster of Monticello."  He's also published numerous essays on the American Civil War in the Disunion section of The Opinionator blog of the New York Times.
In 2012, Finkelman helped create ModernMedicalWisdom.com, a free medical information website founded by Dr. B. P. Loughridge. Finkelman serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website. From 2003 to 2006, he served as the President of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Memorial Foundation. In 2009, he was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society. Since 2003, he has been a board member of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Abolition, and Resistance at Yale University. He is the editor-in-chief of the book series, Routledge Historical Americans, the co-editor-in-chief of Studies in Southern Legal History at the University of Georgia Press, and the co-editor of Law Politics and Society in the Midwest at Ohio University Press. Since 2001, he has been the scholar/convener of the annual scholarly conference of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.
Finkelman has held many positions teaching law and history including at University of Tulsa College of Law (Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law, 1999–2006), University of Akron School of Law (John F. Seiberling Professor, 1998–99), Cleveland-Marshall College of Law (Baker & Hostetler Visiting Professor, 1997–98), Hamline Law School (Distinguished Visiting Professor, spring 1997), University of Miami (Charlton W. Tebeau Visiting Research Professor, 1996), Chicago-Kent College of Law (fall 1995), Virginia Tech (1992–95), Brooklyn Law School, (1990–92), SUNY Binghamton (1984–1990), University of Texas (1978–84), University of Texas Law School (spring 1982), Washington University (Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow, 1977–78) and University of California, Irvine (1976–77).
He was the recipient of Joseph L. Andrews Award from American Association of Law Libraries in 1986, and in 1995, he was named Historian of the Year by the Virginia Social Science Association.
In April 2007, Finkelman appeared at Harvard Law School for a retrial of the Dred Scott v. Sandford case. He was an expert witness for Sandford. Other expert witnesses included attorney Kenneth Starr. The court was made up of federal justices; serving as Chief Justice was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. His brief in this moot court reargument of Dred Scott was later published in the Lewis & Clark Law Review.
Finkelman spent a portion of the fall 2008 semester at Osaka University in Japan, where he was a visiting research scholar and was twice a fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science resident at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan in 2001 and in 2011-12. Finkelman is the editor of The Political Lincoln: An Encyclopedia (2009), published by CQ Press, and is an advisor to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
In 2012, he was the John Hope Franklin Visiting Professor of American Legal History at Duke Law School. In spring 2014, he was the Justice Pike Hall, Jr. Visiting Professor at the Paul M. Herbert Law Center, Louisiana State University.
Finkelman has published more than 35 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. His interests include slavery, race, civil rights, civil liberties, the United States Constitution and constitutional law, and baseball. Finkelman was listed as one of the ten most-cited legal historians in Brian Leiter's survey of most-cited law professors by specialty from 2000-2007.
Finkelman has also written numerous entries for encyclopedias and reference works. He has had over eighty short book reviews in a wide variety of scholarly journals, numerous essays in newspapers (New York Times, USA Today) and other non-scholarly publications. While at the SUNY Binghamton, Finkelman edited the 18-volume Articles on American Slavery, collecting nearly 400 of the most important articles on slavery in the United States. It was published by Garland Publishing, Inc. in New York and London in 1989.
- "A Brief Narrative of the Cast and Tryal of John Peter Zenger." Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.
- A History of Michigan Law. Co-edited with Martin J. Hershock. Ohio University Press, 2006.
- A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States. With Melvin I. Urofsky. 2 vols. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.
- American Legal History: Cases and Materials". With Kermit L. Hall and James W. Ely, Jr. 4th ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.
- An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity. University of North Carolina Press, 1981. Reprint: Lawbook Exchange, 2001.
- Baseball and the American Legal Mind. With Spencer Waller and Neil Cohen. Garland, 1995.
- Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s". Co-edited with Donald R. Kennon. Ohio University Press, 2012.
- Congress and the Emergence of Sectionalism: From the Missouri Compromise to the Age of Jackson". Co-edited with Donald R. Kennon. Ohio University Press, 2008.
- Constitutional Law in Context. With Michael Kent Curtis, J. Wilson Parker and Davison M. Douglas. 2 vols. 3rd ed., Carolina Academic Press, 2011.
- Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.
- Documents of American Constitutional and Legal History (2 vols.) Co-edited with Melvin Urofsky. 3rd ed.,Oxford Univ. Press, 2008.
- Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History With Documents. Bedford/St. Martin's, 1997.
- The Dred Scott Case: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Race and Law. Co-edited with David Thomas Konig and Christopher Alan Bracey. Ohio University Press, 2010.
- Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass. Editor-in-Chief. 3 vols. Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-First Century. Editor-in-Chief. 5 vols. Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. Co-edited with Cary Wintz. 2 vols. Routledge, 2005.
- Encyclopedia of United States Indian Policy and Law. Co-edited with Tim Alan Garrison. 2 vols. CQ Press, 2009.
- His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid'. Editor. University Press of Virginia, 1995.
- Impeachable Offenses: A Documentary History from 1787 to the Present. Co-authored with Emily Van Tassel. Congressional Quarterly Press, 1998.
- In the Shadow of Freedom: The Politics of Slavery in the National Capital. Co-edited with Donald R. Kennon. Ohio University Press, 2011.
- Justice and Legal Change on the Shores of Lake Erie: A History of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. Co-edited with Roberta Sue Alexander. Ohio University Press, 2012.
- The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference. With Margaret Wagner and Gary W. Gallagher. Simon and Schuster, 2002.
- MacMillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery. Co-edited with Joseph C. Miller. 2 vols. Macmillan, 1998.
- Millard Fillmore. Times Books, 2011.
- The Political Lincoln: An Encyclopedia. Co-edited with Martin J. Hershock. CQ Press, 2009.
- Terrorism, Government, and Law: National Authority and Local Autonomy in the War on Terror. Co-edited with Susan N. Herman. Praeger Security International, 2008.
- Race and the Constitution: From the Philadelphia Convention to the Age of Segregation. American Historical Association, 2010.
- Religion and American Law: An Encyclopedia. Editor. Garland, 2000.
- Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. 3rd ed. M.E. Sharpe, 2014.
- Slavery and the Law. Editor. Madison House, 1997.
- Slavery in the Courtroom. Library of Congress, 1985. Recipient of the 1986 Joseph L. Andrews Award from the American Association of Law Libraries. Reprint: Lawbook Exchange, 1996.
- Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown. Co-edited with Peggy A. Russo. Ohio University Press, 2005.
- "Toward a Usable Past: Liberty Under State Constitutions." Co-editor with Stephen Gottlieb. University of Georgia Press, 1991.
- Bernstein, David E.: "Volokh Conspiracy.", http://www.volokh.com/archives/archive_2006_07_23-2006_07_29.shtml#1153890852
- Brief of Paul Finkelman and 75 Other Historians and Scholars as Amici Curiae in Support of Respondents, http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/supreme_court_preview/briefs-v2/12-682_resp_amcu_pf-etal.authcheckdam.pdf
- Brief of Paul Finkelman, Steven K. Green,Michael I. Meyerson, John A. Ragosta, and 36 Other Legal Historians and Scholars of Religion and American Law as Amici Curiae in Support of Respondents http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/supreme_court_preview/briefs-v2/12-696_resp_amcu_pf-etal.authcheckdam.pdf
- Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. Cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2013).
- It Really Was About a Well Regulated Militia, 59 Syracuse Law Review 267-82 (2008). Cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in McDonald et al. v. City of Chicago (2010).
- The Ten Commandments on the Courthouse Lawn and Elsewhere, 73 Fordham Law Review 1477-1520 (2005). Cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in Van Orden v. Perry (2005).
- New York Times, December 1, 2012, page A25
- Was Dred Scott Correctly Decided? An “Expert Report” For the Defendant, 12 LEWIS & CLARK LAW REVIEW 1219-1252 (2008).