Legal Communications and Imperial Governance: British North America and Spanish America Compared
Richard J. Ross
University of Illinois College of Law; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - Department of History
October 31, 2010
CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF LAW IN AMERICA, Vol. 1, EARLY AMERICA (1580-1815), Christopher L. Tomlins and Michael Grossberg, eds., pp. 104-143, Cambridge University Press, 2008
Illinois Public Law Research Paper No. 08-10
This essay asks how the practices and assumptions of legal communications in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anglo-American world affected governance of the British North American colonies. Historians have long argued that the strengthening of English imperial oversight of the colonies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries required the cultivation of an assortment of legal communications techniques. Yet the empire's communications practices had a double nature. While they facilitated greater imperial oversight, they also inadvertently shielded a significant measure of local control and diversity in the colonial legal systems. To pursue this claim, I will contrast legal communications in the English and Spanish colonial empires. Comparison with Spanish America reveals basic presuppositions of the English system. It also suggests several particularities, orientations, and limitations that made Anglo-American legal communications an unreliable and inconsistent agent of imperial centralization. Exploring the double nature of these communications practices in a comparative context is the central ambition of my essay.
My article challenges the weak geographical determinism implicit in many studies of New World imperialism. This perspective assumes that the great distance between England, France, Spain, and Portugal and their American colonies gave settlers and officials in the colonies a degree of autonomy and initiative not enjoyed by subjects and magistrates back home. Imperial administrators, confronted by the Atlantic, could exert only an inefficient and episodic supervision of New World colonies. I try to show, by contrast, that while England and Spain both confronted the problem of distance, they addressed the problem in different ways. Distance provides (by itself) a weak explanation for the various systems of legal communications that the European empires created to span the Atlantic and facilitate imperial governance. These systems arose in empires with different assumptions about the purpose of colonies and the nature of proper government, with dissimilar legal cultures and metropolitan administrative institutions, and with disparate colonial populations, resources, trade patterns, and educational and religious establishments. In all cases, communication across the Atlantic linked metropoles to colonial groups with their own interests and normative assumptions. Colonists maintained their own highly variable local legal communications that magnified, suppressed, and reinterpreted commands and messages from the metropolis.
The article contributes not only to the comparative study of New World imperialism, but to early American political history. Scholars have long observed that the large degree of local control of legal institutions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries decisively influenced the shape of colonial politics and the nature of the Revolutionary movement. The essay uses comparative history to explore how local notables in British North America exercised substantial control over the means of communication as well as the means of administration. Local notables embedded in social networks influenced which audiences would know what about imperial directives and about the legal heritage that supposedly united colonies and metropolis. They shaped the meaning of the shared heritage and of imperial directives in the process of disseminating them. Understanding the dynamics of Anglo-American legal communications helps explain the persistence of a significant measure of local control and diversity in the eighteenth-century colonial legal systems, a factor important in the course and aftermath of the Revolution.
Keywords: legal history, early america, colonial america, american revolution, spanish america, comparative, communications
Date posted: June 16, 2008 ; Last revised: December 2, 2010
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