Why Didn't the Common Law Follow the Flag?

60 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2018 Last revised: 31 May 2019

Date Written: May 2019


This Article considers a puzzle about how different kinds of law came to be distributed around the world. The legal systems of some European colonies largely reflected the laws of the colonizer. Other colonies exhibited a greater degree of legal pluralism, in which the state administered a mix of different legal systems. Conventional explanations for this variation look to the extent of European settlement: where colonizers settled in large numbers, they chose to bring their own laws; otherwise, they preferred to retain preexisting ones. This Article challenges that assumption by offering a new account of how and why the British Empire selectively transplanted English law to the colonies it acquired during the eighteenth century. The extent to which each colony received English law depended on a political decision about what kind of colony policymakers wanted to create. Eighteenth-century observers agreed that English law could turn any territory into an anglicized, commercial colony on the model of Britain's North American settlements. Preserving preexisting laws, in contrast, would produce colonial economies that enriched the empire as a whole but kept local subjects poor and politically disadvantaged. By controlling how much English law each colony received, British officials hoped to shape its economic, political, and cultural trajectory. This historical account revises not only our understanding of how the common law spread but also prevailing ideas about law's place in development policy today.

Keywords: Legal history, legal pluralism, law and development, religious toleration, British Empire, comparative law, eighteenth century

Suggested Citation

Burset, Christian, Why Didn't the Common Law Follow the Flag? (May 2019). 105 Va. L. Rev. 483 (2019), Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 1853, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3140905

Christian Burset (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

Eck Hall of Law
Notre Dame, IN 46556-4639
United States

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