Law 798:  Legal Cultures of Early America

This seminar will explore the social and intellectual history of American law in the colonial period. While we will pay some attention to the development of legal rules and institutions, we will concentrate on legal culture – on that configuration of values and habits of mind that shaped the operation of the legal system and informed how colonists understood the law’s purposes and meanings. In so doing, the course will stress the multiple roles of law: as a way of resolving disputes, distributing resources, channeling politics and social development, shaping personal identities, and creating authoritative categories of knowledge. The seminar is organized into five main parts. The first section examines the legal foundations and justifications of English colonization in North America. The second charts how colonization produced divergent regional legal cultures in the seventeenth century Chesapeake and in Puritan New England. The third looks at the regulation of slavery and of gender relations. The fourth returns to the problem of seventeenth-century legal culture, exploring not regional variation, but the important and distinctive characteristics of that legal culture evident throughout the American colonies, characteristics that lent it a flavor or style. Finally, the fifth section asks how and why the legal culture of the eighteenth century displaced that of the seventeenth. Stronger imperial oversight, the growing importance of trained lawyers, and the expansion of population and commerce are all considered as causes of this transformation. The seminar ends by looking briefly at the Spanish empire, asking how comparison to another New World imperial legal system helps us identify what is distinctive in British America.

Sequence and Prerequisites: None

Evaluation: Paper

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