Author ORCID Identifier

Philip Girard: 0000-0001-9720-9545

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Source Publication

Gould, Eliga H., et al. The Cambridge History of America and the World. Volume I, 1500-1820. Edited by Eliga H. Gould et al., Cambridge University Press, 2021.


When we think about law and empire, it is most accurate, if inelegant, to pluralize everything: empires, colonies, peoples, cultures, sources of law. The transnational turn has dramatic implications for the history of law in the Americas. Most obviously, especially for the period from 1500 to 1812, scholars have become increasingly sensitive to the role of European empires – including the British, French, and Spanish – in shaping America’s legal cultures. Groups of colonists from across Europe brought a multiplicity of understandings of law and social order with them, encountering Indigenous nations with their own rich legal traditions. Colonists used law to justify their wars, govern their settlements, and express their politics. They also used law to forge relationships with the polities around them, including Indigenous nations and rival colonies. During this period of legal superabundance, the questions of whose law, and what law, applied in colonial jurisdictions were always live, and often impossible to answer with certainty. Law changed as it traveled across oceans, plains, and mountains, incorporating local traditions here and obliterating them there, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident.

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