English Law & the Spread of Civilization

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In Winston Churchill's famous 1943 speech at Harvard University on the common ties of the English-speaking peoples, he defined the bond in terms of three main things: law, language, and literature. Indeed, when he elaborated on what he meant, he spoke mainly of concepts derived from and guaranteed by English law:

    Law, language, literature--these are considerable
   factors. Common conceptions of what is fight and
   decent, a marked regard for fair play, especially to
   the weak and poor, a stem sentiment of impartial
   justice, and above all a love of personal freedom ...
   these are the common conceptions on both sides
   of the ocean among the English-speaking peoples. 

Moreover, these legally derived cultural values were not only appreciated by those people of direct British descent: They were transportable to other countries.

As a man with direct personal experience of imperial role in the first half of the twentieth century, Churchill knew such values could even have a major influence on countries with radically different cultural traditions. In the days of the British Empire, the best means of establishing a successful and lasting imperial regime was to give it English law. Colonies, dependencies, and protectorates, whether established by settlers, by military conquest, or by international treaty, quickly felt the benefits. British imperial rule in many parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas was not representative or democratic, but it was nonetheless orderly, largely benign, and usually fair. Thanks to English law, most British colonial officials delivered good government.

This is not an argument you will readily find in the works written by academic historians in the past fifty years. Hardly any of them, from either the left or the right, isolate the issue of law as something that deserves priority in accounts of the British Empire. Over the past decade, imperial history has seen a revisionist movement emerge among conservative and classically liberal historians. Most of their work has been in the field of economic history, most of it written in response to the radical claims of the decolonization movements of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Historians such as P. J. Cain, A. G. Hopkins, Niall Ferguson, and several authors who contributed to the Oxford History of the British Empire have demonstrated that, instead of British imperialism generating colonial exploitation and underdevelopment (as the decolonizers and the nationalists alleged) the opposite was true. Britain brought its homegrown, modern systems of finance, transportation, and manufacturing to much of the undeveloped world. Far from a form of plunder that depleted the economies that came under its influence, British imperialism brought many of the institutions of modernization to its territories.

The emphasis on the economic achievements of the empire has also had a strong influence on historians who are otherwise more interested in the politics and culture of the English people; this is especially true of Andrew Roberts. In his great work The History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, Roberts nominates Lord Cromer, the proconsul of Egypt from 1883 to 1907, as Britain's greatest imperial administrator because he gave the Egyptians progressive projects in the fields of irrigation, taxation, and fiscal practices, and also because he developed a system of acute military intelligence to keep at bay the "political regeneration of Mohammedism." These were all major achievements, of course, but I would have liked Roberts to have also examined those qualifies to which his hero Churchill gave priority: law, language, and literature.

Until recently, a focus on the domestic and the global influence of English law has been confined largely to people writing for the legal profession. Only in the United States, because of long-standing debates about its influence on the birth of the nation, has there been a vibrant tradition of legal history that has informed both political history and the nation's sense of self. …