The Many Legalities of Early America

The Many Legalities of Early America

The Many Legalities of Early America

The Many Legalities of Early America


This collection of seventeen original essays reshapes the field of early American legal history not by focusing simply on law, or even on the relationship between law and society, but by using the concept of "legality" to explore the myriad ways in which the people of early America ordered their relationships with one another, whether as individuals, groups, classes, communities, or states.

Addressing issues of gender, ethnicity, family, patriarchy, culture, and dependence, contributors explore the transatlantic context of early American law, the negotiation between European and indigenous legal cultures, the multiple social contexts of the rule of law, and the transformation of many legalities into an increasingly uniform legal culture. Taken together, these essays reveal the extraordinary diversity and complexity of the roots of early America's legal culture.

Contributors are Mary Sarah Bilder, Holly Brewer, James F. Brooks, Richard Lyman Bushman, Christine Daniels, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, David Barry Gaspar, Katherine Hermes, John G. Kolp, David Thomas Konig, James Muldoon, William M. Offutt Jr., Ann Marie Plane, A. G. Roeber, Terri L. Snyder, and Linda L. Sturtz.


Christopher Tomlins

The Many Legalities of Colonization
A Manifesto of Destiny for Early American Legal History

Laws in their most general significance are the necessary
relations arising from the nature of things.


Whether this is Jerusalem or Babylon We know not.

William blake

When the Institute of Early American History and Culture asked me to consider how one might frame a conference to assess the state of early American legal history, it happened that I was in the grip of an extraordinary book, Remembering Babylon, by my compatriot David Malouf. Remembering Babylon is an account, nominally fictional, actually mythopoeic, of Europeans’ colonization and settlement of a remote land. But in particular it is about the epistemology of colonial encounter—about meetings with landscapes, vegetation, animals, climate, and people all unutterably different from anything the settlers had before experienced, about settlers’ capacities to comprehend their situation under circumstances so challenging to the conceptual categories, the imaginative and linguistic resources, the very means to construct knowledge, that their memories furnished them. It is about how strangers in new lands are imaginatively distant from their new surroundings, handicapped in their abilities to see or hear or feel what is in fact immediately present all around them. It is about how encounter confounds memory itself, how new unfamiliarities may play havoc with brought sensibilities by

My thanks to John Murrin, whose comments at the Williamsburg conference gave me the
title for this essay; to Jack Greene and Jack Pole for stimulating remarks on the same
occasion; to my coeditor, Bruce H. Mann, my colleagues, Bryant Garth and John Co
maroff, and James Horn, all of whom offered helpful advice; and to the Institute’s referees
for their reactions. It is appropriate to state that the arguments advanced are the conclu
sions of the author alone.

An earlier version of this essay has been published as American Bar Foundation Working
, no. 9723 (Chicago, 1998), under the title “Colonization and the Subject: a Man
ifesto of Destiny for Early American Legal History.”

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