Legal communications and imperial governance: British North America and Spanish America compared

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Strategies and practices for the communication of law were vital to England’s capacity to govern its North American colonies. A diverse array of mechanisms for exchange of legal information characterized the expanding English empire – Crown instructions to governors, Privy Council review of colonial legislation and appellate cases, petitioning, the stationing of colony agents in London and royal officials in America, the training or immigration of lawyers, the transmission of information through lobbying and interest groups, the discussion of law in congregations and universities, and publication by the linked media of print, manuscript, and speech. Here I use the protean concept of “legal communications” to bundle together several distinguishable practices both to achieve breadth and to demonstrate their interrelationships. In what ways did legal communications in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anglo-American world affect imperial governance? First, the strengthening of English oversight of the colonies after the Restoration required the cultivation of an assortment of legal communications techniques. We are already quite familiar with the general growth and functioning of imperial institutions and trans-Atlantic politics that this entailed. Here, I explore the variety of different roles that legal communications played in tying the empire together administratively and intellectually. This exploration provides the basis for the chapter’s second and more extensive part, which advances the main argument. In that second part, we see that the empire’s communications practices actually had a double nature. Although they facilitated greater imperial oversight, they also inadvertently shielded a significant measure of local control and diversity in the colonial legal systems themselves.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of Law in America
Subtitle of host publicationEarly America (1580-1815)
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages40
ISBN (Electronic)9781139054171
ISBN (Print)9780521803052
StatePublished - Jan 1 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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