Departing from traditional approaches to colonial legal history, Mary Sarah Bilder argues that American law and legal culture developed within the framework of an evolving, unwritten transatlantic constitution that lawyers, legislators, and litigants on both sides of the Atlantic understood. The central tenet of this constitution—that colonial laws and customs could not be repugnant to the laws of England but could diverge for local circumstances—shaped the legal development of the colonial world.
Focusing on practices rather than doctrines, Bilder describes how the pragmatic and flexible conversation about this constitution shaped colonial law: the development of the legal profession; the place of English law in the colonies; the existence of equity courts and legislative equitable relief; property rights for women and inheritance laws; commercial law and currency reform; and laws governing religious establishment. Using as a case study the corporate colony of Rhode Island, which had the largest number of appeals of any mainland colony to the English Privy Council, she reconstructs a largely unknown world of pre-Constitutional legal culture.
This study of the British imperial constitution, based upon extensive research in English and American archives, is one of the more significant recent pieces of scholarship in this area… Mary Sarah Bilder has come to some new conclusions that make this short volume essential reading for all students of early America.
Bilder is one of those energetically prudent scholars who appear in full control of their considerable enthusiasms. She never exaggerates her cases. She welcomes other investigations, but she rightly understands that the micro-level of investigation that we find here represents the work that is now needed in legal history, and she does not shy away from the extensions that are possible from it. There is, in fact, considerable grace in Bilder’s ability to supply the details without losing her reader in them.
In The Transatlantic Constitution: Colonial Legal Culture and the Empire, Mary Sarah Bilder finds evidence for a transatlantic constitutional culture that influenced everything from the intellectual formation of colonial lawyers and judges, to the course of appeals of inheritance cases, to the beginnings of judicial review in the early Republic… The argument is lucidly presented and clearly compelling… The clarity of Bilder’s argument will make the book, and the tradition of legal constitutional history of empire from which it emanates, compelling to scholars outside the field of American legal history.
Mary Sarah Bilder’s The Transatlantic Constitution is an excellent example of the wealth of fresh insights that a focus on constitutionalism still has to offer… Bilder’s argument is so compelling, and her delineation of transatlantic legal culture so revealing, that historians will undoubtedly feel the need to test her results elsewhere. Atlantic history will be all the richer for it.
Bilder describes an emerging Colonial legal profession and clearly explains the function of the local and imperial legal systems. Largely a legal history of case law that determined if Colonial divergence was indeed not repugnant, the book is rich in social history as well, with the evolving status of women and institutional religion providing much of the legal grist.
The Transatlantic Constitution makes a major impact on the way we see the legacy of the colonial period and the later federal relationship that continues to affect us today. Mary Sarah Bilder presents an intensive examination of the structure and functioning of the legal relationship across the Atlantic, between the people of a colony and the legal metropolis in London. This exhaustively researched and deeply informed book recasts the way we think about how the ‘transatlantic relationship’ affected law and authority.
Mary Sarah Bilder has taken an old and long-unfashionable topic and successfully given it new interest, perspective, and importance. She is the first historian to explore the relationship between colonial legal culture and sources of constitutional authority within the British empire, and she does so with a fine appreciation for the negotiated, pragmatic, and changing nature of the relationship. This book is a major contribution to colonial American legal, constitutional, and imperial history and sets the standard for future study of the transatlantic constitution.
- 2005, Winner of the Littleton-Griswold Prize
- 308 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
Sorry, there was an error adding the item to your shopping bag.
Sorry, your session has expired. Please refresh your browser's tab.