19 November 2014

ARTICLE: "The Rhetoric and Reality of English Law in Colonial Maryland, Part 1 - 1632-1689", by Jeffrey K. Sawyer

Jeffrey K. Sawyer, University of Baltimore - School of Law, The Rhetoric and Reality of English Law in Colonial Maryland, Part 1 - 1632-1689Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 108, No. 4, Winter 2013, pp. 392-409

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The rule of English law in the English-speaking colonial world is at once obvious and puzzling. Along with language, the law anchored the Englishness of life in colonial America, At the same time, warring states and rival investors used law and diplomacy as weapons in their arsenals of global competition, and so the law of nations provided an unstable and frequently contested framework for exploration and settlement. The governance of struggling Atlantic settlements (especially before 1660) rose, fell, and was reconstructed with the various fortunes of each. In these early settlements there was much law-making, but law was perhaps negotiated as often as it was applied; local officials frequently adjusted English rules to local circumstances. The more historians investigate this world, the harder it is to be sure, exactly, how colonial law worked.

This article examines why a perennial contest over the precise authority of English law was so central to the rule of law in early Maryland. Two new perspectives will help further this inquiry, which has long interested colonial historians generally and historians of Maryland in particular. The first is a heightened appreciation of the fact that early American legal history unfolded in distinct phases. The second is a recognition that the contest over English law in the colonies developed along different but overlapping dimensions, a political or rhetorical dimension and an operational dimension. This latter world of law was the reality of lawsuits, debt collection, inheritance, criminal prosecutions, judgments, and so on.

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