An Empire of Laws
Legal Pluralism in British Colonial Policy
Imprint: Yale University Press
For many years, Britain tried to impose its own laws on the peoples it conquered, and English common law usually followed the Union Jack. But the common law became less common after Britain emerged from the Seven Years’ War (1754–63) as the world’s most powerful empire. At that point, imperial policymakers adopted a strategy of legal pluralism: some colonies remained under English law, while others, including parts of India and former French territories in North America, retained much of their previous legal regimes.
As legal historian Christian R. Burset argues, determining how much English law a colony received depended on what kind of colony Britain wanted to create. Policymakers thought English law could turn any territory into an anglicized, commercial colony; legal pluralism, in contrast, would ensure a colony’s economic and political subordination. Britain’s turn to legal pluralism thus reflected the victory of a new vision of empire—authoritarian, extractive, and tolerant—over more assimilationist and egalitarian alternatives. Among other implications, this helps explain American colonists’ reverence for the common law: it expressed and preserved their equal status in the empire. This book, the first empire-wide overview of law as an instrument of policy in the eighteenth-century British Empire, offers an imaginative rethinking of the relationship between tolerance and empire.
“Exploring the challenges posed by British acquisitions in Quebec and India, Christian Burset’s work offers a fascinating and pathbreaking account of the origins of legal pluralism in the British Empire.”—Michael Lobban, author of Imperial Incarceration
“An Empire of Laws is a must-read. Legal pluralism in the British Empire was not a given, but a choice—one that has profoundly shaped theories of law’s role in economic development.”—Amalia D. Kessler, author of Inventing American Exceptionalism: The Origins of American Adversarial Legal Culture, 1800–1877