Law in early America came from many sources. To focus exclusively on the English common law excludes other vital sources including (but not limited to) civil law, canon law, lex mercatoria (the law merchant), and custom. Also, the number of sources increases the farther back in time one goes and the greater the geographic area under consideration.
By the 18th century, common law had come to dominate, but not snuff out, other competing legal traditions, in part due to the numerical, political, military, and linguistic advantages of its users. English colonists were well-acquainted with the common law, but after arriving in the New World, the process of adaptation to new experiences and new surroundings meant that English common law would undergo numerous alterations.
Colonists in early America had to create legal explanations for the dispossession of Native American land and the appropriation of labor by enslaved Native Americans and Africans. Their colonial charters provided that all colonial law must conform to English law, but deviations began to appear in several areas almost from the first moment of colonization. When controversies arose within the colonies, not all disagreements were settled in courts: churches and merchants provided alternative settings to arbitrate disputes. In part, other groups provided mediation because there were so few trained lawyers and judges available in 17th-century colonies. By the 18th century, however, the number of trained practitioners increased, and the sophistication of legal knowledge in the colonies grew. The majority of legal work handled by colonial lawyers concerned contracts and property.
Law and the language of rights became more widely used by early Americans as the English attempted to tighten their control over the colonists in the mid-18th century. Rights and law became firmly linked with the Revolution in the minds of Americans, so much so that law, rights, and the American Revolution continue to form an integral part of American national identity.
The military history of the American Revolution is more than the history of the War of Independence. The Revolution itself had important military causes. The experience of the Seven Years’ War (which started in 1754 in North America) conditioned British attitudes to the colonies after that conflict was over. From 1764, the British Parliament tried to raise taxes in America to pay for a new permanent military garrison. British politicians resisted colonial objections to parliamentary taxation at least partly because they feared that if the Americans established their right not to be taxed by Westminster, Parliament’s right to regulate colonial overseas trade would then be challenged. If the Americans broke out of the system of trade regulation, British ministers, MPs, and peers worried, then the Royal Navy would be seriously weakened.
The War of Independence, which began in 1775, was not the great American triumph that most accounts suggest. The British army faced a difficult task in suppressing a rebellion three thousand miles from Britain itself. French intervention on the American side in 1778 (followed by the Spanish in 1779, and the Dutch in 1780) made the task still more difficult. In the end, the war in America was won by the French as much as by the Americans. But in the wider imperial conflict, affecting the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, West Africa, and South Asia, the British fared much better. Even in its American dimension, the outcome was less clear cut than we usually imagine. The British, the nominal losers, retained great influence in the independent United States, which in economic terms remained in an essentially dependent relationship with the former mother country.
The American Revolution was an episode in a transatlantic outcry against the corruption of the British balance of power and liberty institutionalized in the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689. English speakers during the 18th century reflected on this constitutional crisis within a larger conversation about the problem of human governance. Although many people excluded from Parliament supported political reform, if not revolution, they also sought remedies for the perversion of political power and influence in new forms of social power and influence. This article looks at the convergence of political and social discussions in a common discourse about the nature of power and the ways in which human beings influenced each other. The first section outlines the meanings of power and influence in British politics. The second section uses the novelist Sarah Fielding’s Remarks on Clarissa (1759) to delineate revolutionary notions about social power and influence. The third section turns to the speeches and writings of Edmund Burke in the run-up to the American Revolution to look at how English speakers deployed notions of social power to advocate for political reform.
Lindsay M. Chervinsky
From 1775 to 1815, empire served as the most pressing foreign relationship problem for the United States. Would the new nation successfully break free from the British Empire? What would an American empire look like? How would it be treated by other empires? And could Americans hold their own against European superpowers? These questions dominated the United States’ first few decades of existence and shaped its interactions with American Indian, Haitian, Spanish, British, and French peoples. The US government—first the Continental Congress, then the Confederation Congress, and finally the federal administration under the new Constitution—grappled with five key issues. First, they sought international recognition of their independence and negotiated trade deals during the Revolutionary War to support the war effort. Second, they obtained access to the Mississippi River and Port of New Orleans from Spain and France to facilitate trade and western settlement. Third, they grappled with ongoing conflict with Indian nations over white settlement on Indian lands and demands from white communities for border security. Fourth, they defined and protected American neutrality, negotiated a trade policy that required European recognition of American independence, and denied recognition to Haiti. Lastly, they fought a quasi-war with France and real war with Great Britain in 1812.
Kelly A. Ryan
Patriarchy profoundly affected social relations and the daily lives of individuals in early America by supporting the elaboration of both racial differences and sexual hierarchies. Patriarchal ideals held that men should supervise women and that economic, sexual, legal, and political power rested with men. Laws and religious practices demanded women’s subordination to men, and governmental and extralegal controls on women’s sexual and familial lives buttressed patriarchal ideals and practices by enforcing their dependence on white men.
Women played a variety of roles within households, which differed according to region, race, generation, and condition of servitude. Marriage was central to the delineation of white women’s roles, and slavery was critical to developing ideas and laws affecting African American women’s place in society. Interactions with Europeans brought patriarchal influences into native women’s lives. Indian servitude and slavery, European missionary efforts, and cross-cultural diplomacy resulted in the transmission of patriarchal practices that undermined Indian women’s access to political, sexual, economic, and religious power
Women gained esteem for fulfilling their duties within the household and community, while others resisted patriarchal customs and forged their own paths. Some women served as agents of patriarchy and used their status or positions to oppress other women. White women often held power over others in their households, including servants and slaves, and in the early republic some of the public sphere activities of middle-class white women targeted the homes of Native Americans, African Americans, and poor women for uplift. Other women resisted subordination and found autonomy by pursuing their own goals. Sexuality was a critical arena in which women could breech dictates on behavior and advance their own agenda, though not always without consequences. Women in urban communities found greater economic opportunities, and some religious communities, like the Society of Friends, allowed women a larger role in decision making and religious speech. Though patriarchal structures would change over time, the idea of men as the leaders of the household and society was remarkably resilient through the 19th century.