American Political Thought Seminar – Tomlins at the Newberry

American Political Thought Seminar – Christopher Tomlins on “Manning, Planning, Keeping: English Colonialization and the Origins of Modern America, 1580-1865”

From the colony at Jamestown to John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill,” the story of America’s founding is one of migrants and migrations, of colonizers and the colonized, of households and servitude and slavery, and of the freedom all craved and some found. It is a story steeped in the promise of opportunity and independence—ideals that have formed the bedrock of American society—but it is also a story of survival and hard work. Labor was critical to the success of colonizing. As the Elizabethan adventurer Captain John Smith writes in his Description of New England, America’s “commodities, pleasures, and conditions” would be won only by “the long labour and diligence of industrious people.” But labor was not the only key factor underpinning the colonies’ development: law also played a crucial role in America’s founding. Law enabled colonists not only to justify their settlement, but also to erect the profoundly important social, political, economic, and legal structures that secured possession.

In Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580-1865, published by Cambridge University Press in 2010, Christopher Tomlins offered a sweeping, groundbreaking history that traced the developing relationships among labor, law, and civic identity from the beginnings of the English presence on the American mainland until the Civil War. The winner of multiple awards, including the Bancroft Prize for American History, Freedom Boundshows how colonies were planted in occupied territories; how they were populated with free and unfree migrants; how these new American commonwealths promised new freedoms; and how many of their inhabitants were barred from enjoying them. Praised as “a magisterial work of stunning originality,” Freedom Bound investigates the entire process of colonization and settlement. Challenging popular perceptions that the legal culture of work was one of generic indentured servitude, Tomlins carefully re-examines categories of free and unfree labor. Stressing that the planting of colonies was an act intended to “keep” the mainland for the English, Tomlins asserts that labor and law were the means of keeping. Together they shaped the entire experience of colonizing, from migration and settlement patterns; to land ownership; to the implementation of governance.

In this lecture Christopher Tomlins revisits the themes of Freedom Bound and reflects on the book’s reception and its lessons. How does Freedom Bound alter how we think not only about American legal and labor history, but also the way we understand the history of America’s origins?

Christopher Tomlins is Professor of Law at Berkeley Law. Trained as an historian at The Johns Hopkins University, he is currently engaged in research on the 1831 Nat Turner Slave Rebellion. Tomlins’ primary affiliation at Berkeley Law is to the Jurisprudence and Social Policy (Ph.D.) program, in which he teaches courses on the history and law of slavery, and on legal history.

The Seminar in American Political Thought is underwritten by the Jack Miller Center.

Cost and registration information:

This program is free and no reservations are required.


For more information, please visit the Newberry Library’s website here.