Christian R. Burset: An Empire of Laws – Legal Pluralism in British Colonial Policy

British empire in America

An Empire of Laws: Legal Pluralism in British Colonial Policy

By Christian R. Burset


JMC network member Christian Burset has recently released a book on British colonial policy, An Empire of Laws: Legal Pluralism in British Colonial Policy:

A compelling reexamination of how Britain used law to shape its empire

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

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Christian R. Burset is Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School. He is a legal historian whose research focuses on the British Empire and the early United States. Burset’s other projects have examined the interaction between law and economic change, the historical relationship between jurisprudence and party politics, the history of arbitration and specialized courts, and the nature of legal authority in the common-law tradition. Before coming to Notre Dame in 2018, Burset was a Golieb Fellow in Legal History at New York University School of Law and a clerk to the Hon. José A. Cabranes of the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School; a Ph.D. in history, also from Yale; and an A.B. in history, with highest honors, from Princeton University.

Professor Burset is a member of the JMC network of scholars.

Learn more about Christian R. Burset >>



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