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This essay traces colonial American institutional development between 1570 and the 1720s. An American manner of government characterized by dual authority and supervised, constitutionally limited lawmaking produced the Revolution and the commitment to federalism. The essay synthesizes nearly a century of scholarship on imperial and colonial institutional history. Focusing on practices of governance, the essay explains the delegation of authority under charters and patents, historical development of colonial government, and significance of the corporation or corporate colony, proprietary colony, and royal colony. The essay rejects the executive-legislative-judicial (separation of powers) model for colonial governance. Instead, the essay discusses governance by the Governor and Council, Assembly, and Privy Council. Turning to the culture of law in the settlements, the essay explores colonial courts (emphasizing the courts as a branch of executive or legislative authority), legal practitioners (exploring early legal education and attorney and lawyer regulation), and colonial law (tracing the debates over the relationship of English law to colonial law and the repugnancy principle, as well as surveying early American legal publishing). An extensive bibliographic essay explaining and surveying relevant primary sources and secondary works accompanies the essay at pp. 602-614. The essay provides a useful summary for scholars interested in colonial constitutionalism, colonial settler studies, imperial governance, the history of federalism and judicial review, or for those readers wishing an overview of American colonial government.


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8 Sep 2022
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  • Subject
    • Legal History

  • Journal title
    • The Cambridge History of Law in America Volume 1: Early America (1580–1815), Cambridge University Press

  • Pagination
    • 63-103

  • Date submitted

    8 September 2022

  • Additional information
    • Published in The Cambridge History of Law in America Volume 1: Early America (1580–1815), Cambridge University Press, Copyright Cambridge University Press 2008.