Creating a Common Law of Slavery for England and its New World Empire

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Brewer, H (732.61 KB)
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Brewer, H. (2021). Creating a Common Law of Slavery for England and its New World Empire. Law and History Review, 39(4), 765-834.


The current historical consensus is that English common law was somewhat confused, but that coerced servitude was legal in England before 1772, and certainly in its empire, where English law on slavery did not reach, because it was “beyond the line” of English justice. The common law is characterized by an effort to see continuity and consistency, and historians (despite our natural desire to track change) often look for those patterns too. Such efforts to provide a consistent overview of an England that was free and colonies that created slavery on their own—have obscured the vibrant struggle over slavery within the English judicial system—the common law—over more than a century. Not only did the common law on slavery change profoundly during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the common law became an instrument of crown policy. It did so within a federal empire, wherein colonial legal norms had to adhere, in crucial ways, to that common law. English high court judges thus provided the legal foundation for an imperial common law of slavery that allowed people to be deemed absolute property. That definition of people as property was closely connected to absolutism, both in theory and practice. In theory the absolute power of kings over subjects was connected to that of masters over slaves. In practice, the crown's use of the courts to create laws without parliamentary consent (to bypass parliament) also increased crown revenue and thus their independence from parliamentary control. These powerful legal mechanisms made it possible to “recover” enslaved people as assets for debts, a legal definition that was essential for a market in people to function sucessfully. This history reveals the absolutist character of early capitalism, and the extent to which the character of capitalist development depends on the legal rules that define markets and justice.