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Governance in European empires was fragmented, law heavily decentralized. Legal historians have established that rather than an obstacle, this fragmentation was essential for European expansion and colonialism, including that of Britain. Once colonies were established, law became increasingly centralized in the hands of the state. So far, historians have explained this process in British America as the effect of London’s efforts to increase control over the colonies after the Seven Years War. This paper argues the opposite: rather than seeing the cause of institutional change in the metropolis, I argue that it was demographic change in America that triggered legal transformation. Moreover, the process started decades earlier. Drawing on scholarship form Early American Legal History, the New Institutional Economics and Philadelphia Quaker meeting records, this paper aims to refocus the story of legal centralization in British America from the ‘centre’ to the ‘periphery’.


Dr Esther Sahle received a PhD in Economic History from the London School of Economics in 2016. Since then, she has taught History and Economic History at the Universities of Bremen, Oldenburg and Münster. At present, she is a research associate at the Centre for Global History at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research interests lie in the role of religious institutions for governance, the Atlantic trade, and maritime history in general.


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