New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Colonial Americas (Early American Studies)

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9780812238952: New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Colonial Americas (Early American Studies)

As the geographic boundaries of early American history have expanded, so too have historians' attempts to explore the comparative dimensions of this history. At the same time, historians have struggled to find a conceptual framework flexible enough to incorporate the sweeping narratives of imperial history and the hidden narratives of social history into a broader, synthetic whole. No such paradigm that captures the two perspectives has yet emerged.

New World Orders addresses these broad conceptual issues by reexamining the relationships among violence, sanction, and authority in the early modern Americas. More specifically, the essays in this volume explore the wide variety of legal and extralegal means—from state-sponsored executions to unsanctioned crowd actions—by which social order was maintained, with a particular emphasis on how extralegal sanctions were defined and used; how such sanctions related to legal forms of maintaining order; and how these patterns of sanction, embedded within other forms of colonialism and culture, created cultural, legal, social, or imperial spaces in the early Americas.

With essays written by senior and junior scholars on the British, Spanish, Dutch, and French colonies, New World Orders presents one of the most comprehensive looks at the sweep of colonization in the Atlantic world. By juxtaposing case studies from Brazil, Venezuela, New York, California, Saint Domingue, and Louisiana with treatments of broader trends in Anglo-America or Spanish America more generally, the volume demonstrates the need to examine the questions of violence, sanction, and authority in hemispheric perspective.

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About the Author:

John Smolenski teaches history at the University of California, Davis. Thomas J. Humphrey is Associate Professor of History at Cleveland State University and author of Land and Liberty: Hudson Valley Riots in the Age of Revolution.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction: The Ordering of Authority in the Colonial Americas
John Smolenski

In 1720, Experience Mayhew published an account of the state of the Wampanoag Indians living on Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts. Mayhew's text celebrated the missionaries' success at improving the Indians' spiritual and material conditions. Although the island's native population was "very much diminished," Mayhew noted the increasing number of Wampanoags who "have Houses of the English fashion" and had adopted English modes of husbandry. He also predicted that island Indians would adopt English principles of governance as readily as they had adopted English religion, dress, shelter, and farming. His hopes were not entirely misplaced; by 1720, most Indian settlements had replaced the sachemship with a form of government that was "more akin to a town meeting"—the fabled institution at the center of colonial New England.

At first glance, Mayhew's account epitomizes the dramatic success of colonial Anglo-American "ceremonies of possession." The spread of English housing and husbandry was part of a larger transformation of the landscape. Patricia Seed has argued that English colonists, alone among Europeans in America, viewed the enclosure and development of "waste" land as the only legitimate means of taking possession of territory. The erection of houses and fences thus reflected and effected the spread of colonial authority. Certainly, in Mayhew's mind, the remaking of physical space was an assertion of English cultural and legal mastery: space, culture, and sovereignty were isomorphic. Fences, farms, and livestock were only the most visible signs of a colonial project that included the reformation of the Natives' political and spiritual worlds as well. His account thus embodied the prototypical "planting" discourse in which claims to sovereignty were rooted not merely in English law but also in assumptions about race, identity, and superiority that provided the ideological foundation for Anglo-American colonization.

But treating these changes in landscape and authority merely as manifestations of a colonizing discourse would be misleading. As David Silverman has recently shown, some of these changes resulted from Native choices. Island Wampanoags benefited from selective adoption of English farming and herding practices, which provided an important source of food and an economic boost. But incorporating animal husbandry into their communities offered Vineyard Indians more than "protein and profit": establishing claims to the land through signs and practices that colonists recognized as legitimate helped some keep their land in the face of English expansion. "The Wampanoags," Silverman writes, "had adopted the colonists' animals, but most of them had not embraced the colonists' values. The fence and the animals it enclosed were no longer only symbols of English expansion, but now, also, of the Wampanoags' commitment to the land, one another, and their communal traditions." Similarly, the decline of the sachemship at Christiantown and Chappaquiddick allowed these communities to prevent individual sachems from selling communal land to settlers. Thus, the move toward town-meeting governance helped some communities to resist pressures that had forced other Native communities in New England off their lands.

Faced with a colonial project that drew sharp boundaries between "civilized" and "savage" practices, Vineyard Indians crafted a third option. More than simply a technique of "resistance," the evolution of their farming practices and political institutions challenged the system of legality through which colonists defined and took control of their world. The colonists' response reveals the seriousness of the challenge; having justified their claim to "waste" lands on the grounds that Indians had done nothing to improve (and thus possess) them, some colonists threatened violence when faced with Indian fences marking the boundaries of native lands. Thus, what Mayhew saw as a process of acculturation—Wampanoag Indians' evolutionary transition from a lower to a higher stage of civilization—was really part of a process of transculturation in which Vineyard Indians integrated aspects of English life into their own society, but with Native meanings, for Native ends.

The disjuncture between Mayhew's narrative and the Wampanoags' experience is instructive. The Indians' continued presence on the land belied Mayhew's assumption that the boundaries of colonial sovereignty were coterminous with the limits of English cultural space; mastery in one realm did not automatically follow in the other. Nor were the links between legal claims to sovereignty and extralegal claims to cultural authority as natural as Mayhew assumed. English settlers may well have believed that their agricultural improvements had transformed vacuum domicilium—legally vacant land outside any civil jurisdiction-into property under provincial authority. But their resistance to Wampanoag efforts to develop their own farms and herds suggests that colonizers found these practices legitimate only when performed by English subjects; the Wampanoags, understandably, disagreed. Thus, the meaning of legal rules emerged through debate, not simply from rote application. Finally, it is unlikely that the Wampanoags would have ignored the role of violence—actual or threatened—in defining colonial authority, as Mayhew had. Threats to resolve debates over the cultural and legal meanings of particular practices through force revealed that violence was never absent from assertions of sovereignty.

That the critique of Mayhew's account as a colonizing discourse seems so familiar to historians of the colonial Americas and yet fails to account for the lived experience of the Wampanoags under colonization should caution us to be cognizant of the gap between the assertion and achievement of colonial sovereignty and of that between legal and extralegal claims to rule. It highlights the difficulties that historians have had in understanding the operation of colonial power, their difficulty in crafting narratives of colonization flexible enough to incorporate analysis of ideologies with accounts of Native resistance and adaptation. The chapters in this collection address that conceptual gap by reexamining the relationship between violence, sanction, and authority in the colonial Americas. The authors explore a number of themes, including the wide variety of legal and extralegal means through which social order was secured, with a particular emphasis on how extralegal behavioral norms were defined and used; the relationship between legal and extralegal efforts to create colonial authority; the problem of containing violence within structures of colonial legality or illegality; and how these attempts to construct authority, embedded within other forms of colonialism, created cultural, legal, social, or imperial "spaces" in the Americas. Eschewing a narrowly regional analysis, these chapters collectively cut across imperial boundaries, exploring the dimensions of colonial rule throughout the hemisphere.

Uniting these case studies is a common interest in understanding the role of sanction in constituting colonial power. The term "sanction" carries multiple—and seemingly contradictory—meanings. It can mean to permit, authorize, ratify, countenance, encourage, or make legal—or it can mean to penalize for the violation of a legal rule or norm. It can refer to the imposition of a punishment itself or to the recognition (implicit or explicit) of a practice as valid. But sanction's multiple meanings—as prohibition and permission, as the judgment and its enforcement-are only seemingly contradictory. The notion that the expression of power has productive and repressive effects is certainly familiar to scholars in the wake of Michel Foucault's work, but it was likewise familiar to earlier legal authorities. The jurist William Blackstone noted that "human legislators have for the most part chosen to make the sanction of their laws rather vindicatory than remunatory," demonstrating an awareness of the fact that the encouragement of legality and the punishment of illegality went hand in hand. But sanctioning, in both its senses of permission and prohibition, is more than the simple application of legal (or extralegal) norms. Sanction has an evaluative, interpretive dimension: it defines norms in the process of enforcing them. Sanction, then, encapsulates the process through which order is produced through the distribution of punishments and rewards. Through their examination of sanction in its multiple dimensions, the authors in this volume demonstrate that colonial authority—be it cultural, legal, or political—did not exist in inert form; it was constituted through its expression.

Through their examination of authority emerging through practice rather than in principle, these authors extend Christopher Tomlins's recent call for legal historians to shift the object of their inquiry from an analysis of law in history to an examination of the history of legality. Legality, as Tomlins defines it, is the process through which legal power is expressed. "Legalities," he writes, "are the symbols, signs, and instantiations of formal law's classificatory impulse, the outcomes of its specialized practices, the products of its institutions. They are the means of effecting law's discourses, the mechanisms through which law names, blames, and claims." If the law's authority is often grounded in its claims to reason and timelessness—as the legal scholar Paul Kahn has argued in his critical inquiry into the "culture of rule of law" in the Euro-American tradition—then exploring legality is a tool for grounding legal analysis in a social and historical context. Similarly, Tomlins suggests that the concept of legality can also include unofficial practices, customs, and traditions that carry the sanction of social authority—practices which themselves should be seen as historical products rather than timeless. In examining histories of sanctioning—the points at which actions are interpreted, evaluated, debated, and defined—the chapters in this volume provide a means of understanding how legalities, official and unofficial, were produced in the colonial Americas.

This volume builds upon an already well-established literature addressing the process of colonization in the Americas. It is by now commonplace to point out that historical narratives such as Mayhew's—triumphalist master narratives of the colonial Americas that render Natives either passive receptors of a superior European culture or a swiftly vanishing vestige of the precolonial past—represented colonizers' fantasies rather than historical fact. Scholars have attempted to write against these master narratives by foregrounding the development and operation of colonial authority in the Americas as an object of historical analysis rather than a providential inevitability; these efforts have generally followed one of three tracks. First, many historians and anthropologists have examined the processes through which indigenous peoples resisted and adapted to colonial rule. These studies—often, but not always, focused on the colonial experience of a specific people—have emphasized the role Native agency played in shaping colonial rule, casting Native peoples as subjects in a contest for power and not simply objects of colonial power. Second, historians and literary critics have interrogated the imperial ideologies of the various European colonial powers in the Americas. Through their critiques of the cultural underpinnings of the colonial project, these scholars have shown how European discourses of law, religion, and civilization naturalized and legitimated colonization; indeed, some of these authors would seem to suggest that the colonial discourses that legitimated European rule were among the colonizers' most powerful tools of domination. And third, many historians have shown how interactions between colonizers and colonized created hybrid cultures in the Americas.

These three strands of scholarship have done much to further our understanding of colonial power in the Americas. At the same time, however, each has, in its own way, hindered greater understanding of the establishment and maintenance of colonial authority. Studies focused on Native agency, for example, have defined colonial authority as something acted against, obscuring it as a topic of analysis in its own right. Meanwhile, studies of colonial ideology have, in making their critique, often assumed the dominance of colonial sovereignty. By treating colonization as a discursive or performative project, this approach ignores the ongoing process through which colonial rule was secured. As Lauren Benton has pointed out, such critiques have tended to focus on the moments of taking possession or justifications for conquest, missing the fact that the exigencies of exercising colonial jurisdiction frequently transformed the culture of colonial legality. In addition, some critics have charged that scholars foregrounding the significance of "middle grounds" in colonial history have exaggerated the significance and durability of these hybrid cultural spaces. Admitting that a localized balance of power might facilitate the temporary emergence of communities of interest marked by a rough harmony, critics note, does little to mitigate the overall level of violence and conflict that marked colonial-Indian relations.

In any case, synthesizing these different approaches has been problematic. It is in some ways difficult to see how one can reconcile John Locke's intellectual justifications for dispossessing Indians of their land—so central in David Armitage's and Anthony Pagden's discussions of the English conception of empire—with the actual course of colonial settlement on the eastern coast of North America in which colonizers and Indians frequently lived side by side. Despite frequent outbreaks of violence, in practice the tenor of Anglo-Native relations was dictated more by extralegal customs governing social and economic exchange than by the formal justifications for English power. And while colonists may have in theory denied Indians' legal title to land, in practice they recognized Native title when doing so expedited land purchases. Thus, historians have struggled, often unsuccessfully, to integrate insights gleaned from these burgeoning historiographic traditions into a more coherent account of the linkages between assertions of sovereignty and expressions of authority in other social and cultural domains in the development of the colonial Americas.

This problem has been exacerbated by a historiographic division between scholars interested in studying relations of power between natives and colonizers and those studying relations of power—legal and extralegal—within colonial communities themselves. While historians of indigenous peoples have not always incorporated insights gleaned from colonial legal history into their studies, legal historians have largely failed to integrate narratives of colonization into their case studies. Historians of both colonial British and Spanish America have grounded legal history in a social context by examining legal culture—that is, the values and attitudes that govern the functioning of ...

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