2014-15 Symposium on Comparative Early Modern Legal History

“The Will of Don Miguel Damián,” Xochimilco, 1576. Newberry Vault oversize Ayer MS 1900
“The Will of Don Miguel Damián,” Xochimilco, 1576, Newberry Vault oversize Ayer MS 1900. Click to enlarge.
Meanings of Justice in New World Empires: Settler and Indigenous Law as Counterpoints
Center for Renaissance Studies Programs
Symposium on Comparative Early Modern Legal History
Friday, October 10, 2014

9 am to 5 pm

Please register by 10 am Thursday, October 9

Towner Fellows Lounge

Organized by Brian Owensby, University of Virginia, and Richard J. Ross, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Understandings of justice differed among New World empires and among the settlers, imperial officials, and Indigenous peoples within each one. This conference will focus on the array of meanings of justice, their emergence and transformation, and the implications of adopting one or another definition. Our emphasis is less on the long-studied problem of the ethics of conquest and dispossession than on the notions of justice animating workaday negotiations, lawsuits, and assertions of right. To this end, we are interested in the following sorts of questions: What about pre-contact legality and about European debates about law impelled empires to offer Indigenous people access to settlers’ courts and legal remedies? How did Indigenous notions of legality shape natives’ resort to settlers’ law? How and why did it occur to Indians that European law offered them a tactical opportunity? To what extent did Indigenous litigants and communities see law as a moral resource? In what ways did Indians misconstrue settler’s legality because of their own preconceptions about justice? How did Indigenous recourse to law shape colonial and imperial legal structures? These questions invite reflection on how settler law became intelligible—tactically, technically, and morally—to natives.

From the Europeans’ point of view, settlers thought about their own legal order by reference to highly stylized depictions of natives’ law. Sometimes Indigenous legality was treated as an example of primitivism, or savagery, or the work of the devil; sometimes as an honorable system appropriate to the social situation of Indians; sometimes as a precursor to imperial law; sometimes as reminiscent of legal systems in European antiquity or in other non-Western societies; and sometimes as an early stage in the Scottish Enlightenment’s four-stage theory of socio-legal development. How did Indigenous law serve as a contrast that helped settlers legitimate, critique, and understand their own legal system? Conversely, in what ways did the example of settler law occasion debates about the meaning of justice within native communities? The conference will bring together law professors, historians, and social scientists to explore how settler and Indigenous law acted as counterpoints within and across European New World empires.


Gregory Ablavsky, Law and History, University of Pennsylvania
Stuart Banner, Law, University of California, Los Angeles
Lauren Benton, History, New York University
Sherwin Bryant, History, Northwestern University
Bradley Dixon, History, University of Texas at Austin
Alcira Dueñas, History, Ohio State University
Marcela Echeverri, History, Yale University
Karen Graubart, History, University of Notre Dame
Tamar Herzog, History, Harvard University
Fred Hoxie, History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Emilio Kouri, History, University of Chicago
Karen Kupperman, History, New York University
Robert Morrissey, History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Bianca Premo, History, Florida International University
Jenny Pulsipher, History, Brigham Young University
Dan Richter, History, University of Pennsylvania
Yanna Yannakakis, History, Emory University
Craig Yirush, History, University of California, Los Angeles

Paper titles will be added later.

Faculty and graduate students of Center for Renaissance Studies consortium institutions may be eligible to apply for travel funds to attend CRS programs or to do research at the Newberry Library. Each member university sets its own policies and deadlines; contact your Representative Council member in advance for details.

Cost and registration information: 

This program is free and open to the public, but space is limited and registration in advance is required. Papers will be precirculated electronically to registrants.

Register online here. Registrations will be processed through 10 am Thursday, October 9.