Field of Study
Modern American; Legal History
William M. Wiecek
An Empire of Laws: William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England in America, 1787-1920
Dissertation DescriptionPat Wilcox studies the legal history of the United States during the colonial and early American periods. With a particular interest in an older concept of “reception” of English common law into the United States, Pat takes a more expansive view reception, arguing that it goes beyond the technical elements of the statutes that folded English Common Law into the laws of the Unites States. He is interested in discovering how early American lawyers and lawmakers, steeped in English legal culture at the high point of its empire, were supposedly able to shift gears in a very short time to transform their world into one where law’s primary facets were liberty, individualism and freedom, instead of empire, corporatism, and privilege. He does not think that they did, although they may not have recognized what they were doing as they were doing it.
To that end, his dissertation studies Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England and each version of and emulation of it in American law. Pat sees the process by which American lawyers and lawmakers replaced an entire system of imperial law with an American system of law that was, we are often told, radically more egalitarian, progressive, and protective of individual rights, as a much slower and malleable process than what would be expected in a true “before and after” revolution model. Americans saw a great deal of the laws of the British Empire as strong organizing principles for expansion, preservation of property rights, and to aid the continuing definition of right and wrong. Pat's work argues that American lawyers and lawmakers wrestled with the concepts of freedom, empire, and nationalism, as they wove their English legal heritage into American law. The result was that those three concepts were all absorbed into one homogeneous and often contradictory way of looking at legal instrumentalism and the American English legal heritage."