Building a Revolutionary StateThe Legal Transformation of New York, 1776-1783

Building a Revolutionary StateThe Legal Transformation of New York, 1776-1783

Howard Pashman

Print publication date: 2018

ISBN: 9780226334356

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book analyzes an extraordinary change that occurred during the American Revolution. Early in the conflict, colonial legal systems grew weak or collapsed. But by the end of the war, Americans managed to rebuild working legal structures like courts and legislatures that enjoyed popular support. The book examines one province in detail, New York, to understand the fundamental process of transforming a popular uprising into a new legal order. Movements around the world have confronted that challenge as they try to develop new legal structures during periods of great upheaval. New Yorkers faced this same difficulty during the American Revolution, and they overcame it a surprising way: property redistribution. By seizing property from British sympathizers and selling it to supporters of independence, New Yorkers managed to build the legal institutions of a revolutionary state. Moreover, New Yorkers were not alone as every state enforced some form of redistribution during and after the war. By examining this process in New York, the book explores the critical change from revolutionary disorder to legal order. The book also highlights a central paradox of the revolutionary era. An aggressive, partisan legal regime, rather than undermining the new state, actually stabilized it and generated support for the authority it wielded. In this way, property redistribution proved crucial to the foundation of American independence.