Law’s Political Foundations

Law’s Political Foundations

Rivers, Rifles, Rice, and Religion

Elgar Studies in Legal Theory

John O. Haley

Law’s Political Foundations explains the development of the two basic systems of public and private law and their historical transformations. Examining the historical development of law in China, Japan, Western Europe, and Hispanic America, Haley argues that law is a product, rather than a constitutive element, of political systems.

Chapter 6: Rifles and religion: the transformation and transplantation of Western law in Hispanic America

John O. Haley

Subjects: law - academic, comparative law, legal theory


The story of the Castilian conquest of the Americas represents the first chapter in the transplantation and transformation of Western law and its global dominion. It also concludes our narratives with one of rifles and religion and their contributions to law’s political foundations. Two civilizations had emerged in the Americas prior to the Castilian conquests. Both replicated a trajectory noted at least in passing in previous chapters. From sedentary agrarian settlements, chiefdoms had emerged and consolidated governing structures had developed. In Mesoamerica the process culminated with the Aztec Empire. From the highlands of the western Andes of South America, the Inca had just emerged. With the arrival of the Castilians, indigenous processes of political development ended abruptly. The Castilian intrusion at the dawn of the sixteenth century also resulted in the imposition of the first territorial empire by a Western European polity, introducing the full panoply of political and legal structures of a late medieval Castilian kingdom, unconstrained, however, by the fetters of local Iberian law and practice. Hispanic America therefore provides an instructive study in the development of law not only as the first experience of a Western European polity as an advanced territorial empire but also the first major transplantation of Western European law and legal institutions outside of the West.

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