Law, Family, and State Organization in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Wisconsin Symposium on Legal History
Institute for Legal Studies, University of Wisconsin Law School
November 2, 2002

The organization and governance of the family and of the state were intimately connected in the early modern Atlantic world. This conference explores the changing nature of those connections in comparative perspective, drawing on the history of four countries: colonial and early national America, England, France, and Holland. The panelists and speakers are noted historians, law professors, political scientists, and sociologists.

To look for relationships between family and state governance is to open up a host of questions. To what extent did paternal oversight of the family provide a model or set of metaphors for the regulation of the polity? In what ways did the family act as an intermediary institution between the state and the individual? How did the structure and ambitions of the state shape, reinforce, or limit parental control of the extended household (including children, illegitimate children, and laboring dependents)? To what extent did contemporaries think that family decisions over such matters as inheritance, education, marriage partners, and separation and divorce would affect the nature and stability of the polity? How did the willingness to treat such family decisions as public and legal rather than personal or religious issues facilitate statebuilding? And in what ways did litigation about such decisions conducted under the aegis of the state encourage the dissemination of legal information to laymen and provide a forum for debates over the proper parameters of state and family authority? Participants at the conference will address these questions in comparative perspective, focusing on the period between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

There will be three types of sessions at the conference. First, Julia Adams will deliver a keynote address, "The Rule of the Father: Family and State in the Early Modern World." Second, a French, English, American, and European medieval historian will participate in an author-meets-readers discussion on Political Passions: Gender, the Family, and Political Argument in England, 1680-1714, a recent book by Rachel Weil. The readers will be Jeffrey Merrick, Johann Sommerville, Carolyn Ramsey, and Karl Shoemaker. Finally, there will be panels focusing on early American history (Carole Shammas, Mark Brandon, Charles Cohen, and Richard Ross) and on French history (Suzanne Desan, Sarah Hanley, Julie Hardwick, and Jeffrey Merrick).

This interdisciplinary conference is free and open to students, faculty, and the community. Law, Family, and State Organization in the Early Modern Atlantic World is the inaugural offering of the Wisconsin Symposium on Legal History. The Symposium, which is a program of the Institute for Legal Studies at the University of Wisconsin Law School, will present a conference every two years that will bring together historians, law professors, and social scientists to explore an issue in legal history, broadly construed.

For information about the conference, please contact Prof. Richard Ross at, or (608) 263-7604. Transportation, accommodations, and logistics are under the direction of Pam Hollenhorst of the Institute for Legal Studies at

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