Monday, August 13, 2012

Revisiting the Survey: Cahokia

Good to be back on Legal History Blog, thanks to Dan and Karen for the invite.  Recent events at SLU have got me thinking about crisis, history, and my first lecture.  How to begin?  Two years ago, I began the survey course with New England, Puritans, and Bill Nelson's "The Utopian Legal Order of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1630-1686, 47 Am. J. L. Hist. 183 (2005), an uplifting start emphasizing religious freedom, anti-authoritarianism, and resistance.  Now, I'm thinking collapse ... and a new reading.  To set the stage for this year's survey, I'm considering excerpts from Tim Pauketat's 2009 book Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi (New York: Penguin, 2009). The book is billed by Penguin as American Indian History, but it tells a very different story from the one most students are familiar with.  Based on massive Indian mounds roughly six miles East of St. Louis, Cahokia tells the tale of a complex, influential city that boasted more inhabitants than London in 1250.  Pauketat explains how the city promoted agriculture, developed a class-based society with a religious elite at its helm, and established itself as a trading center extending as far as the Gulf of Mexico.  However, calamity struck at some point in the 14th Century, long before Europeans arrived -- either as a result of climate change (an extended drought), environmental exploitation (over-farming and deforestation), class struggle, or war.  Barring the obvious temptation to draw comparisons to our own "advanced" civilization, Cahokia enables me to introduce several themes that then run through the legal history of the 19th Century, including a comparison between Spanish and English Colonization (a thread that will continue through the the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and arguably American imperial interventions in Cuba and the Philippines in the 1890s), as well as a rethinking of white/Indian relationships.  To take just a few rhetorical discussion points: if Cahokia was larger than London in 1250, who is to say that the English were not the more "primitive" people?  After all, doesn't John Langbein present English law as tribal law, derived not from imperial legislation but “tribal custom, or folkright?” (See John Langbein, History of the Common Law: The Development of Anglo-American LegalInstitutions (New York: Aspen, 2009), 6).  Of course, the question of imperial law invites engagement with Christopher Tomlins's Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580-1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), a subject I hope to address in an upcoming post.