New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



"An Empire of Law: James Kent and the Revolution in Books in the Early Republic," The Meador Lecture on Empire, Alabama Law Review, 60 (2009): 377-424


Drawing on James Kent's law library, this Essay illuminates one aspect of the postcolonial British influence on early American legal culture: a revolution in books in the Atlantic world that coincided with the American Revolution. This book revolution was a condition precedent for the way that leading jurists like Chancellor Kent of New York conceived of law and also shaped the media through which they communicated law. The book revolution had many causes and resulted in an explosion of English print that spread across the Atlantic through the copyright-free haven of Dublin. This transatlantic network of copyright arbitrageurs-they should not be called "pirates" because they did not violate British law-made it possible for James Kent and other young lawyers with no personal connections to Great Britain to fill their libraries with the latest English law books at discount prices. As Kent struggled to make sense of these books, he developed an unusually print-oriented vision of the ideal legal order. He then translated what he learned-the substance as well as the vision-into his own reports and his four-volume Commentaries on American Law (1826-1830), which were available everywhere in the Union throughout the nineteenth century. In sum, this revolution facilitated the development of a trans-jurisdictional conception of law that Federalist jurists like Kent used to promote a new kind of empire: an empire of law in which law was conceived as a set of legal principles that should operate everywhere in the Union.

Date of Authorship for this Version

March 2009