Western Legal Imperialism: Thinking About the Deep Historical Roots

James Q. Whitman


We live in an age of massive efforts to transplant Western institutions. Some of those efforts have involved the so-called "Washington Consensus"; some have involved International Human Rights; but all of them have brought the West to the rest of the world, and all of them reflect a kind of missionary drive. What are the historical sources of this legal missionizing? This Article argues that those sources long predate the twentieth century, and indeed long predate the colonial adventures that began in the sixteenth century. Western law was already culturally predisposed to spread well before Iberian ships reached the Americas. In particular, Western law began, in antiquity, as city-state law, and only gradually penetrated the countryside. This colonization of the countryside by the cities took place partly under the influence of Christianity. It also reflected a centrally important event in the development of Western law: the great northward shift of the center of gravity of Western culture from the Mediterranean to trans-alpine Europe, which we can roughly date to 700-1000 C.E. The long, slow internal colonization of the countryside in the West set much of the pattern for the external colonization of the non-Western world that eventually commenced in the sixteenth century.

Full Text: