Sovereignty and the Law

Ken MacMillan

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online May 2010 | | DOI:
Sovereignty and the Law

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
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  • Regional and National History


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Sovereignty—or to use the Latin term, imperium—refers to the independent power of a monarch or nation against all other earthly authorities. By 1500, when expansion into the Atlantic began, this form of independence had been established by most European monarchs, who previously were considered to be under the authority of either the Holy Roman Emperor or the Roman Catholic Pope. A claim to sovereignty was used by the four principal European Atlantic powers—Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain—over and against three distinct bodies: (1) indigenous peoples, who were sometimes recognized as possessing a limited form of sovereignty (dominium), though rarely an absolute form; (2) subjects of the state claiming sovereignty, so that a legal, imperial, and constitutional relationship existed between the state and its colonies and subjects; and (3) monarchs and subjects of other states, so that a state’s claim to sovereignty would be recognized internationally. However, sovereignty was also a fluid concept at this time. Its definition—and therefore its application—was ambiguous, both in Europe and the Atlantic, such that all claims to sovereignty and authority had a contingent nature to them. Closely associated with a claim to sovereignty were the transfer, creation, and exercise of law and legal institutions in the Atlantic world. These took on many forms (known as legal pluralisms) depending on the functions they were intended to serve. Different types of law and institutions dictated how sovereignty could be claimed and maintained, the political and constitutional structure of colonial entities, the handling of criminal (public) and civil (private) affairs, and the legal relationship between the Atlantic colonies and European crowns. Because of the vast amount of literature on this subject, this entry focuses on the temporal period circa 1500 to 1775, leaving the subject of the revolutionary Atlantic and the subsequent development of republican constitutions to more specialized entries.

Article.  8529 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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