- Law, Debt, and Merchant Power: The Civil Courts of Eighteenth-Century Halifax by James Muir
James Muir has written a rich history of an important, but under-studied aspect of early Canada. This will be an important and helpful work for scholars of legal history, social relations, economic development, and colonial North America generally.
Law, Debt, and Merchant Power carefully, and with an impressive range from qualitative to quantitative analysis, examines the civil courts of Halifax in the seventeen years after the colony's founding in 1749. In this period, Haligonians sued one another at unusually high rates, and Muir's book examines how and why these settlers so frequently took their disputes into colonial court. Indeed, judicial process structures the organization of Muir's book from the first substantive chapter on "Initiating Actions" to succeeding chapters on trials, settlements, and appeals, which together draw a much-needed portrait of the real-life operation of the colonial legal system. In each, Muir pays keen attention to the internal dynamics of the law, providing important empirical additions to our understandings of colonial justice, while constantly showing his readers how its processes and procedures impacted the everyday invocation of the courts by the city's merchants, traders, artisans, and labourers. As he writes, "suing or being sued was not something that exercised many people; rather litigation was just an ordinary part of doing business." In illustrating this, Muir cycles back often to a small pool of high-frequency litigants that included the widowed trader Anne Webb, who sued or was sued in forty-six different actions in the seventeen years examined in the book, and the merchant and politician Malachy Salter, who was even more litigious, launching 110 suits and defending thirty more.
Alongside other important propositions, Muir's book argues that merchant litigants like Webb and Salter, and the civil courts to which they took their [End Page 137] cases, produced what he calls "bourgeois law." This was a law, he argues, "tailored to meet the needs of the bourgeoisie … and framed in such a way as to regularly secure the interests of creditors over debtors, trade over production, merchants over craftspeople." Indeed, the consistency of those outcomes – the sense that the courts were a reliable extension of the broader social and economic relations in which merchants already had so much power – was a key reason why Halifax's litigation rates were so high.
Different readers will find different portions of this book most compelling and helpful. I was particularly struck by Muir's discussion of the Vice Admiralty Court, one of five different civil courts operating in the city and certainly an important institution given Halifax's reliance on fishing and shipping. As Muir shows in his discussion of a 1750 smuggling case involving French goods from Louisbourg that had landed illegally in Halifax, efforts to create bourgeois law stretched far beyond ordinary debtor–creditor cases. If the ship in question was shown to have been used for smuggling, the owner faced the loss of his vessel, and, as the case went to court, one of the most prominent and powerful merchants in the colony intervened with a petition from his fellow businessmen. The petition cast the seizure of such ships by over-zealous government officials as a potentially disastrous injection of economic uncertainty in the foundational period of the colony's development, an argument, as Muir notes, that prioritized the protection of investments over the prevention of smuggling and was part of a long-term merchant campaign against the colonial government over the regulation of trade. But the merchants also invoked what Muir calls "class politics" in seeking to discredit the sailors who served as informants in the case and to blame the captain's actions indirectly on these "Drunken Idle fishermen." It is one of countless revealing episodes in a book with many such insights into the operation of colonial law. Historians will be reading and drawing upon Muir's book for a long time to come.