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Building a Revolutionary State

The Legal Transformation of New York, 1776-1783

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

How does a popular uprising transform itself from the disorder of revolution into a legal system that carries out the daily administration required to govern? Americans faced this question during the Revolution as colonial legal structures collapsed under the period’s disorder. Yet by the end of the war, Americans managed to rebuild their courts and legislatures, imbuing such institutions with an authority that was widely respected. This remarkable transformation came about in unexpected ways. Howard Pashman here studies the surprising role played by property redistribution—seizing it from Loyalists and transferring it to supporters of independence—in the reconstruction of legal order during the Revolutionary War.

Building a Revolutionary State looks closely at one state, New York, to understand the broader question of how legal structures emerged from an insurgency.  By examining law as New Yorkers experienced it in daily life during the war, Pashman reconstructs a world of revolutionary law that prevailed during America’s transition to independence. In doing so, Pashman explores a central paradox of the revolutionary era:  aggressive enforcement of partisan property rules actually had stabilizing effects that allowed insurgents to build legal institutions that enjoyed popular support.  Tracing the transformation from revolutionary disorder to legal order, Building a New Revolutionary State gives us a radically fresh way to understand the emergence of new states.

192 pages | 2 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2018

American Beginnings, 1500-1900

History: American History

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society, Legal History

Political Science: Judicial Politics


Building a Revolutionary State provides an important bridge to understanding the underlying Anglo-American cultural values represented within property ownership and control. . . . Pashman brings together underutilized sources such as provisional government records, newspaper accounts, local committee minutes, and auction books to discuss how loyalists’ property losses helped to strengthen government authority in the revolutionary state of New York.”

The American Historical Review

Building a Revolutionary State is a masterful socio-legal history of how New Yorkers transformed the instability and turmoil of the American Revolution into a new, stable legal order. Moving beyond republican ideology and constitutional politics, Pashman uncovers the felt realities of how New York insurgents paradoxically used property redistribution to create popular support for a new source of legal authority. This book will be required reading for anyone interested in the history of American law and state formation.”

Ajay K. Mehrotra, Northwestern University

“Pashman has given us the first study of how legal order emerged from disorder during the American Revolution. He shows New Yorkers creating local committees to deal with the Loyalists among them and argues convincingly that the legitimacy of the legal institutions that later emerged rested on vigorously expropriating Loyalist property. A powerful statement that the new nation was built, at least in part, on retribution and redistribution.”

Bruce H. Mann, Harvard University

Building a Revolutionary State is a refreshingly eye-opening book about a wrinkle in American history long overlooked. It’s a testament to dogged research and to a willingness to synthesize a great amount of disparate data to find a new framework for understanding this early moment in the life of the nation. Beyond that, it opens the door for other works to delve deeper into this and other data and to look farther afield at how the process has worked or not worked in other revolutions. In other words, the insurgents in America stumbled on this solution to many of their problems.  How have insurgents elsewhere fared?”

Patrick T. Reardon, author of Requiem for David and former urban affairs writer for the Chicago Tribune

Table of Contents


1. Law and Property in Colonial New York
2. Confronting Disorder
3. A Bonanza of Tory Goods
4. The Enemies of the State

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