Taking Tyrants to Court: Civil Litigation in the Spanish Empire Grant

Taking Tyrants to Court: Civil Litigation in the Spanish Empire .


  • This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-5). During the late 1700s, colonial Mexicans and Peruvians sued each other more than they ever before had in 300 years of Spanish control. Spanish culture is widely described as legalistic and litigious. Yet, in Spain, there was little change in civil suits during the 1700s. Providing the first broad-based statistical analysis of litigation in the Spanish Empire, this project documents this phenomenal rise in colonial lawsuits. It compares five regions - Mexico City and Oaxaca, Mexico; Lima and Trujillo, Peru; and Castile, Spain - to reveal that colonial women, slaves, and Indians entered the courts at a pace that outstripped even the overall rise in civil suits, using new legal concepts to sue husbands, masters, and native leaders. A close textual analysis of these cases demonstrates that, in suing local "tyrants," litigants enacted new political concepts of equality, sovereignty, and natural rights, producing a colonial Enlightenment.The project combines comparative social science methods for ascertaining what caused this explosion of colonial lawsuits with methods for reading the lawsuits derived from cultural history, literary studies, and Critical Legal Studies. It systematically explores the options litigants faced in the larger field of the court system: who could sue whom, where, when, and over what It also pays careful attention to the language used in court documents to show how subordinate colonial groups exploited changes in Spain's legal regime and used new notions of rights to challenge domestic and community authority figures rather than to question the colonial state. Taking the Enlightenment as a legal practice inspired by monarchs, this project redraws the geography of modernity by placing the Spanish empire, and colonial litigants, at the center. By showing law as a living historical process, it highlights the region's unique experience in the development of modern legal regimes and the formulation of concepts of rights.

date/time interval

  • July 15, 2009 - August 30, 2012

administered by

sponsor award ID

  • 0921681