The Legal Culture of Northern New Spain, 1700-1810.
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995. xii + 227 pp.
Illustrations, bibliographical references, and index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN
Victor M. Uribe , Florida International University and Universidad Nacional
de Colombia, Medellin.
is the most recent addition to the legal historical literature on colonial
Mexico. It looks at the workings of ordinary (that is, non-ecclesiastical
and non-military) colonial Spanish law in New Spain's (today's Mexico)
peripheral areas of New Mexico and Texas during the eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries. Charles Cutter, who teaches at Purdue University's
Department of History, argues that the operation of the law in such
peripheries was probably more representative of what happened in New Spain
as a whole than was the legal practice and culture of large metropolitan
Relying on more than six hundred civil and criminal cases (which are
acknowledged to be only a fragment of the legal actions developed at the
time--others were not recorded, or the records have been lost), Cutter
discusses in detail the formal legal institutions (most of them part of the
derecho indiano), the authorities, and the procedures that prevailed
in this outlying region. To be sure, he also pays attention to the role of
customary law and equidad ("communally defined sense of fairness," p.
34) in the adjudication of cases. He insists throughout that the maintenance
of social harmony and the satisfaction of people's expectations were key
guiding principles for magistrates.
Cutter's revisionist work reiterates continually that Spain's colonial law
and legal officials had a significant impact on people's daily lives and
were generally more attuned to the people's needs than many historians today
are willing to concede. Magistrates, for instance, are said to have "sought
equitable solutions, and avoided excessive legalism" (p. 10). It further
asserts that New Mexico
yield little evidence of nepotism or collusion of high-ranking magistrates
with local elite groups, and even those local settlers who, in their
capacity as alcaldes ordinarios, participated in the administration
of justice, were not as corrupt as has been argued. They "acted responsibly"
and mediated social conflict in a proper way (p. 102).
will be quite a controversial book. Its ideal vision of the functioning of
colonial law and society presents a few major problems. It does not
establish a dialogue with recent social historians and ethnologists,
particularly Steve J. Stern and Susan Kellogg, who have demonstrated the key
role that colonial law played in the development of Spain's hegemony in the
New World. It does refer in one passage to the "consensual hegemony"
symbolized by justice administration in colonial Spanish America (p. 148).
This comment, though, is a little confusing because hegemony is by its very
nature consensual. Second, Cutter's work does not discuss the abundant
comparative evidence of nepotism, corruption, and family networking in the
colonial bureaucracy of numerous regions of colonial Latin America. One
wonders whether New Mexico and Texas were exceptional places, which Cutter
comes close to suggesting (p. 148), but which does not seem to have been
quite the case judging by the research of, among others, Ramon Gutierrez (When
Jesus Came the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality and Power in New
Mexico, 1500-1846, Stanford University Press, 1991).
and other minor quibbles aside, Charles Cutter's new book is a welcome
addition to a field of research that is starting to produce significant
developments. Cutter's own previous works on the Corregidor de Indios and
the legal procedures of eighteenth-century New Spain
are among such developments. He and a few others should be credited for
reawakening attention on an important dimension of Latin American history.
Call Number: KF361 .C87 1995
Law--Southwest, New--History--18th century
Law--New Spain--History--18th century
Citation: Victor M. Uribe . "Review of Charles R. Cutter, The Legal Culture
of Northern New Spain, 1700-1810," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, December, 1996.
“The Legal Culture of Northern New Spain
provide[s] a more comprehensive view of the [Spanish legal] system, one with
insights for American historians interested in comparative systems of
justice and implications for historians of Spanish America who might dismiss
those works as regional studies of limited interest.”
David J. Weber, review of The Legal Culture of
Northern New Spain, 1700-1810, by Charles R. Cutter, The Journal of
American History, 83 (September 1996): 593-594.