by Vicki Hsueh. Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. 208pp. Cloth: $74.95. ISBN: 9780822346180. Paperback: $21.95. ISBN: 9780822346326.

Reviewed by Christopher Brooks, Department of History, East Stroudsburg University, East Stroudsburg, PA. Email: Christopher.Brooks [at] po-box.esu.edu.


Jean Bodin defined an aristocratic state “as one in which the minority of citizens command the rest considered collectively, and each and all severally” (p. 71). And, like students of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British American colonies can observe, every colony considered itself “sovereign, without subjection to the laws and commands of the others.” They had “no obligation to one another other than those specified under the terms of their defensive and offensive alliances” (p. 71). This was the case for sixteenth-century Germany according to Bodin, but was not intended for the British Crown and its rapport with the American colonies. However, the salutary neglect of the Crown, and, for a time, British Parliament, led the American colonists through their constitutions to assume another significant point made by Bodin relevant to both the German Confederation and the British American colonies: “Each member of the Empire then constitutes itself a particular sovereign state” (p. 72). In that respect, Vicki Hsueh has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how this thinking on the part of British subjects, that the colonies enjoyed sovereignty while still being a part of an empire, is manifested in the hybridity of the constitutional design of its North American colonies.

Vicki Hseuh is most “interested in the specific forms of law and political power developed by proprietors, governors and settlers in the early modern period,” and is “particularly drawn to the elements of hybridity that emerged in the colonies” (p. 4). Her definition of hybridity does not stem from political or legal texts, but instead from the socio-cultural state of affairs. The author’s point of departure is Homi Bhabaha’s “Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences,” to which she admits she owes an intellectual debt. In short, Hseuh has taken Bhabaha’s attempt to transcend Lyotardian binary opposites and set a path for a third way – one of hybridity, one allowing for the colonized and the colonizer to break bread and create something new. In Hseuh’s case, that something new is nothing new at all, as it took place approximately three centuries ago, and teasing that out from various colonial documents is the most interesting stream of Hseuh’s book.

A cynic might claim that hybridity is a manifestation of cherry picking: proprietors doing what served them best, especially those who actually resided in the New World. However, Hseuh sets out to demonstrate why that was not the case.

Hseuh explained her theory of hybridity as being composed of three forms, the [*232] first being political/legal. As she explains, through powers bestowed upon the proprietors via charters, these individuals were able to pass laws, and those laws reflected the “flux” of what had been understood to be central, a monarch (p.9). Geographically, the American colonies were in a position, where ancient elements a la Pocock were able to seep in and create what I would term a unique American mode of behavior. In the works of James Wilson at the Constitutional Convention, “The British Government cannot be our model. We have no materials for a similar one. Our manners, our laws, the abolition of entails and primogeniture, the whole genius of the people are opposed to it” (p. 168). When taken in totality, the reason for this lies with colonial hybridity which arose out of necessity, and, coupled with the salutary neglect that followed, it made possible to create something new, something American, something hybrid in nature.

The next two types of hybridity were temporal and cultural, with a focus on the ancient forms of authority coupled with the Enlightenment values making their way to North American shores, and the cornucopia groups cohabitating and learning from one another, albeit in subtle ways. On the temporal aspect, Hseuh points out that “proprietary constitutions were neither fully ancient nor wholly modern” (p.11). However, this might be indicative of the self-interest of the proprietors and little else. Indeed, by 1787, hybridity becoming the norm may have been a foregone conclusion. However, getting to that point was not, and Hseuh provides a map of how the American colonist arrived there.

According to Hseuh, the development of proprietary constitutionalism arises “out of a mixed condition of privilege and scarcity, freedom and dependence. The grant to proprietary settlement was not an unequivocal sign of the Crown’s favor but, instead, a self-conscious recognition of both the ambitions and hesitations of colonial power” (p.3). by elaborating on this notion, Hseuh makes that which is not so obvious appear quite so. She makes plain that, though holders of proprietary colonies were at least nominally beholden to the monarch, they were individuals with their own self-interests and often pursued them. Moreover, the lack of economic support made this independence all the more a necessity. Thus, this was a tactical reliance on the part of the aboriginal peoples at one level or another in the various colonies, though not at any intended or easily definable level.

One question that came to mind while reading HYBRID CONSTITUTIONS deals with whether or not Hseuh is paying short shrift to money, the primary concern of every colony. Inevitably, one is compelled to say not entirely, but perhaps the question remains, although the focus on the concept of propriety seems to miss the financial motive plot. In particular, proprietary colonies were the cultural, legal and political mix they often were due to necessity. For example, German industriousness, their refusal to take slaves, and geographically locating themselves away from the epicenter of Quaker power made the Germans ideal colonists, for they were not power seekers. Likewise, Maryland’s ties to tribes such as the Nanticokes and Patuxents in their early days were necessary for their existence. Codifying necessity – be it by the Calverts or Peens – [*233] should not be a surprise; it was merely sensible. Another example can be found in discussion of how to best conceptualize the state of affairs in Carolina with respect to Indian farming practices and those of English husbandry (pp.71-73). Husbandry was a very significant part of late seventeenth-century English Leitkultur. Thus, should it be a surprise that colonists required both the assistance of the local Iroquois and “additional supplies and funding”? (p.73) Perhapsthe answer to my own query lies in Hseuh’s highlighting the necessity of local knowledge. As a twenty-first-century scholar of this era’s history, I take the Foucaultian arguments on knowledge and power for granted, as the accepted historiographical norm. However, this may not be the case for all disciplines which is why Hseuh needs to further expand this part of her work.

Moreover, Hseuh makes a curious omission. Although she relies on the values of the Enlightenment, she nevertheless fails to take into account Grotius and much of the macro-effect of the Enlightenment on all thinkers and leaders of the latter seventeenth and early-to-mid eighteenth centuries with the exception of the immediate role John Locke had in the Carolinas. In addition, by the latter sixteenth-century, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas were well on their way to being founded and many of the Maryland documents had been written, Cartesianism was well underway. Thus, this would have played a role in thinking and would have set the stage better for presenting the historical context. In fact, mention of the role Enlightenment thinking had would have aided the narrative as well as the analysis. That said, for those who are very familiar with the long eighteenth century, perhaps such information might have proven superfluous.

Hseuh does an admirable job of providing a clear sketch of the hybridity of English, Continental, and Native North American ideas in the colony’s early documents. But, this magnanimity might also be interpreted as cherry picking. As Hseuh writes, “the peace Penn offered to the Lenape and Susquehannocks was also in many ways peace in the form of protectionism” (p.100) and conversely, these relationships afforded Penn’s colony a buffer from other hostile parties. With negotiation, every party attempts to sell an idea despite ulterior motives. Thus, the apparent intent is hyper-reality and can be easily deconstructed, which is why using Derrida to further clarify this point was rather clever. Hsueh notes that Derrida argued that, “there is always something about negotiation that is a little dirty…something is being trafficked… Treaties may have allowed for the inclusion and the expression of overlapping jurisdictions and multiple authorities, but they were haunted by a history of instrumentality and indeterminacy” (p.109). This might lead historians to think that father William and son Thomas really were not so different after all and that the Walking Purchase of 1737 was only a logical conclusion of the Penn family’s self-interest.

The reader is nevertheless left assuming that lesser-known settlements, such as that by Dutch Mennonite Pieter Plockhoy in what is now Lewes Delaware are insignificant to constitutional hybridity. However, the hybridity of religion, one of the prime-movers for colonization, and [*234] constitutional government, as executed in Pennsylvania are important. Seeing that Plockhoy spent his final days in Germantown, Pennsylvania – not to mention New Sweden in Delaware County – I would be curious to learn more about groups other than native tribes and how they worked into this hybrid. Hseuh only briefly mentions these groups, and with minimal details. It appears that a racial – if that term might even be properly applied here – hybridity is what she is most interested in.

Edmund Morgen claimed in AMERICAN SLAVERY, AMERICAN FREEDOM, the hybridity of which Hseuh speaks is a ruse. Establishing difference was far more important than anything else to order. But, perhaps Morgen’s interpretation misses the nuanced point, one which Hseuh makes plain throughout her significant contribution to the literature. The outcome may have been a seeming amalgamation of ideas, but the intent to make money in the easiest way possible proved to be of greater import. In the end, then, we are left with a hybrid.

Bodin, Jean. SIX BOOKS OF THE COMMONWEALTH, BOOK II. M. J. Tooley, transl. Oxford: Alden Press, 1955.

Homi, Bhabaham. “Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences. “ in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds.THE POST-COLONIAL STUDIES READER, pp.206-209. London: Routledge, 1995.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. INDIANS AND ENGLISH: FACING OFF IN EARLY AMERICA. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Weslager, C. A. THE DELAWARE INDIANS: A HISTORY. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1972.

Wilson, James. June 7, 1787 in Jonathan Elliot, ed. THE DEBATES IN THE SEVERAL STATE CONVENTIONS ON THE ADOPTION OF THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION, vol. 5 (Washington DC, 1845).

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Christopher Brooks.