VMI professors publish article showing effectiveness of small claims courts in colonial Virginia

TurkTinniAtin2014JRR0020smAn interdisciplinary study recently published by three Virginia Military Institute professors shows that courtrooms served the colonial Virginia frontier well in enforcing credit contracts.

The article, “When Good Little Debts Went Bad: Civil Litigation on the Virginia Frontier, 1745-1755,” was published in the Summer 2015 issue of The Journal of Interdisciplinary History.

Col. Tinni Sen, Col. Turk McCleskey, and Col. Atin Basuchoudhary teamed up in an unusual collaboration: Sen and Basuchoudhary are economists who mostly work on 21st-century questions, and McCleskey is a colonial American historian. The research focused on Augusta County, which at that time encompassed much of what is now West Virginia, plus western and southwest Virginia. The land included Rockbridge County, which was formed from Augusta and Botetourt counties in 1778.

The essay is based on court records of almost 1,400 lawsuits to recover relatively modest sums.

“Daily life in colonial America generated lots of small debts,” McCleskey explained. “People had little cash, so they kept running tabs of what they owed each other. Often the debts were recorded on nothing more than tiny, fragile scraps of paper; fortunately, many of those scraps survive at the Augusta County courthouse in Staunton.”

Based on the available records, the authors found that despite the rough-and-ready reputation of frontier America, colonial Virginians west of the Blue Ridge fairly enforced legitimate credit contracts. Parties to lawsuits therefore settled their disputes in court, not privately, which is an essential process for socio-economic stability.

During the course of the work, McCleskey examined 1,378 cases and amassed a database of more than 10,000 observations, which Sen and Basuchoudhary analyzed.

Work on the project began almost 20 years ago, with the initial data for the essay collected in part by then-cadet Christopher Bowers ’97. Few such databases exist for other colonial American locales.

“Economists rarely get a chance to work with original data,” Sen remarked, “so this was a unique opportunity. I really enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of the research project. We talk a lot about the virtues of a ‘liberal arts education.’ I experienced that firsthand with this project.”

Basuchoudhary liked the fact that the team’s findings weren’t just antiquarian curiosities. “These findings about colonial Virginia have important implications for modern problems,” Basuchoudhary commented.

He continued, “We demonstrated how a reliable, fair rule of law reinforced social stability in a remote region far from civil authority and close to the threat of war. That’s one of the key problems in modern-day crises: how to establish enforceable contracts in insecure environments.

“Plus, we got to cite the work of Chap Michie ’15, who ran our robustness checks with a complicated mathematical tool called ‘neural networks’. How cool is it that a cadet graduates and gets cited in a major scholarly journal, all in the same month?”

The Journal of Interdisciplinary History is a top-tier journal that employs the methods and insights of multiple disciplines in the study of past times to bring a historical perspective to those other disciplines. The project was supported by grants-in-aid of research and by a Wachmeister Faculty Development Leave grant.

– Source: Virginia Military Institute

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