Sean Gailmard - Strategies of Settlement: Contractual Imperialism in the English New World

Graham Stuart Lounge - Encina Hall West, Room 400

In settling New World colonies, the English crown delegated extensive authority to private agents through contract-like instruments enforceable in English courts. I explore the rationale for this strategy, which I call ``contractual imperialism.'' I argue that contractual imperialism is rationalized by two factors: (i) symmetric ex ante uncertainty about colonial resource endowments, and (ii) high legal capacity for independent contract enforcement. I develop a principal-agent model to analyze how various settlement strategies perform in light of these factors. Under settlement strategies such as direct action by agents of the state, the crown either would not know what to tell the agents to do, or would be unable to ensure they did it. Contractual imperialism solved both of these problems by giving colonizing agents strong incentives to identify the most valuable resource endowments in their territory, and exert high operational effort to deliver on that value. The findings imply that domestic English institutional capacity interacted with colonial resource endowments to determine institutional structure in the English New World.


Professor Sean Gailmard studies principal-agent problems in politics, such as delegation of authority and communication of policy expertise. He applies this perspective to better understand the structure and development of political institutions. His research in this area has focused on the strategic origins of American political institutions in the English colonial period; expertise and political responsiveness in the bureaucracy; historical development of the American executive branch; the internal organization of the U.S. Congress; and electoral accountability. He has also studied models of collective decision making in laboratory experiments. 

Professor Gailmard is the author of Learning While Governing: Expertise and Accountability in the Executive Branch (with John W. Patty), which won the William H. Riker Prize (APSA political economy section) and Herbert A. Simon Prize (APSA public administration section), as well as Statistical Modeling and Inference for Social Science, a Ph.D.-level textbook. He has published research in leading social science journals, including the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, and Journal of Politics.