Joseph Younger

Graduate Student, Department of History

Graduate Associates

Joseph Younger studies nineteenth century Latin America, focusing particularly on the Río de la Plata borderlands between Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.  His scholarly work focuses on the development of Latin American legal systems over the course of the nineteenth century.  At its core, it traces the connections between quotidian interactions in the local courtrooms of developing legal systems and broader trajectories of state formation and identity creation.  His research focuses in particular on litigation over property, arguing that micro-level efforts to construct categories of private law rights offer critical insights into the political, social, and juridical dynamics at the national and international levels.  Although explicitly rooted in the Latin American experience with these issues, his research equally possesses an explicit comparative agenda.  It seeks to use diverse local experiences with the law as a vehicle to unpack the relationship between broad categories of legal systems like civil and common law.  To do this, his research focuses on peripheral regions where state institutions tended to be more fluid and local options more robust.  This approach helps to highlight the complex relationship between structure and agency, as well as individual and nation, enriching our understanding of the connections between law and society. 

Joseph graduated from Columbia Law School in 2001, where he was a Kent Scholar, the school's highest academic honor, for three years.  Following his time at Columbia, Joseph clerked for the Honorable Judge Emilio M. Garza on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Before coming to Princeton, Joseph was an associate at Andrews Kurth, LLP in Austin, Texas, specializing in administrative law and government affairs.  

Joseph is currently a Whiting Fellow at Princeton, awarded to the outstanding graduate students in the humanities.  In support of his research, Joseph received a Fulbright-Hays grant for research in Argentina and Uruguay in 2008-9, as well as a grant from the the Brazilian Studies Association in 2008.  



 Joseph's dissertation is a history of the tortured passage in the Río de la Plata borderlands connecting Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay together from the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires to a regional state system integrated into the emerging capitalist world economy over the course of the nineteenth century.  It explores what this passage looks like if we do not view legal geographies or social structures as foregone conclusions, but rather as the product of intense political and social conflicts in a region where the basic elements of sovereignty remained highly contested.  That is to say, it seeks to take the ideas of passage and indeterminacy seriously in order to cast new light on the complex legal politics often buried in state formation narratives.

In order to delve into these processes, the dissertation places the private law at the heart of the story.  It focuses on the convergence between legal disputes over private law rights such as property and political struggles over borders.  In this sense, the dissertation seeks to link two usually disparate aspects of state formation together by combining the persistent local debates over the scope of legal rights with conflicts over national boundaries.  It argues that these juridical and geographic components of the state formation process intertwined in courthouses throughout the Río de la Plata borderlands.  In doing so, the dissertation posits that borderlands courts played a much more active role in shaping the content of social and legal relations than previous historiography has acknowledged.  Despite the fact that the state lacked a “monopoly of violence” in the borderlands, factional rivals struggled to control local courthouses so as to buttress their claims to their own desired allocations of private law rights.  At the same time, the losers in these local legal conflicts frequently turned to rival state actors, appealing to alternate sovereign models to secure their own desired legal outcomes. 

To explore these processes, the dissertation makes use of litigation in a number of legal forums throughout the borderlands region connecting present-day Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.  In doing so, it employs several methodological innovations that allow for a new understanding of how law served not simply as a marker of state consolidation, but also as an arena of struggle between rival nations, political factions, and social classes.  First, by adopting an explicitly regional approach and by conducting research in six archives throughout the borderlands, the dissertation unveils how local legal conflicts “behind borders” radiated outwards along chains of political and economic connections to trigger renewed conflicts over national boundaries.  Second, by carefully charting the local networks of power relations captured in a diverse array of sources in and around borderlands courtrooms and then connecting them to debates over national identity and sovereignty, my research simultaneously recaptures processes of state formation from both the periphery and from the bottom up. 

Through these methodological approaches, the dissertation can move from detailed treatments of local legal politics to developments at the national and international scale.  By way of example, the dissertation explores the role that borderlands political factions played in the evolution of law and state making, particularly in connection with regional trade.  I demonstrate how in the absence of fully consolidated national legal systems, merchants turned to a set of shared assumptions rooted in notions of status and “vecinidad” (a form of local citizenship) to secure contractual rights.  Borderlands factions served as the protective gear for these relationships by ensuring personal status and access to justice in local courtrooms.  As control over local halls of justice became critical for regional economic relations, borderlands courtrooms became sites of intense factional conflicts to control the production and meaning of law.  These conflicts only intensified as popular groups took advantage of factional divisions to challenge elite authority, producing new rounds of debate over national identities and destinies.  These collective processes culminated in the Triple Alliance War, the largest conflict in the continent’s history.  Much like the Civil War in the United States, this international conflict ushered in a fundamental reorientation of the Río de la Plata region’s legal and economic gravity towards legal formalism and more intense forms of capitalist development.

Studying borderlands litigation and its role in the transition from empire to nation-states in this way ultimately provides for a more sophisticated understanding of the reciprocal relationship between legal politics and national identity.  It also provides an account of a unique and understudied region.  At the same time, while deepening our understanding of the Río de la Plata borderlands, it opens up possibilities for comparative conversations with United States legal historiography over the role of law in state formation and identity creation, while restoring a number of lost voices to national narratives.



“Naturals of this Republic:” Slave Law, Sovereignty and the Legal Politics of Citizenship in the Río de la Plata Borderlands (1845-1864), L. & Hist. Rev. (forthcoming).

This article examines how the strategic choices of Brazilian slaves in contesting attempts by their masters to reenslave them had important and previously neglected consequences for emerging state projects in the Río de la Plata region by exacerbating conflicts over sovereign boundaries.  At the beginning of the 1850s, the porous border between the Brazilian Empire and the Uruguayan Republic represented an equally ill-defined line between slave- and ostensibly free-labor systems.  Confronted with a growing tide of fugitive slaves, Brazilian masters aggressively turned to extraterritorial claims to maintain labor discipline in the borderlands.  In response to these claims, slaves developed collective strategies to assert their Uruguayan citizenship and with it their freedom. 

The article explores how these slave citizenship claims produced progressively sharper conflicts between Brazilian masters and Uruguayan officials, ultimately triggering an armed conflict between the two nations that swelled into the Triple Alliance War.  To do this, the article employs a micro-level analysis, focusing on slave citizenship claims and the cross-border legal ramifications in the critical borderlands city of Salto, Uruguay.  Through a close reading of slave citizenship cases and official reactions to them on both sides of the border, the article explains how individual actors experienced and propelled macro-level trends of abolition and national consolidation forward.  It further discusses how in these local proceedings new modes of national discourse and identity that emerged first in borderlands courtrooms and then later on the battlefield, promoting among other things the Brazilian abolition movement that emerged in the 1870s.