This past Fall I taught the first half of the United States & the World survey (1763-1914) for the first time. More so than most classes, the subject matter for this course tows a cartload of nationalist historical baggage. I don’t mean simply the triumphalist narrative of American history, where a pure United States vanquishes evil while spreading freedom at every turn. Rather, the challenge comes from the more deeply embedded assumption that the history of the United States is the history of a nation-state, and a powerful and exceptional nation-state at that. I knew that it would be a challenge to convince students that in global terms the early United States was a weak nation, a provincial backwater. And even students who are highly aware of the violent dispossession of Native Americans still have a hard time understanding that process not as national growth (“westward expansion”) but as empire (the conquest and rule of foreign peoples and nations).
In teaching these topics, I found law—both domestic and international—to be an invaluable companion. As I will explore in a series of posts, legal history helped me to explain the nation’s founding documents as problems of foreign affairs; to reveal westward expansion as an imperial process of explicit and implicit power; to show how concepts of civilization linked the late-nineteenth century United States with the European scramble for colonies; and to detail the multitude of strategies taken by the United States as it built its own overseas empire in the early twentieth century.
In some ways, to find law at the center of foreign affairs is to return to an earlier approach to the field. Until the advent of “International Relations” in the interwar period, diplomacy and international law were linked disciplines. For instance, John Bassett Moore, professor of International Law and Diplomacy at Columbia University was one of America’s leading experts on both subjects in the early twentieth century. When Harper’s Magazine sought to publish a series of articles on the history of American foreign relations, it turned to Moore. Later issued in book form (as American Diplomacy in 1905), these were in large part a history of treaties. From the legal side, Moore’s Digestof International Law (1906) was based on extensive reading of the archives of the State Department, and amounts to a particularly legalistic history of American foreign relations. This intermingling of law and diplomacy had a long history; indeed, the word “diplomacy” itself traces its roots to “diploma,” in the sense of “charter” or “treaty.”
But the history of U.S. foreign relations is no longer solely the history of its formal diplomacy. The field has expanded dramatically in the last two decades and now—under the name “the United States and the World,” incorporates virtually all aspects of international and transnational relationships. Law has its place here as well, for it helps to reveal the workings of power even when exercised by a supposedly “weak” state. This is especially important for the early United States, as we shall see.
While I claim only limited expertise in pre-1890 U.S. foreign relations, I hope that sharing what I have learned in the following posts will help readers see some of the ways that legal history is enriching neighboring sub-fields today.