Monday, April 8, 2019

Ostdiek and Witt on the International Arbitration of Escaped Slaves in the Early Republic

Bennett Ostdiek, a student at the Yale Law School, and John Fabian Witt, a professor there, have posted The Czar and the Slaves: Two Puzzles in the History of International Arbitration, which appeared in the American Journal of International Law (2018):
In 1822, the Russian Czar Alexander decided an arbitration between the United Kingdom and the United States over the fate of 5,000 enslaved persons who fled to British lines at the end of the War of 1812. American observers have asserted for more than a century that the Czar’s decision, which has gone down in history as one of the canonical Anglo-American arbitrations of the Early Republic, favored the United States. But did the U.S. really win? Secretary of State John Quincy Adams complained at the time that the decision was not sufficiently clear. And new debate has broken out in the historical literature. This article resolves the question, relying in part on new evidence from diplomatic archives in the United States and the United Kingdom. We show that, as a formal matter, the Czar sided with the United States, though the arbitration proved useful to U.K. statesmen as well. The curious case of the Czar and the slaves also poses a second puzzle about the relationship between slavery and the emergence of modern international law. Even as the U.K. was beginning to use international law to oppose the slave trade, the United States aimed to turn some of international law’s institutions into powerful bastions of support for slavery.

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