Of the various changes associated with Europe’s post-1492 expansion, few were more important than the pan-European development of what came to be known as the law of nations. Aware of this significance, Atlantic historians have increasingly asked about the role of the law of nations in the transatlantic suppression of piracy, in the enslavement of non-Europeans in Africa and America, and in the dispossession of Indian land. There is also growing interest among scholars of early modern Europe and the Atlantic world in exactly what Europeans understood the law of nations to be and in how such conceptions fluctuated according to time and place. The status of the law of nations became particularly complicated at the often-permeable boundary between international and municipal bodies of law, and in European encounters with other legalities, whether within Europe (as in the English suppression of Brehon law in Gaelic Ireland) or outside Europe (as in the Americas and on the fringes of the Islamic world in Africa and the Mediterranean).Attendance at the Symposium is free and open to the public. Participants and attendees should preregister by contacting the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 312-255-3514. More information is here or at Rjross@illinois.edu or at 217-244-7890.
The goal of this conference is to see where scholarship on the law of nations in the early modern Atlantic currently stands, and to highlight points of connection and dissonance within what is, by its nature, a dispersed and fragmented subject. As part of this objective, the conference will consider several broad themes. We will explore the internal European structure of the law of nations, examining its intellectual roots in Roman law, the law of Oleron, and — though rarely acknowledged by European and colonial American jurists — Islam. Because the law of nations was itself part of the legal pluralism that characterized all of Europe’s maritime empires, this part of the discussion will include the law’s often fraught relationship to municipal legalities such as England’s common law. We will also examine the paradox — inherent to all international legal regimes — of a body of law whose precepts depended on nothing more than a culturally specific disposition to obey them: what Blackstone called “universal consent among the civilized inhabitants of the world.” Another theme is the growing importance of the state and the corresponding loss of status by groups who could not claim the benefits of statehood, in Europe no less than in the outer world. And we will consider the law’s complex relationship to the settler revolutions that destroyed the Atlantic empires of Britain and Spain.
The law of nations guided European interaction with foreign laws and customs, many of which European jurists regarded as barbaric and uncivilized. Because the law of nations depended on a shared culture of civility, Europeans in the outer Atlantic viewed respect for the law’s precepts as part of the civilizing process that distinguished their own societies from those of the “lawless” peoples whom they sought to conquer or displace. Yet as the conference will discuss, Europeans and non-Europeans alike were also adept at manipulating the law of nations to accommodate non-European legal and cultural forms. In the case of slavery, both European and American jurists traced the legitimacy of chattel servitude in the western Atlantic to the customs of Africa’s slave factories; conversely, Europeans often had no choice but to observe indigenous customs in treaties with groups like Native Americans and West Indian maroons. One of the conference’s larger goals will be to assess the various ways in which the Atlantic world’s “many legalities” signaled the limits of European hegemony, as well as to think about ways in which the law of nations’ inherent legal pluralism was simultaneously a bulwark of imperial power.
Here are the panels, papers and commentators:
The Law of Nations and European Conquest Ideology in the Americas
Lauren Benton (NYU History): “Roman Law and Inter-Imperial Legalities: Constructing Claims in the South Atlantic World”
Ken Macmillan (Calgary History): “The Idea of Conquest in the English Atlantic World”
Chris Tomlins (American Bar Foundation): “The Legalities of English Colonizing: Discourses of Intrusion on the North American Mainland, 1450-1640”
Commentators: Jovita Baber (Illinois at Urbana-Champaign History), Richard Helmholz (University of Chicago Law)
The Law of Nations and State Formation
Craig Yirush (UCLA History): “Colonies as Quasi-States: The New England Confederation in the Atlantic World”
David Golove (NYU Law) and Daniel Hulsebosch (NYU Law): “‘On an Equal Footing’: Constitution-making and the Law of Nations in Early America”
Commentators: Alison LaCroix (University of Chicago Law), Eric Slauter (University of Chicago English)
The Problematic Nature of the Law of Nations Outside the European Atlantic: The Cases of Africa and the Islamic Maghrib
Joseph Miller (Virginia History): “Politics in Africa: Limits of the ‘Law of Nations’”
John Voll (Georgetown History): “Sultans, Monarchs, Pirates: Early Modern Muslim-Christian Negotiations”
Commentators: Max Edelson (Illinois at Urbana-Champaign History), Claire Priest (Northwestern Law)
The Law of Nations, Humanitarianism, and “Universalism”
Eliga Gould (New Hampshire History): “On the Margins of Europe: The Law of Nations in the Western Atlantic, circa 1755”
David Armitage (Harvard History): “‘A New Vattel’: Jeremy Bentham and the Law of Nations”
Jenny Martinez (Stanford Law): “Antislavery Courts and the Dawn of International Human Rights Law”
Commentators: Theodore Christov (Northwestern Political Science), Daniel Hamilton (Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Law)