Friday, July 8, 2011

Law and Foreign Affairs History: A SHAFR Roundtable, part 4

From Allison Brownell Tirres, De Paul University College of Law:

 My approach was a bit different from others on the panel since I come at the subject from the perspective of a legal historian who has stumbled upon foreign relations history in the course of my work, rather than a foreign relations historian newly interested in legal history.  I began my talk by summarizing some of my research on law in the U.S./Mexico borderlands.  I've been particularly intrigued by the changes in legal culture that we can see in the west Texas borderlands of the nineteenth century.  What I have found is that there was a hybrid legal regime in place, where American law was present but practiced in Spanish, and where those of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds served together on juries and in town and county governance.  It all changed quite dramatically in the 1880s and 1890s, with the coming of the railroads.  The hybrid legal regime was replaced by a segregated and stratified legal system, with Mexican-Americans pushed out of the administration of justice (a change that I chronicle in my article Lawyers and Legal Borderlands). 

 I am working now on a book manuscript which looks not just at this regime, but also at the broader nature of southwestern legal history in the nineteenth century.  I want to trace what is distinctive about that legal culture; what were its influences and its contributions; what makes it distinct from other regions in the U.S.  The foreign relations angle is an essential part of this larger story.  A large part of what makes this region's legal history so distinctive is its proximity to a neighboring foreign sovereign.  Here in my talk I proceeded to share three observations about the intersection of foreign relations, legal history, and borderlands, in the interest of opening up the general discussion.  First, I have found that international politics permeate legal life along the border, not just political life.  This makes the border a particularly fruitful place for studying the legal history of international relations.  Along the border, foreign relations become not just a matter of conversations between distant elites but a matter of daily life, and they are interwoven in the local legal system.  We see this in the regular practice of law: in the types of controversies that arise, the options available, and the ways that they are resolved.  Importantly, we see it also in the perceptions of those who are not legal professionals.  Ordinary residents have a surprising fluency with international law and foreign politics. 

A second, and related, point has to do with the causal relationships between the local legal context and international relations.  There is rich ground to explore here.  In the late nineteenth century, the United States government struggled to control a fluid and resistant borderline.  I would argue that part of what made this enterprise so difficult was the presence of diverse and distinctive legal cultures all along the border.  In this sense, we have what I like to call the "many borders of the borderlands."  The border was defined, for the most part, not by boundary markers and maps but instead by whether and how local officials did or did not recognize and enforce it.  The third and final observation I shared during my talk deals with the distinctive interplay between international relations and borders.  What I have found in my own work as well as in the work of others is a contradiction.  Borderlands are often misunderstood, ignored, or marginalized by the sovereign power in the center.  We certainly see this in the U.S/Mexico borderlands of the nineteenth century.  I have found that during the 1850s in El Paso, for example, local residents had to step in to attempt to enforce the law and handle diplomacy, since the state was largely absent (see discussion of this in my chapter in this book).  Contrast this characterization to another one: the border as a highly sensitive diplomatic space, where one misstep could lead to war and loss of territory.  In this sense borders are overdetermined spaces, treated as vital instruments of the nation state.  We see both of these narratives in the borderlands of the nineteenth century: sovereign powers in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City both ignored and obsessed over their shared boundary line.  How and why could both of these approaches hold true?  We continue to see these contradictory impulses along the border today, with the border fence being but the most recent example.