In the blog posted on 1/1 (happy new year to all!!) I engaged with one of my major obsessions: the wish to promote a dialogue between historians working on empire, most particularly, those interested in Anglo and Spanish America (and their successor states). Clearly, many among us reject the once-upon-a-time distinction between “good” colonialism and “bad” colonialism. This distinction sent many generations to the idea that Anglo-colonialism was a settlers’, peaceful colonialism, whereby Spanish colonialism involved conquest and destruction. Yet, despite scholarly rebuttal, raising kids in the US and teaching here had me constantly witness the persistence of these very ideologically-driven images. It had led me to believe that these ideas – already invoked during the colonial period—were central also to the way some Americans imagined the westward expansion (and hence, my engagement with Turner’s Frontier thesis), as well as American history at-large. In this process of “romancing and repulsion,” as some scholars have identified it, Spain (and Spanish America) functioned as an alter ego of the emerging USA. I often asked myself: as a mother and as a legal historian of Spanish America teaching in the US, how should I deal with this legacy?
My answer was the type of exercise I suggested in the first blog. It involves an operating assumption that early modern (and even 19th century) legal cultures were much more cosmopolitan than we give them credit. Law was not a national affair, and neither were religion or the republic of letters. The scholars of the school of Salamanca, cited presently as fundamental to the development of the early Law of Nations, for example, were not Spanish authors writing to a Spanish audience. They were Christian theologians, writing to a Christian community not yet divided along confessionary lines and certainly not partitioned along national jurisdictions. Neither was Locke a British creation. He was a pan-European intellectual, who was nurtured as well as contributed to debates taking place across the continent. Whether they called it Natural law or the Law of Nations, the law he and others referenced was a common heritage that tied Europeans together, sending them back to Roman and Canon law.
The independence of the USA (as well as the independence of the Latin American states) of course introduced major changes, yet much of the old law and old practices persisted. In other words, though in the 19th century separate roads were taken, many of them still led in the same direction, at least with respect to expansion and empire.
Because I also work on European legal history (and recently published a book on the topic), in the next three blogs, my intention is to “abandon” empire and discuss instead the laws of Europe. There, I am particularly interested in asking whether there is a European law that is different than the sum total of the individual laws of the individuals European states. Can we tell the story of the emergence of law in Europe without successive chapters on Italy, Germany, France, England, Spain, and the like? If we did, what would this narrative include? I am also intrigued by affirmations of English exceptionalism. Were the laws of England truly distinct from the rest of Europe? If so, in what way?
After I engage with these questions – that form the bulk of my most recent work—I plan to return to colonialism and empire. My intention is to discuss the relations between historians interested in native peoples and historians interested in empire as well as to observe how citizenship operated in the early modern period on imperial scale.
I hope to finish this journey, sometime late in the month, with an entry on research and productivity, including some preliminary conclusions on what I have learned thus far (and what I hope to still learn in the future).
Welcome, and thank you for giving me this opportunity!