Thursday, May 30, 2019

Somos, "American States of Nature"

New from Oxford University Press: American States of Nature: The Origins of Independence, 1761-1775, by Mark Somos (Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law). A description from the Press:
American States of Nature transforms our understanding of the American Revolution and the early makings of the Constitution. The journey to an independent United States generated important arguments about the existing condition of Americans, in which rival interpretations of the term "state of nature" played a crucial role. "State of nature" typically implied a pre-political condition and was often invoked in support of individual rights to property and self-defense and the right to exit or to form a political state. It could connote either a paradise, a baseline condition of virtue and health, or a hell on earth. This mutable phrase was well-known in Europe and its empires. In the British colonies, "state of nature" appeared thousands of times in juridical, theological, medical, political, economic, and other texts from 1630 to 1810. But by the 1760s, a distinctively American state-of-nature discourse started to emerge. It combined existing meanings and sidelined others in moments of intense contestation, such as the Stamp Act crisis of 1765-66 and the First Continental Congress of 1774. In laws, resolutions, petitions, sermons, broadsides, pamphlets, letters, and diaries, the American states of nature came to justify independence at least as much as colonial formulations of liberty, property, and individual rights did. In this groundbreaking book, Mark Somos focuses on the formative decade and a half just before the American Revolution. Somos' investigation begins with a 1761 speech by James Otis that John Adams described as "a dissertation on the state of nature," and celebrated as the real start of the Revolution. Drawing on an enormous range of both public and personal writings, many rarely or never before discussed, the book follows the development of America's state-of-nature discourse to 1775. The founding generation transformed this flexible concept into a powerful theme that shapes their legacy to this day. No constitutional history of the Revolution can be written without it.
A few blurbs:
"An invaluable contribution to our understanding of the origins of the American Revolution-Somos' meticulous, closely argued analysis of the development and deployment of distinctively American ideas about the 'state of nature' offers a fresh and illuminating perspective on why patriots ultimately embraced (and loyalists resisted) the break with Britain. This is conceptual history at its very best."—Peter S. Onuf 
"In the vast volume of literature on the American Revolution, Somos' 'American States of Nature' stands out as a provocative and original contribution to its intellectual and legal history. Canvassing sources from the canonical and familiar to the unexpected and neglected, he carefully reconstructs the forgotten history of the 'state of nature' discourse in the American colonies, revealing its significance in the decades culminating in 1776. This painstaking and important work should lead us to revise conventional narratives concerning the Revolution and its relation to American constitutional origins, development, and self-understanding."—David Grewal
More information is available here.

-- Karen Tani