Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Legal History Through a Rear View Mirror 2

Back in the later 1970s, when I was beginning work on what became my first book, I had a
revelation. At the New-York Historical Society, in the papers of several merchants, I found and began reading the “waterlot grants” that the eighteenth century Corporation of the City of New York (basically the city government) negotiated with those merchants. Through those complex deeds, the city offered shoreline that it owned (according to its corporate charter), in exchange for commitments on the part of merchants to construct “public” wharves and slips and the streets that bordered the shore, to build the infrastructure of a mercantile city. Such “waterlot grants,” which it turned out filled many pages of the municipal records, as well as the private papers of merchants, allowed me to explore how an early modern corporation “worked.”

In doing so, and in constructing a narrative founded on the discontinuity between the corporate history I was studying and modern corporate histories, I built on historiographical insights that came from several literatures that I had been reading into. My readings were ones characteristic of a 1970s graduate student who wanted to become an American legal historian. That is, I drew from English municipal histories, from some of the classics of English legal history (particularly my reading of Frederick Maitland), from my critical engagement with the regnant texts in American corporate history at that time, from the growing literature on civic republicanism, and from my crude understanding of Foucault’s arguments in Les Mots et Les Choses (which had not long before appeared in English as The Order of Things). I was also trying to make space for myself within a legal historical field that I felt was defined by the terms articulated by Morton Horwitz (my teacher), in his first Transformation of American Law.

I spent many hours reading and rereading those waterlot deeds. I wrote many pages that
unpacked much of the arcane property law doctrine that waterlot grants incorporated. In the end, I managed to put together what at the time felt to me like a satisfying portrait of how a waterlot grant exemplified early modern governance. I argued that corporate leaders were solving a fundamental problem of the time: about how to achieve necessary public purposes — like building wharves and docks for a seafaring city and also street construction and cleaning —without either a municipal workforce or a capacity to levy taxes. By exchanging waterlots for services and development by individual proprietors, the corporation enlarged the borders of the city, and it laid the foundation for what would become a global port, a world city.

In those days, I relentlessly situated those waterlot grants within the history of the corporation, implicitly situating the “municipal corporation” of New York City within the history of the business corporation. My attention was always focused on the public-private split, and little else. Which is not really surprising, given how much attention the public-private split held at that time in what I was reading, in the contemporary and argumentative field of legal history.

At various times since then, I have wondered about what I did not attend to. At the time I thought little about the actual shipping that those merchants who received waterlot grants engaged in. The commercial life of the city I left to others, who would explore what the merchants actually did with their properties. I thought about the waterlots through the lens of a certain kind of 1970s political economy, what might be called an “older” history of capitalism, but not through the lens of the transAtlantic slave trade. And not through what later would be called the “new” history of capitalism. And I left the environmental impacts of reclaiming land from the rivers and from the sea to others, to those who were plying the then new field of environmental history.

Still, I thought I had worked through all the ways that those waterlot grants exemplified
eighteenth century private property law. And I had read them closely for those purposes.
And yet, now I find myself reading Debjani Bhattacharyya’s new book on ecology and Calcutta, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta. And that offers a new revelation. Back in the late 1970s it never occurred to me that watery spaces are a very odd form of property, if property at all. It never occurred to me, though it should have, that both the merchants and the members of the corporation (who often were the same men) were engaged in a difficult and imaginative enterprise, of making land from water. I never really thought about the watery spaces that surrounded the city as a commons. Or if I did, implicitly I might have assumed (in a quasi Turnerian way) that those watery spaces were “empty lands” awaiting settlement and colonization by “the city.” And I probably assumed, as legal historians often do, that there was a body of private law — property law — that could be drawn out of medieval and early modern England to be applied by the legally adept commercial leaders of the tiny colonial city of New York. English property could be naturally and unproblematically plastered on to the space that was, or would be, the waterlot. Law was a known and eminently useful set of resources.

But from Bhattacharyya, I learn that watery places are something more than space waiting for an expanding city. Her book “maps the transformation of what may be called soaking ecologies into a political economy of property from the late eighteenth century onward. This process of transformation happened through a braiding together of two registers of colonial power. . . One was the legal register where the ecologically variable entities of the marshes and bogs were literally translated into landed property through naming, classifying[,] and arbitrating ownership.

The other technological register consisted of the operations of drying and draining the landscape.” In addition she theorizes brilliantly about the ways that the process of making watery space into land is followed by processes of “forgetting,” that make the new, the reclaimed, land look as it was always merely landed property, and nothing else.

The conversion of watery places into land is and was arduous legally, just as it was physically difficult. To produce land — the draining and drying of land — required creative and innovative lawyering. There were models in the available legal past (I remember looking at deeds used for wharves built on early modern English cities. And there was, though I didn’t attend to them, many models available from Dutch and Flemish history). But turning water into land was (always? inevitably?) a bespoke process.

There is so much I would do differently today, if I chose to write once again about New York’s waterlot grants. Bhattacharyya’s book shows some of the ways I would do so. In particular, I would read those deeds differently. They needed different contexts. They needed the kind of imaginative work that Bhattacharyya’s book exemplifies to reveal what lay beneath (or in the water). They needed attention to the legal processes involved in draining and drying. And they needed attention to the work of forgetting.

I write this not apologetically. Rather, it is to remind myself (and others) that we always write
within a historically given disciplinary and interdisciplinary context. And those contexts change. We learn different things. We attend to what seems “right” at the time. Some older ways of doing things fall by the wayside. Others reappear. We are not prisoners of our time, but we live in a historical moment. And we live with constrained historical imaginations.

--Dirk Hartog