2008-09 Symposium on Comparative Early Modern Legal History

The Law of Nations and the Early Modern Atlantic World

Organized by Eliga Gould, University of New Hampshire, and Richard Ross, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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.

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.

Panel 1: The Law of Nations and European Conquest Ideology in the Americas

“Roman Law and Inter-Imperial Legalities: Constructing Claims in the South Atlantic World”
Lauren Benton, New York University

“The Idea of Conquest in the English Atlantic World”
Ken Macmillan, University of Calgary

“The Legalities of English Colonizing: Discourses of Intrusion on the North American Mainland, 1450-1640”
Chris Tomlins, American Bar Foundation

Commentator 1: Jovita Baber, Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 
Commentator 2: Richard Helmholz, University of Chicago 
Chair: Christopher Warren, University of Chicago

Panel 2: The Law of Nations and State Formation

“Connecticut, the Crown and the Mohegans: Native Rights and Settler Authority in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic”
Craig Yirush, University of California, Los Angeles

“‘On an Equal Footing’: Constitution-Making and the Law of Nations in Early America”
David Golove, New York University and Daniel Hulsebosch, New York University

Commentator 1: Alison LaCroix, University of Chicago 
Commentator 2: Eric Slauter, University of Chicago

Panel 3: The Problematic Nature of the Law of Nations Outside the European Atlantic: The Cases of Africa and the Islamic Maghrib

“Politics in Africa: Limits of the ‘Law of Nations’”
Joseph Miller, University of Virginia

“Sultans, Monarchs, Pirates: Early Modern Muslim-Christian Negotiations”
John Voll, Georgetown University

Commentator 1: Max Edelson, Illinois at Urbana-Champaign History
Commentator 2: Claire Priest, Northwestern University

Panel 4: The Law of Nations, Humanitarianism, and “Universalism”

“On the Margins of Europe: The Law of Nations in the Western Atlantic, circa 1755”
Eliga Gould, University of New Hampshire

“‘A New Vattel’: Jeremy Bentham and the Law of Nations”
David Armitage, Harvard University

“Antislavery Courts and the Dawn of International Human Rights Law”
Jenny Martinez, Stanford University

Commentator 1: Theodore Christov, Northwestern University
Commentator 2: Daniel Hamilton, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 
Chair: Richard Ross, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign