The Law of Nations and the Making of the American Republic

AHA Session 16
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Room 603 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Eliga Gould, University of New Hampshire
Natives and Empires in the Southeast, 1785–1803
Mandy Izadi, University of Oxford
Commercial Law, Imported and Re-exported
Hannah Farber, Boston College
The Law of Nations and the Rules of Gentility
Tom Cutterham, University of Birmingham
The Geopolitics of Education in the Early Republic
Mark Boonshoft, New York Public Library
Eliga Gould, University of New Hampshire

Session Abstract

Overthrowing domestic narratives of American political and legal development, recent scholarship has unequivocally demonstrated that the American Revolution and the republic it created took shape in a fraught geopolitical environment.  The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the creation of a fiscal-military state were all part of American nationalists’ efforts to build a polity that projected sovereignty outward, followed and received protection under the law of nations, and had a secure place in the international political order. 

This panel of junior scholars turns this historiographical shift in a different direction.  Keeping with this year’s theme, these papers link levels of experience, asking how the United States’ fealty to the law of nations, diplomatic insecurities, and geopolitical anxieties shaped domestic developments.  Each paper traces how different lower-level political, legal, and economic actors operated within the constraints of the law of nations, and attempted to manipulate those constraints to their own ends.

Hannah Farber’s paper moves between land and sea to argue that, while Americans often deferred to existing European commercial law, they also exported precedents set in American courtrooms to further the United State’s stature in the world of nations. Tom Cutterham shows how a vision of gentility and social order shaped the way American elites wielded the Law of Nations. He argues that they used the law to protect their power, interests, and place in a transatlantic commercial world, against a series of democratic challenges in the first decade of the new republic. Mark Boonshoft’s paper examines how nationalist politicians at the local level leveraged American geopolitical insecurity to justify retrograde forms of education.  They believed that training American elites in European-style education would check the democratization of politics and bolster traditional political authority. Izadi’s paper takes the panel out of the northern United States, examining how the mixed peoples of the Muskogee State fought to create an independent Indigenous polity in the Southeast.  Taken together, the papers suggest a new paradigm for writing the history of the early republic; one that takes seriously the entangled nature of American national development yet uses that insight to better understand the institutions and practices that organized early American life.

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