Sovereignty and world history.
Sovereignty's facile utility as a concept, however, is also its undoing as a subject of historical analysis. Simply put, some have succumbed to the temptation to think of sovereignty in universal terms, as a "fact." This in turn beckons us down the narrowing path of teleology, searching for sovereignty's birth and maturation in the past rather than asking how the peoples of the past understood the term and its fitful operation and application in their own worlds over time.
The articles in this issue invite us to treat sovereignty differently and with greater nuance. Rather than search for its origins or discover when it reached its modern, static form, these articles probe how notions of sovereignty intermingled with articulations of empire, and how strategies to extend power have worked within ornate systems of law. Taken together, they offer new ways of conceiving sovereignty as a set of strategies that shifted according to emerging matrices of necessity or ambition. Conceptions of sovereignty operated within deep political, economic, and legal contexts which subsequently determined their meaning, development, and expression. These articles each explore the context within which sovereignty developed.
A useful idea that emerges in these articles is that definitions and conceptions of sovereignty had primary importance. European and American imperial efforts to possess the new world depended principally upon the ability of states to project power, and part of that power in turn became the justification of the possession. This justification revealed how imperial powers understood themselves and their own limitations. It also had practical and far-reaching consequences to which numerous territorial and jurisdictional claims litigated in the twentieth century attest. More immediately, the multiplicity of options available to imperial powers had consequences for how empires imagined their own relationship to territory and to indigenous peoples.
If sovereignty was an important concept, it was nonetheless not singular in its formulation or its application in the early modern world or its recapitulation or articulation in the modern world. The articles in this issue demonstrate variously how notions of sovereignty contain elisions and discrepancies. The articles also offer new and creative ways of conceptualizing sovereignty as a spatial and temporal construct. Because sovereign nations have had to deal with the movement of goods and persons that did not neatly conform with static notions of territorial boundaries, the creation of anomalous spaces has provided novel approaches to sovereign jurisdiction. Guantanamo Bay is just such a space, but so too were the bonded warehouses in U.S. ports in the nineteenth century. The creation of related zones of exclusion or exception has become a primary approach in U.S. imperial governance, much as it was earlier with Europeans.
Valentin Jeutner leads off this issue with an article exploring the symbols of sovereignty in the age of exploration. As European powers jockeyed for position in the territory race, so too did their justification for possession. While this produced its share of oddities--swimming to an island to erect a cross, for instance--Jeutner argues that such rituals signaled a new age in which possession depended upon specific action rather than religious justification or papal decree. Dylan Ruediger follows by contrasting different approaches to cross-cultural killings in British North America. What Virginia called a diplomatic issue Massachusetts called a crime, resulting in substantive difference in colonial policy and settlement. Sovereignty was not conceived of singularly by British colonists at all. The variance demonstrates that sovereignty embodied in legal practice differed significantly just at the point when philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke reimagined sovereignty in political terms. But liberalism would indeed have its effects. As Michael Schoeppner demonstrates in his contribution, black sailors in the early nineteenth century encountered a dizzying and contradictory set of regulations in United States ports. While they often faced jail time for their service upon ships that landed in southern ports, they could also engage lawyers in northern ports to enforce the terms of their contracts when taken advantage of by ship captains. Black mariners could find jurisdictional and conceptual spaces in which they could be treated as formal equals at law with whites.
Transnational history is the theme of the next three articles. Daniel Margolies considers sovereignty in terms of both time and space. By creating bonded warehouses in U.S. ports that were simultaneously within U.S. territorial borders but outside the reach of customs inspectors, the United States structured exceptions to sovereignty to strengthen sovereign intervention in the market. In a corresponding research note, Koji Furukawa considers the creation of similar jurisdictional elisions in Free Trade Zones in Okinawa. The spatialities of sovereignty are considered further by Mats Ingulstad and Lucas Lixinski, who examine how imperial powers asserted and wielded control over natural resources in South America even after the putative end of empire. In fact, the rise of Pan-Americanism in Latin America should be seen as a pro-sovereignty move made against the imperial (or at least imperious) policies of the United States regarding the development of natural resources. Veta Schlimgen follows this theme of spatiality by looking at the legacy of American empire in the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to extend U.S. jurisdiction over detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in Boumediene v. Bush (2008). Although legal commentators have focused on the Court's 5-4 holding that habeas corpus protections were available to detainees, Schlimgen points out just how much the case rests upon the language and law of nineteenth-century empire.
Our final article comes from Lauren Benton, whose scholarly work on empires and legal systems is well known. She poses a simple yet vexing question familiar to history teachers at any level, whether from kindergarten to graduate school: how do we get students to understand that the past is not merely prologue? Proper historical thinking requires that we understand sovereignty not as a fully formed and stable concept (clearly defined borders, control over those borders, etc.) against which we measure states and kingdoms of the past, but rather as an historically contingent phenomenon. When we think of sovereignty, we are almost inevitably thinking in contemporary terms of something that has only existed since (perhaps) the late-nineteenth century, and not in any universal form. We must be careful of simply grafting this concept onto interactions between empires and indigenous peoples, as well as international relations in previous centuries. Even when we are cautious, we can find that our students seem drawn to such anachronisms. Professor Benton offers us all a palliative. That graduate students (in cosmopolitan New York of all places) fall prey to anachronistic readings of sovereignty may surprise us, but it should also comfort us. The job of teaching historical thinking based on context, contingency, and change is vital and ongoing, and its work is never done.
Clearly sovereignty is not a settled concept, but rather a fluid one that is defined more by its exceptions and ambiguities than by any simple or singular definition. Each of the articles in this issue contributes to new thinking about the ways sovereignty has been formulated over time. Taken together, these articles offer several observations about sovereignty as a concept in world history and particularly as it relates to European imperial history. These articles help us gain a clearer picture of what sovereignty meant to people in the past, how it was shaped by both the political and diplomatic considerations of what was possible or desirable and the legal constraints of what was allowed, and how it was implemented. Political actors could not always use sovereign claims to achieve anything they wished, but they often found ways to bend sovereignty to fit political needs and wants. The legacy of these actions presents a view of sovereignty that resists easy definition but provides an important window for understanding how systems, states, empires, and individuals have interacted in complex ways.
It is worthwhile to note that this issue of the World History Bulletin has unwittingly emerged with a focus on the expansion of issues in Euro-American sovereignty and empire. Much work remains to be done on the substantial role that novel assertions of sovereignty played in Asian imperial systems over time, including the Mongol, Chinese, and Japanese empires, to pick some prominent and critical examples. Critical (and hopefully comparative) work on these topics remains to be done, and perhaps a future issue of World History Bulletin can highlight such approaches in new scholarship.
Robert H. Baker (Georgia State University) and Daniel Margolies (Virginia Wesleyan College)
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|Title Annotation:||Special Section: Sovereignty and World History|
|Author:||Baker, H. Robert; Margolies, Daniel|
|Publication:||World History Bulletin|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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