University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Political Thought and Intellectual History > 'This Melancholy Labyrinth': Magistrates and Order in the Early Nineteenth-Century British Empire

'This Melancholy Labyrinth': Magistrates and Order in the Early Nineteenth-Century British Empire

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Commentator: Michael Lobban (Queen Mary, London)

Some historians have characterized the proliferation of rights talk in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Atlantic world as marking a profound shift in political thought and culture. Atlantic revolutions supposedly broadcast the idea of universally held individual rights, while abolitionism worked to convert compassion for slaves into international law doctrine by portraying slave traders as violators of universally held rights. Writing against this view, other scholars have portrayed anti-slavery movements as primarily aimed at extending the state’s purview over private jurisdictions and have emphasized continuities from ancien régime to post-revolutionary imperial law. This paper seeks to reconcile elements of both perspectives by analyzing rights talk in the context of concerns about intra-imperial and inter-imperial order in the early nineteenth century. The paper examines legal arguments of abolitionists, in particular those of James Stephen, and suggests that references to order (a stand-in for the common good) worked to group several strands of rights talk and to promote a particular vision of imperial constitutionalism. The paper also considers prominent cases and legal projects in the empire in the first decades of the nineteenth century to show the convergence of responses in calling for reform of the colonial magistracy.

This talk is part of the Political Thought and Intellectual History series.

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