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American States of Nature: The Origins of Independence

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In this seminar, Mark Somos (Humboldt Foundation Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law) will sketch the key arguments of his recently-released monograph [], with questions and comments from Duncan Kelly (Professor of Political Thought and Intellectual History, Cambridge), and then an open Q&A and discussion. Brief excerpts of the monograph will be circulated in advance to seminar participants to enable their engagement.

Somos’ work traces the thousands of references to a ‘state of nature’ in juridical, theological, medical, political, economic, and other texts in the British American colonies between 1630 and 1810. ‘State of nature’ could refer to humans’ pre-political condition; interstate relations; nudity; hell; or innocence. However, Somos argues that, by the 1760s, a coherent and distinctively American state of nature discourse started to emerge, combining existing meanings and sidelining others in moments of intense contestation such as the Stamp Act crisis (1765–66) and the First Continental Congress (1774). This American state of nature, in which the colonists’ natural rights became collective rights, came to justify independence as much as well-known formulations of liberty, property, and individual rights did.

Somos suggests that the founding generation self-consciously transformed the flexible ‘state of nature’ concept into a powerful theme that shaped the Revolution and early constitutional design; as well as the Latin American and European revolutions, and reforms that looked to the US, until the mid-nineteenth century. From maritime disputes to gay marriage, a distinct American state of nature discourse continues to frame US constitutional and international law to this day.

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This talk is part of the Legal Histories beyond the State series.

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