Afternoon Tea: “Albert Venn Dicey and the Constitutional Theory of Empire”

In the post-1945 world, constitutionalism has transcended the nation-state, with an array of transnational arrangements now manifesting constitutional characteristics — so says a growing number of scholars. This paper reveals an earlier but largely forgotten discourse of transnational constitutionalism: the constitutional theory of the British Empire in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Focusing on the work of Albert Venn Dicey, the paper shows that, when the Empire was at the height of its power and prestige, British constitutional scholars came to see the Empire as a constitutional order and project. For Dicey, a committed constitutionalist and imperialist, the central dynamic of the imperial constitutional order was balancing British constitutional principles with imperial unity. This paper focuses in particular on parliamentary sovereignty, a constitutional principle that for Dicey was both necessary for and dangerous to the Empire’s integrity. An exercise in intellectual history, the paper rethinks Dicey’s work and the constitutional tradition in which Dicey has played such an integral part, seeking to bring empire back into the picture.

This is from Dylan Lino, a legal theorist at the University of Western Australia’s Law School. Here is the link.

Afternoon Tea: “English Liberties Outside England: Floors, Doors, Windows, and Ceilings in the Legal Architecture of Empire”

We tend to think of global migration and the problem of which legal rights people enjoy as they cross borders as modern phenomena. They are not. The question of emigrant rights was one of the foundational issues in what can be called the constitution of the English empire at the beginning of transatlantic colonization in the seventeenth century. This essay analyzes one strand of this constitutionalism, a strand captured by the resonant term, ‘the liberties and privileges of Englishmen’. Almost every colonial grant – whether corporate charter, royal charter, or proprietary grant – for roughly two dozen imagined, projected, failed, and realized overseas ventures contained a clause stating that the emigrants would enjoy the liberties, privileges and immunities of English subjects. The clause was not invented for transatlantic colonization. Instead, it had medieval roots. Accordingly, royal drafters, colonial grantees, and settlers penned and read these guarantees against the background of traditional interpretations about what they meant.

Soon, however, the language of English liberties and privileges escaped the founding documents, and contests over these keywords permeated legal debates on the meaning and effects of colonization. Just as the formula of English liberties and privileges became a cornerstone of England’s constitutional monarchy, it also became a foundation of the imperial constitution. As English people brought the formula west, they gave it new meanings, and then they returned with it to England and created entirely new problems.

This is from Daniel J. Hulsebosch, a historian at NYU’s Law School. Here is a link.

Afternoon Tea: “‘Chief Princes and Owners of All’: Native American Appeals to the Crown in the Early Modern British Atlantic”

This paper uncovers these indigenous norms by looking at a little-studied legal genre: the appeals made by Native Americans to the British Crown in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These appeals show that they were aware of (and able to exploit) the complicated politics of the British Atlantic world for their own ends, turning the Crown against the settlers in ways they hoped would preserve their rights, and in the process becoming trans-Atlantic political actors. Focusing on three such appeals – the Narragansetts’ in the mid-seventeenth-century; the Mohegans’ which spanned the first three quarters of the eighteenth; and the Mashpee’s on the eve of the American Revolution – this paper explores the way that these Native peoples in eastern North America were able to resist the depredations of the settlers by appealing to royal authority, in the process articulating a powerful conception of their legal status in a world transformed by the arrival of the English. In doing so, it brings an indigenous voice to the debates about the legalities of empire in the early modern Atlantic world.

This is from Craig Yirush, a historian at UCLA. Here is a link.


  1. The criminal as entrepreneur Cedric Muhammad, American Affairs
  2. Did the British Empire depend on separating families? Sumit Guha, Not Even Past
  3. What does nationalism mean in a contested state? Daniel Solomon, New Republic
  4. ‘In the long run we are all dead’ Adam Tooze, London Review of Books

World War I: a pity

I will be dedicating many, if not most, of my columns at RealClearHistory to World War I over the next few months, mostly because it’s been 100 years since an armistice ended a war that was supposed to end all wars. Some of my thoughts will be heavy, but some, like this week’s, will be playful:

3. The Dervish state. This small state in the Horn of Africa was renowned throughout Europe and the Middle East for ably fending off challenges from Italians, the British, and the Ottomans during the roughly 25 years of its existence. The Dervish state openly resisted attempts at colonization during the Scramble for Africa and was recognized as a major ally by the German Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Being a small, independent state in the Horn of Africa, Dervish’s leaders played it smart and offered Ottoman and German troops assistance lightly, preferring instead to pay close attention to the realities of its allies’ war situation. When Istanbul and Berlin surrendered in 1918, no tears were shed by the Dervish. The state was conquered by the British Empire two years later, in 1920.

The piece is about some of the countries that played lesser roles in World War I. Please, read the whole thing. Any suggestions for next week’s column? (Bearing in mind that the theme is World War I.)

Empire effects : the case of shipping

I have been trying, for some time now, to circle an issue that we can consider to be a cousin of the emerging “state capacity” literature (see Mark Koyama’s amazing summary here). This cousin is the literature on “empire effects” (here and here for examples).

The core of the “empire effect” claim is that empires provide global order which we can consider as a public good. A colorful image would be the British Navy roaming the seas in the 19th century which meant increased protection for trade. This is why it is a parent of the state capacity argument in the sense that the latter concept refers (broadly) to the ability of a state to administer the realm within its boundaries. The empire effect is merely the extension of these boundaries.

I still have reservations about the nuances/limitations of state capacity as an argument to explain economic growth. After all, the true question is not how states consolidate, but how they create constraints on rulers to not abuse the consolidated powers (which in turn generates room for growth). But, it is easy to heavily question its parent: the empire effect.

This is what I am trying to do in a recent paper on the effects of empire on shipping productivity between 1760 and 1860.

Shipping is one of the industry that is most likely to be affected by large empires – positively or negatively. Indeed, the argument for empire effects is that they protect trade. As such, the British navy in the 19th century protected trade and probably helped the shipping industry become more productive. But, achieving empire comes at a cost. For example, the British navy needed to grow very large in size and it had to employ inputs from the private sector thus crowding-it out. In a way, if a security effect from empire emerged as a benefit, there must have been a cost. The cost we wish to highlight is the crowding-out one.

In the paper (written with Jari Eloranta of Appalachian State University and Vadim Kufenko of University of Hohenheim), I argue that, using the productivity of the Canadian shipping industry which was protected by the British Navy, the security effect from a large navy was smaller than the crowding-out from high-levels of expenditures on the navy.

While it is still a working paper which we are trying to expand and improve, our point is that what allowed the productivity of the Canadian shipping industry (which was protected by Britain) to soar was that the British Navy grew smaller in absolute terms. While the growth of the relative strength of the British Navy did bolster productivity in some of our tests, the fact that the navy was much smaller was the “thing in the mix that did the trick”.  In other words, the empire effect is just the effect of a ramping-down in military being presented as something else than it truly is (at least partly).

That’s our core point. We are still trying to improve it and (as such) comments are welcomed.