Conquest and the ‘Right to Hold’

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Dr Charles W. A. Prior, Leverhulme Research Fellowship, 2017-19
Conquest and the ‘Right to Hold’: Territorial Sovereignty and the American Revolution 

There is a consensus among historians that the struggle to protect and expand political rights lies at the heart of the American Revolution. Yet the colonists were not merely migrants whose anger against taxation sparked an imperial crisis: they were settlers in a territory that was largely occupied by Indians, claimed by the British Crown, and contested by European powers. Put simply, settlers were ‘suspended between two cores – one of them European, the other Native American’.

How did this ‘suspension’ shape settler political ideas, and particularly their sense of territorial sovereignty? Thanks to the work of historians of the Revolution, we have a deep and nuanced understanding of the issues and arguments that defined colonial and metropolitan positions on political sovereignty. Likewise, historians of Indian America have demonstrated how settlers employed treaties as a means of absorbing Indian territory. However, there have been very few attempts to combine these facets of the same story, in order to gauge how interaction and conflict with Indians shaped settlers’ broader views of sovereignty and power.

To illustrate and analyse this interaction, the project offers a comprehensive and contextualised reading of treaties and laws concluded by settler governments and various Indian groups between the Grand Settlement (1701) and the second Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784). The interpretation of these documents is informed by historical approaches that have not been systematically applied to the American Revolution, namely the concept of settler sovereignty; the legal geography of settler / Indian relations; and the use of treaties and laws as instruments for establishing territorial sovereignty.

The core objective of this research is to integrate disputes over constitutional principles between settlers and the Crown with an analysis of the ways in which settlers employed a linked process of conquest and law-making to extend and defend their territorial sovereignty. This process was explicitly recounted in Thomas Jefferson’s defence of settler rights, in which he employed conquest as the basis of American territorial sovereignty: ‘for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold. Similarly, in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson repeated the idea that settlement was ‘effected at the expense of our own blood and treasure’. These words were cut from the final version, and it was not until the advent of the ‘new’ Western and Indian histories in the 1970s that ‘conquest’ was restored to the historical lexicon.

In early discussions of international law, conquest – along with cession and treaties – was listed as a legitimate means by which states acquired territorial sovereignty. By 1776, sovereignty had displaced conquest in legal understandings of the power of states. The Declaration identified the American colonies as states ‘among the powers of the earth’ and possessing the sovereign power ‘to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce’. Historians take this declaration of ‘new’ powers as a key juncture, when British colonies became American states. In fact, these were old powers that had been exercised by settlers and their governments since the 1620s, through their intense diplomatic interactions with Indians, on whom they levied war, and with whom they concluded peace, contracted alliances, and established commerce. The sole reference to Indians in the Declaration – that the Crown had ‘endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian savages’ – describes a protracted process of violence within and beyond zones of settlement that contemporaries described as ‘frontiers’.

This project extends that perspective back into the colonial period to demonstrate how arguments informed by the law of nations were employed to legitimise conquest, which in turn served as the basis for claims to the territorial sovereignty of nascent American ‘states’. This process took place within territories that would ultimately form the imperial domain defined by the Proclamation of 1763. A product of British victory over France, the Proclamation consolidated Crown dominion in the east, limited the further westward expansion of settlement, and evicted settlers from lands that were ‘reserved’ to Indians. Where the Crown claimed territory based on a historic doctrine of discovery, and a legal cession by the French empire via the Treaty of Paris, the settler claim (articulated by Jefferson) was based on a historic process of conquest. The American east was Indian country, and it was transformed by competing imperial and indigenous claims to territorial sovereignty – the American Revolution belongs to that process of transformation, and forms a key continuity between the colonial and federal periods.