Sovereignty, Property and Empire: Early Modern English Contexts

Martti Koskenniemi


This Article is based on a larger work that seeks to map the uses of different legal vocabularies by ambitious European legal and political thinkers in the period of c. 1300-1800 in order to defend, explain and organize the exercise of power outside the domestic commonwealth. The Article examines the ways in which English legal languages (civil law, common law, natural law, jus gentium) were used to think about, propagate and defend English transatlantic expansion. For most of that time, in their relations public and private power remained closely interwoven. The pluralism of English law also contributed to the appearance of arguments from property and sovereignty in different configurations so that it is often hard to figure out which precise connotation is being made. The uses also varied significantly from Continental practices. I am above all interested in the imperial or colonial significance of these arguments. The point that emerges here is that by 1800, a conception of British Empire had arisen where the exercise of sovereign power was clearly derivative from and supplementary to claims about private property.

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