Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

SOVEREIGNTY, JURISDICTION, AND THE POLITICS OF CULTURAL DIFFERENCE IN EARLY AMERICA

· August 28th, 2015 · No Comments

Author Daragh Grant offers these additional reflections on “The Treaty of Hartford (1638): Reconsidering Jurisdiction in Southern New England” from the July issue of the WMQ.

Daragh writes

My article in the July issue of the WMQ — which appears in the “Sources and Interpretations” section of the journal — uses an encounter with a largely forgotten copy of the Treaty of Hartford to understand how colonial jurisdictions took shape in early America. This copy of the treaty, held among the Lansdowne manuscripts at the British Library, offers a very different picture of the accord struck between the Mohegans, the Narragansetts, and the English settlers on the Connecticut River in September 1638 than does the version of the treaty that has become canonical among historians ever since it was published as an appendix to Alden T. Vaughan’s New England Frontier.[1] The Lansdowne manuscript, which is itself incomplete, with a sizable portion of the document having been lost, includes four provisions that are entirely absent from the text reproduced by Vaughan.

Having pieced together the surviving fragments of the accord, I suggest that the reconstructed treaty and its subsequent history can reveal a great deal about the jurisdictional politics of early New England, allowing scholars to make sense of how English settlers recognized, and simultaneously aimed to restrict, the authority of Native American polities. The provisions omitted from the canonical version of the treaty, for example, suggest that the colonists at Connecticut were only too willing to recognize the independent jurisdictional authority of sachems like Canonicus, Miantonomi, and Uncas, and that they also understood this authority to be territorial in scope. In fact, I suggest that it was precisely through their recognition of some Native American jurisdictions, and crucially what they took to be the territorial and effective limits of those jurisdictions, that English settlers began to fold indigenous polities into their colonial imaginaries. By subjecting the Narragansett and Mohegan polities, as bearers of jurisdiction, to the normative standards of the law of peoples, colonial governments asserted a kind of sovereign (imperial) authority over their indigenous neighbors. Christian civility, it was assumed, qualified colonial and imperial authorities to adjudicate the quality and limits of Indian jurisdiction, whilst supposedly “savage” Indian jurisdictions were deemed incapable of passing judgment on the actions of Europeans. In this way, the distinction between sovereignty and jurisdiction emerging in Europe from the late sixteenth century onwards gave shape to the uneven relationship between English colonies and Indian polities in early America.

My wider research is focused on developing a comprehensive account of how this emergent discourse of sovereignty in early modern Europe gave shape to the encounters between English settlers and the indigenous polities that they sought to unsettle in early America. The savage/civil distinction was, of course, to take on a multiplicity of forms. In one influential strand of political thought, for example, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke represented the American Indian as exemplary of a supposedly savage and pre-political human condition. The savage Indian, in these accounts, was little more than the Other of European civility and sovereignty. At times, moreover, this savage/civil distinction was repurposed to justify the enslavement and dehumanization of vast numbers of Africans and Native Americans who were deemed peculiarly eligible for enslavement in the English plantation economies of the Atlantic world and beyond.[2] And yet alongside these treatments of Indians (and Africans) as the Others of European civility, we continually find colonists and imperial adventurers acknowledging the lawful jurisdiction of sachems throughout early America. This leaves us with the question: how were English settlers distinguishing between the kinds of jurisdictional claims that they recognized in American Indian leaders and the kinds of claims to supreme authority that they claimed for themselves and their metropolitan superiors?

To address this question in my wider research, I return to a conceit familiar to scholars of early America, namely to the idea that colonial encounters between Indians and Europeans were primarily “cultural” encounters. Over the past fifty years, scholars have rightly sought to counter a once dominant historiographical tradition that took for granted the colonists’ Othering of Indians, depicting Native Americans as wandering savages inhabiting an uncultivated wilderness. However, while recovering the rich histories of Native North America, these scholars unwittingly reproduce the logic of the Indian Other that they seek to repudiate. By depicting colonial encounters as necessarily cultural, where Indians and Europeans met one another across a “cultural gulf,” scholars have assumed a fixity and coherence to the identities of Indians and Europeans that is itself the product, rather than the premise, of colonial encounters.

To be sure, English colonists who arrived in what would become New England and the Narragansetts, Mohegans, or other Indian peoples who farmed, ruled, hunted, and laid claim to those lands understood the world in very different terms. The semiotic systems and practices by which they rendered their worlds intelligible were obviously distinct, at least initially, and it stands to reason that as they attempted to make sense of the world that they shared, their interactions were colored by misunderstandings and confusions that produced conflict as easily as they facilitated cooperation. However, none of this can account for why the colonial encounters of early America came to be conceived as encounters between cultures, understood as highly coherent, integrated, and clearly bounded wholes. To presume that “cultures,” albeit subject to change over time, were simply there as the unavoidable context against which colonial encounters took place is to strip assertions of cultural difference, as well as the persistence or not of cultural practices, of their potential political significance.[3] It is, as the political theorist Patchen Markell has put it, to treat culture not as something that we do, but as “a resource we have, and … a way of life that has us.”[4] By historicizing the enduring political salience that mundane cultural differences took on in early America, we can uncover the political work done by the insistence on a cultural divide separating Europeans and Native Americans in American history. This politics is nowhere more evident, I suggest, than in the division of the world into spaces of ordered civility and savage lawlessness. This attempt to reorder the world from the standpoint of European civility was bound up with the struggle for imperial sovereignty in America and came to underpin the structures of white supremacy that continue to plague us today.

[1] Alden T. Vaughan’s New England Frontier Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1965), 340–41. Vaughan drew this copy of the treaty, which was likely first recorded for the 1705 hearing of the Mohegan land case, from Elisha R. Potter, Jr.’s The Early History of Narragansett, in Collections of the Rhode-Island Historical Society 3 (1835):177–78.

[2] I have recently investigated the relationship between the charge of savagery and a person’s eligibility for enslavement in Anglo-America in Daragh Grant, “‘Civilizing’ the Colonial Subject: The Co-evolution of State and Slavery in South Carolina, 1670-1739,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 57, no. 3 (July 2015): 606–36, especially 623–30.

[3] I am indebted here to three recent essays on the conceptualization of culture. David Scott, “Culture in Political Theory,” Political Theory 31, no. 1 (February 2003): 92–115; William H. Sewell, Jr., “The Concept(s) of Culture,” in The Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 152–74; Lisa Wedeen, “Conceptualizing Culture: Possibilities for Political Science,” American Political Science Review 96, no. 4 (December 2002): 713–28.

[4] Patchen Markell, Bound by Recognition (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 171–77, quoted 171.

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