Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog


· February 24th, 2022 · No Comments

by David Armitage

David Armitage is the author of “George III and the Law of Nations” in the January 2022 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.

The world of historical journals, like that of many airlines, has three classes of service: coach, business, and the William and Mary Quarterly. Coach has few frills but gets you where you need to go: into the hands of readers. Business isn’t much different, but you get a bit more attention and feel special, even if you end up at just the same place. But the Quarterly is in a class of its own. From that first warm greeting by your pilot, Josh Piker, through the anticipation of all your needs during the review process, to the scrupulous scrutiny of every aspect of your journey through copy-editing, flying into print with WMQ is an incomparable experience.

Sadly, I can’t say I’m a frequent flyer with WMQ but I have been lucky enough to upgrade now for two long-haul trips and a couple of other short hops by invitation. They say you never forget your first time and I still recall the pride and pleasure of taking WMQ in 2002—the January issue, to be precise. That was when I published “The Declaration of Independence and International Law,” an article that was meant to wrap up an interest in links between the American Revolution and the contemporary law of nations. That hope proved shortsighted. The propulsion that comes from appearing in the Quarterly put the piece in many hands, and a fortunate series of accidents led to the publication, five years later, of a short book that grew from the essay, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Harvard UP, 2007).

Historians rightly suspect clean causal chains, but I can be quite certain I would never have written that book if my initial findings had lacked the Quarterly’s much-sought imprimatur. Books—even books incubated by the Quarterly—have their own lives, and I assumed, yet again, that I was now done with the Revolution and the law of nations. Never say never. In 2018, I was honored to be offered the Sons of the American Revolution Visiting Professorship at King’s College London for research in the Georgian Papers in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. The Omohundro Institute co-sponsors the Georgian Papers Programme: that fact alone should have alerted me that my project was overdetermined and that I might be finding my way back to the Quarterly before very long.

My archive within the Royal Archives would be the papers of George III. And my goal would be to explore George’s engagement with law of nations across his reign, in part to test the portrayal of him in the Declaration of Independence as the great enemy of the law of nations. That is, I planned to study George’s statecraft as the sovereign exercised his sovereignty in real time, before, during and perhaps after the American Revolution. I found ample material in his correspondence at Windsor, as well as in the King’s Library within the British Library back in London, to flesh out these interests from the Seven Years’ War almost to the time of the king’s last debilitating illness in 1810. However, I had not expected to spend quite so much archive time on the period before George came to the throne in 1760. The Georgian Papers contain thousands of pages of his educational “essays” as Prince of Wales, when a series of tutors worked him through an ambitious and demanding program of education fit for a king. The law of nations bulked surprisingly large in these exercises and George’s extensive notes, excerpts, paraphrases and rewritings of Montesquieu and Blackstone above all clearly formed not only his thinking about the law of nations, the British constitution and the norms of eighteenth-century international society; the very act of digesting these materials shaped his practices of knowledge formation and information retrieval for the rest of his time as monarch.

Two years, a few lecture presentations, and a global pandemic later, I had been able to shape this rich material into a draft article on “George III and the Law of Nations”. I wanted a journal that would referee it rigorously while also allowing it some unusual leeway as well, to publish a key document alongside the argument. In the course of my work at Windsor, I fell across the section of George’s boiling-down of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws he entitled unpromisingly, following his French inspiration, “Of Laws relative to the Nature of Climates”. So bland: so what? Well, this was where the young prince, probably still in his teens in the late 1750s, had translated, ventriloquized, and elaborated on Montesquieu’s arguments against slavery and the slave trade. George produced what was, at the time, effectively the most radical antislavery tract written in England, albeit in the privacy of his princely studies. I still recall the excitement of transcribing the document at speed and pleading with the archivist for fifteen minutes’ grace beyond closing time to finish it off. Here was a window into the future king’s mind, and vital testimony to the precocious circulation of anti-slavery thought, that had to appear alongside my article. I approached Josh Piker with this in mind, knowing it would be unusual, and perhaps even impossible, within the Quarterly’s familiar formats. Fortunately for me, Josh allowed the essay to go out to readers with the understanding that the transcription might appear alongside it as a special hybrid between a regular article and a “Notes and Documents” piece. And so, happily, it has just appeared, a few weeks after I trailed it with an essay in the Times Literary Supplement that was picked up by news media on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Quarterly was the obvious home for the scholarly essay, and not just because its sibling piece on the Declaration of Independence had appeared there (though that factor was decisive for me). I discovered that I was not the only historian to have discovered George’s writing on slavery—John Bullion had mentioned the piece in a footnote to a Quarterly article in 1994, as well as in a subsequent book—but it had still not been put in the larger context of George’s engagement with the law of nations nor had it ever been published. I was therefore thrilled when Josh sent me five detailed, engaged, and (mostly!) supportive readers’ reports along with his provisional approval to publish the article, along with my transcription, subject to adequate revision, of course. Fortunately, the referees’ recommendations were easy to incorporate and their advice, together with Josh’s wise counsel, smoothed some rough places and tightened the argument as a whole.

I knew from my earlier publications in its pages that the Quarterly’s copy-editing is peerless in its minute attention: working with Meg Musselwhite and Carol Arnette was a privilege but above all a pleasure as it is now, sadly, vanishingly rare to be subjected to such exacting scholarly attention, even at the most prestigious journals. But what crowned the whole experience for me—this latest memorable journey with the WMQ—was the fact that the “George III and the Law of Nations” appeared exactly twenty years to the issue since “The Declaration of Independence and International Law”. This happy coincidence seems, in retrospect, somewhat fated. Now, I wonder what to submit two decades hence, for the January 2042 William and Mary Quarterly …?

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