Bottom-Up Approach to Comparative History

Professor Lauren Benton (Vanderbilt, History and Law) spoke at Duke as the inaugural guest in the Mellon Sawyer Seminar speakers’ series being hosted at the University this year. Benton is a distinguished scholar whose work cuts across history, law, and anthropology. Her work specifically focuses on the history of international law, and the history of empire from a comparative perspective. Her lecture brought together scholars and professors from history, sociology, and law, as well as undergraduate and graduate students to engage in an interdisciplinary seminar.

Benton’s lecture for the Seminar speakers’ series centered on her paper, entitled The Legal Logic of Conquest: Political Pluralism, Truces, and Early Modern Colonial Violence. In it she seeks to reframe the historical narrative of conquest. She argues that it is a misconception that the history of invasion can be defined in terms of “stark opposition of conquering and conquered societies or the clear-cut dominance of victors over vanquished.” She instead recasts the history of invasion and conquest as having created pluri-political formations, which in turn defined the way conquest was carried out.

Benton provided opening remarks about her research and paper, and then engaged in a discussion about her work. Two of the most interesting topics of discussion were the approach Benton takes to comparative history, and her discovery of the theme of protection as an ordering principle in the history of conquest.

Comparative History as a Practice:

Benton explained that the approach she takes to comparative history is one of focusing on similarities more than differences. She seeks to understand why particular similarities exist and what we can learn from them. In order to do this, she looks first to practice to understand and describe what people are doing, and what they are saying about what they are doing. In the context of her research on conquest, this meant that rather than looking to jurists’ writings to describe the dynamics of conquest, she focused her research on correspondence describing the practical realities of the places where ‘conquerors’ and the ‘conquered’ met. She sought to understand what was going on in those places, and how the parties involved described their interactions. In this research, she found patterns of truce agreements, narratives of betrayal, and justifications for the use of violence across many different contexts.

Theme of protection:

Benton explained that one of the most interesting and surprising findings in her research on the comparative legal history of empires was the theme of protection. She noted that the idea of protection emerged in two ways: first, in the idea of conquering powers seeking to protect their new subjects, extending the law to encompass them as subjects; and second as a rationale for protecting new subjects from tyrannical rule of the king. Benton found that protection acted as an ordering principle in the history of conquest. It was by taking a ‘bottom up’ approach to comparative history that Benton discovered this theme, which has shaped her understanding and further research on the history of empire.


The discussion with Benton’s was productive and engaging. It deepened our understanding of her research, as well as clearly defining the scope of what her paper set out to do. Her paper does not seek to define international law in a precise sense, or even to draw a linear relationship between the interpolity law that existed in conquest contexts and modern day international law. She also does not draw direct parallels to modern day corporations. Her research, however, can inform our understanding of corporations in the context of international law. Her work challenges us to look to what is, rather than simply how formal writings describe what is. It also demonstrates the value of challenging the preconceptions we have about the way the law operates in a particular area. Just as interpolity law in the context of conquest was multifaceted, so too is the role and law of corporations in international law today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *