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Benton’s Logic

Lauren Benton opened the inaugural session of the Mellon Sawyer speaker series with her work in progress, “The Legal Logic of Conquest: Political Pluralism, Truces and Early Modern Colonial Violence.” The speakers series takes place in conjunction with an interdisciplinary course ‘Corporations and International Law: Past, Present and Future’ with draws together a diverse group of Duke undergraduate and graduate students from the law school, graduate school and other programs.

In her latest work, Benton argues for the need to revisit assumptions held about the nature of conquest throughout the Early Modern Period. Examining pluralism, violence during peacetimes and the instability of truces, Benton forwards a set of practices, which she terms “the vernacular jurisprudence of conquest. Drawing on examples spanning from the spread of the Roman Empire, the Reconquest of Spain, to the Conquistadors and Cortes’ advance on Tenochtitlan, Benton laid out a legal framework built on protection, betrayal, alliances and tribute which reimagined not only the relationship between conquering and conquered societies, but also the legitimating acts and justifications for war and the limits of warfare in the early modern era.

From the outset, Benton made clear that this was a work in progress that developed from her efforts to think about the history of international law from outside the writing of European jurist. Her work was aimed at identifying and understanding other actors who were players in shaping the development of international law. It was also insightful to understand Benton’s process of looking first to practice, i.e. what people say and what people do about what they say, and then the application of theory to that practice. This made sense as she made correlations between the practices of culturally varied and geographically distant cultures. But as she explained to the group, she did not find significant value in focusing on differences.

Four topics were used to guide the discussion of her work: pluralism, the legal form, international law vs. interpolity law and the corporate form. The discussion that followed touched on multiple aspects of these topics and it was clear that the topics were not distinct from one another. As we discussed the idea of truces, it became clear how much the themes of Benton’s paper were interwoven. According to Benton, truces supported the idea of political pluralism both before and after violence. She explained that the ability to have a truce signed implied that even after conquest there were multiple political groups with the authority to make peace. The theme of truces also branched out into discussions of protection, vassalage and tribute. Benton drew upon examples from the Reconquest and Cortes to illustrate how vassalage and tribute given in exchange for protection were the terms of truces that were used to hold the agreements stable.

While a work in progress, The Legal Logic of Conquest, definitely forces its reader to consider alternative legal orders and historical explanations for the actions taken during the early modern colonial period. Perhaps, the greatest challenge is to accept a linkage between the actions of such culturally and geographically disparate groups.

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