Varying Lenses for History: Fitzmaurice and Press Discuss Corporations and Sovereignty

The presentations and subsequent discussions by Steven Press and Andrew Fitzmaurice on November 17, 2017 were welcome additions to the penultimate Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and Internal Law. The contributions by each served to advance the audience’s understanding of issues ranging from the relationship between states and corporations, the balance of public and private power, and how historical narratives can be approached.

Fitzmaurice, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Sidney, used his time to explain the methodology of his paper “The Expansion of International Franchise in the Late Nineteenth Century”. His paper arose from an interest in how non-state communities that “could conceive themselves as bodies politic” contributed to the history of political thought. His attention was particularly drawn to an unusual event where a ‘private association’, the International Association of the Congo (IAC), “got itself admitted to international society,” essentially transforming into a state. To understand this transformation, he searched for the person who laid the legal framework for such an unusual event. His search led him to the curious life of Sir Travers Twiss. It was while investigating the writings of Twiss that he saw yet another striking transformation. In writings from the 1840s, Twiss supported the commonly held notion that ”all pretensions by private associations to have international standing were rash and ridiculous”[1]. However, by the 1880s, he had taken the exact opposite position and aided the formal transformation of the IAC into a state. Fitzmaurice emphasized in both his monologue and further answers that he saw the use of employing a “new kind of intellectual history,” which he described as “microintellectual history,” to this question. His analysis of the life of Twiss led him to see the relevance of the lawyer’s work with ecclesiastical law, a contemporary culture already fascinated with ‘transformation’, and most importantly, the ‘transformation’ of Twiss’s wife “into a new legal person”[2].

Press, an Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University, revealed the path that led him to study the history of the sovereignty claim of the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft für Südwestafrika over parts of the Namib Desert, as discussed in his paper “Sovereignty and Diamonds in Southern Africa, 1908-1920”. While still in graduate school, he became particularly interested in sovereignty and territory as it related to the unification of Germany. This initial interest extended into an analysis of the history of the transaction between the United States and Cuba for Guantanamo Bay. He saw that this was part of an “intellectual moment at which lots of people were purporting to transfer money… for sovereignty,” encouraging him to analyze other such transactions at the time, particularly in the ‘scramble for Africa’. His search for why ideas empowering the claims of sovereignty by corporations had a resurgence from 1885 to 1900, has led him to analyze several cases including transactions in Brunei, Congo, and, currently, Namib.

After the introductions by both scholars, questions ranged widely. One particular line of thinking that engaged the work of both men was why did the corporate form matter? For Fitzmaurice, he emphasized the fact that corporations were often seen as bodies politic and therefore gave them grounds for justifying their claims for sovereignty. Press added that in the cases he has studied, the corporate form added deniability for both the state and the individual actors. Essentially, the corporate form seemed to have been close enough to a state to be considered separate from the individuals related to it and to be a political institution, but far enough from a state to be outside the international norms.

A key takeaway from the discussion was the importance of a varied lens to history. Focusing on formal treatises removes the context that intellectual history at the micro and macro level provides. Similarly, geographic distances must be recognized but not see as all-powerful. Ideas experimented with in Southeast Asia led to justifications for actions near the southernmost tip of Africa. The audience surely left with an appreciation of the variety of scholarship performed and the importance of methodological experimentation.

[1] Fitzmaurice, Andrew. The Expansion of International Franchise in the Late Nineteenth Century. 12

[2] Id., 7

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