HRC 2001: LAW AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT
THE BRITISH IMPERIAL STATE AT LAW, 1689-1832
26-28 September, 2001
Convened by David Lemmings, University of Newcastle
Administration: Leena Messina, The Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University
The principal rationale for a conference on this theme is the parallel but mainly separate development of historical research in two important areas: writing on law in eighteenth-century England, and on the growth of ‘the British imperial state’. On the one hand work by John Brewer and others has re-invigorated study of the eighteenth-century state (especially in relation to warfare, parliamentary legislation, and public finance), and has raised important questions about the impact of the state in the domestic sphere, and at the periphery of empire. On the other hand, there has been a renaissance over the last two decades in legal-historical writing about England, including much work on crime, and extensive studies of private litigation and lawyers. And some of the most interesting research in this field has focussed on what appears to be a ‘crisis of litigation’ in the eighteenth century, as well as the state’s use of the judiciary and criminal law as agencies of unifying ideology and devolved government. Taken together, and viewed over ‘the long eighteenth century’, these studies may suggest a domestic parallel to ‘the imperial state at war’, as popular participation in civil litigation and criminal administration declined, elite tolerance of popular rights and customs diminished, and parliamentary legislation became the most commonly experienced form of ‘law’. Indeed, such a conclusion seems prima facie to contradict Roy Porter’s recent interpretation of the ‘British Enlightenment’, which identifies ‘inclusiveness’ as a developing characteristic of British society in the eighteenth century.
Yet there has been no attempt to bring all this work together, in the form of sustained discussion about the changing roles of ‘law’ as it was perceived and experienced in British society and at the edges of empire (as civil litigation, the administration of criminal law, and legislation), and their relation to the development of a more powerful and more centralised British state. The immediate goal of this event is to stimulate scholarly connections among these areas of study by bringing together a group of distinguished British, North American, and Australian legal historians who have written extensively in relevant areas. It is intended to organise their combined expertise around a hypothesis that legal government in Britain was becoming more positivist or ‘imperial’, as participation in litigation declined, legislative intervention increased, and Enlightenment rationalism eroded faith in common law traditions and institutions. A second, and related, issue is to situate such a premise in even broader contexts, by considering how far such a shift towards ‘imperial’ modes of government was accelerated by the experience of administering remote colonies, though statute and executive use of royal prerogative powers.
Such a meeting should make a substantial contribution to the humanities in Australia and overseas. Indeed, the intention is to encourage a conceptual advance in our understanding of the roles and meanings of law in eighteenth-century England, an advance which has the potential to influence international scholarship in several areas. I believe it may also attract some general interest in the light of the present debates in Britain and Australia about the power and legitimacy of high courts; the sovereignty of national and provincial legislatures; and the preservation or invention of national consciousness in the face of major constitutional change. In so far as the work will inform and advance understandings of the changing role and meaning of 'law' in Britain and its former colonies, it will add substantially to the quality of Australian culture.
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