Towner Fellows’ Lounge
“The Rights of Man and the Mutinies of 1797”
Dana Rabin, University of Illinois
The book project, Under Rule of Law: Britain and its Outsiders, 1750-1800, argues that although the rule of law has long been celebrated as a signature English achievement, its ideology and practice was the consequence of imperial contact in the eighteenth century – and specifically contact with other cultures and peoples at home in England. As the empire expanded, encompassing ever-greater cultural, religious, ethnic, and racial variation, the law strained to contain and maintain these differences, sometimes plainly contradicting equality before the law. My study reveals a destabilized metropole: far from a beacon of light or a consistent, predictable standard-bearer, London - wracked with conflict - localized, focused, and concentrated all of the divisions and contested identities of empire. I examine the law as a technique deployed to impose a fictional and elusive coherence and fixity on the center of a diverse empire. Inspired by a long historiographical tradition that argues that law was made by those who contested it, my study features a series of internal others whose challenges revealed the law’s fragmentation and self-contradictions. I show that in contrast to rule of law or equality before the law, the English legal process re-inscribed distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, and class, and so helped constitute the ideology of rule of law – a national solution to the problem of empire. The history of the rule of law thus becomes a social and cultural history of imperial encounters at home in the eighteenth century.
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