The Revolution of Sovereignty and the Sovereignty of Revolution, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Introduction

A historical analysis of the etiology of the American Revolution through the prism of the political concept of sovereignty may be immediately justified on two counts. Firstly, there is a crucial sense in which the movement towards U.S. Independence is historically conditioned by a radical shift in the conceptualization of sovereignty that is marked by the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, according to which sovereignty moves towards a state-based model. In short, sovereignty is determined by a new paradigm that does not entirely rely upon any traditional expressions of this same sovereignty, such as the figure of the monarch or a sectarian religious patriarch/elite. Secondly, it can be argued that within the academic literature sovereignty qua concept has become increasingly relevant, insofar as it is sufficiently broad enough so as to address a fairly diverse number of political discourses and real political structures: this is most likely the result of sovereignty’s slightly realist character, as it underscores the importance of the location of power (and who should be conferred power or autonomy) within any given political structure. Hence, a contemporary example of a shift in sovereignty occurs, for example, with the proclamation of the U.N. Charter for the Declaration of Human Rights.[1] Whether or not this latter conception of sovereignty is ultimately illusory in light of the successes and/or failures to safeguard these same rights, the point remains that contemporary literature remains somewhat enthralled by the conception of sovereignty precisely because of a flexibility regarding its ability to interpret politics as such: sovereignty in this sense represents a certain concentration or focus within the social order on a given point that is concomitantly identifiable with the very structure of this social order in toto.

When considering the American Revolution from the  perspective of the pertinence of sovereignty, what is therefore immediately at stake is the sense in which the American Revolution remains tied to various ideas that develop from Westphalia. To the extent that the latter remains an explicit historical example of a radical re-conception of sovereignty according to the prominence of the “state”, the Revolution, as a movement dedicated to the sovereign independence of the US on a state level, suggests that the desired break from Great Britain is somehow complicit with a dedication to what may be cursorily termed the realization of the Westphalian promise on American soil. What is perhaps implicit in such an interpretation is that it performs a reduction of the American Revolution, conceiving of the latter as essentially a mere repetition of the already established political parameters of Westphalia, such that US independence is entirely lacking of its own unique politico-theoretical content. In this regard, U.S. statehood would be entirely continuous with European notions of statehood. However, although Westphalia clearly opened an unprecedented framework for political thought, insofar as it is informed by the emergence of the state actor as decisive within the political arena, despite any potential obligations of the U.S. Independence movement to this paradigm, it can be argued that the U.S. conception of sovereignty radicalizes the conception of sovereignty advanced at Westphalia. For to the extent that the U:S. independence movement itself emerges as a certain  suspicion of British rule in the colonies, this suspicion itself seems to be a clear rejection of state-based sovereignty. In this sense, although sovereignty remains a crucial beginning point for the forms of political thought that shaped the U.S. independence movement and the eventual Revolution, inherent to both is a clear re-thinking of what sovereignty itself indicates: sovereignty is not reducible to the undisputed political autonomy of the state, since in this case the Revolution would be without legitimate grounds. Such a notion can be concisely formulated as follows: Although rooted in the conceptual revolution of Westphalia and its inauguration of state sovereignty as defining political paradigm, the American Revolution subsequently initiates its own revolutionary space, in which sovereignty is once again radically re-defined, a definition of sovereignty that moves away from state sovereignty and rather emphasizes sovereignty itself, namely, that the defining instance of politics is the autonomous political decision.  Accordingly, the following paper shall argue that the American Revolution radicalized the scope of the revolution in sovereignty than Westphalia initiated. This will, of course, require an analysis of what such a sovereignty in its American form entails: the latter can be understood as a new theorization of the concept of political power and sovereignty, whereby sovereignty is radically displaced from its post-Westphalian equation with governmental and state forms of power and rather posits sovereignty as the autonomy to make the political decision.

In order to develop this thesis, the paper therefore possesses the following structure:

  1. A brief account of the political concept of sovereignty
  2. Westphalia’s shift in the conceptualization of sovereignty
  3. An analysis of American sovereignty in relation to Westphalia
  4. An etiology of the reasons for the American Revolution, taking into account both intellectual currents and practical concerns that engendered the latter.
  5. A clarification of the American conceptualization of sovereignty as the “free choice” of political decision-making in reference to the theories of sovereignty of Carl Schmitt and Paul Kahn
  6. A conclusion summarizing the arguments of the text.

A Brief Note on the Concept of Sovereignty

Insofar as the U.S. conceptualization of sovereignty as embodied in the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution both mimics and differs in regards to the Westphalian form of sovereignty, the presupposition of this account is ostensibly the notion that sovereignty remains an adequate concept in regards to the exposition of a diverse number of political forms of government. Clearly, such an analysis is itself the potential subject of multiple treatises. Nevertheless, despite varied accounts of what sovereignty entails, instances in the literature nevertheless can be brought to the fore which precisely emphasize the importance of “sovereignty” in regards to both Westphalia and the American Revolution. Arguably, this is because sovereignty in essence designates a category of autonomy vis-à-vis political decision making; as the following text shall argue, such a conception of sovereignty, however, becomes most explicit in the logic behind the eventual American Revolution.

In regards to the potential definition of sovereignty, the summary of Steiner, Alston and  Goodman, paraphrasing  Koskenniemi, is malleable enough to serve as a legitimate starting point: “it is notoriously difficult to pin down the meaning of sovereignty’, but nonetheless the literature characteristically starts with a definition. Usually the concept is connected with ideas of independence (external sovereignty) and self-determination (internal sovereignty).”[2] Irrespective of the potential delineation between internal and external sovereignty the definition proposes, the “family resemblance” between these two predications of sovereignty lies clearly in their attention to a version of “independent determination” that synthesizes both the internal and the external: this independent determination entails the notion of an autonomous political decision-making that bears its own endemic effects. In other words, politics itself becomes inseparable from sovereignty qua “independent determination”:

the latter entails that politics is constituted by decisions (independence) that subsequently bear effects (determination) upon those who are subject to this decision. Certainly, it can be argued that this structural picture of politics is broad enough to border on the innocuousness: however, such a judgment, which perhaps in the contemporary era seems entirely self-evident, is rather itself the result of an increasing historical attentiveness to the “who” of politics.

The treaty of Westphalia and the U.S. Revolution remain two decisive historical instances of such attentiveness, insofar as both the identification of the “who” of sovereignty as independent determination and the attempt to critique proposed variants of identification clearly surface in these respective events.

The Westphalian Conceptualization of Sovereignty

The significance of Westphalia, in this regard, is acutely the sense in which the treaty (re)defines sovereignty. Such an interpretation of the Westphalia treaty therefore makes two claims: firstly, it underscores the underlying inseparability of sovereignty from politics, i.e., politics is constituted by “decisions” and these “decisions” bear effects – Westphalia did not break from this broad over-view of what sovereignty entails. However, at the same time Westphalia was revolutionary because it does mark a rupture with the location of where this sovereignty itself is located, a rupture that can be conceived as a consciousness that sovereignty within the political structure contains a clear location, and the latter must be acutely defined. Balogun’s account of sovereignty in regards to Westphalia is thus appropriate for capturing the simultaneous continuity and break inherent to the Treaty:

After experimenting with different governship forms – some of which

triggered bloody conflicts – the world finally settled for an arrangement

thought to be capable of binding the individual to the commonwealth. This is

the sovereign state which emerged on October 24, 1648…The Treaty (of

Westphalia) formally recognized each sovereign’s freedom to govern the

territory under his/her control – without any external prodding or

interference, but subject to his/her ability to hold the territory and command

the allegiance of the people therein.[3]

The radicality of Westphalia thus lies in a certain realization of sovereignty itself with the addendum that the latter should be delineated in terms of the “state model”: the task of politics is to control the internal affairs of a territory, and thus a sovereign decision-making process is needed, one that is radically endemic to a state; there is no sense in which the external can impact upon sovereignty, inasmuch as this designates a transgression of sovereignty. The account of sovereignty in Westphalia thus commits to the state-based model precisely because it relies on a clear delineation between interior and exteriors as decisive for politics itself. The sovereign state as a geographically distinct political unit exists amidst other such political units: sovereignty denotes an internal hegemony that is simultaneously defined by an outside (the “foreign” state and the state’s own borders) which limits the extent of its authority, (i.e., the sovereign state cannot act outside its own locality), while simultaneously allowing this authority to flourish within its own immanent borders because of this same strict topological delimitation.

The basic topological model of politics that Westphalia inaugurated, a topology affirmed by the significance of states vis-à-vis sovereignty, becomes clear when constrasted with its historical precedents; MacMillan thus notes that “legal historians and scholars of international relations have often seen the definitive beginnings of the independent, sovereign state at the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648….Before this time, the Roman Catholic Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor were dominus totius mundi, lords of all the world.”[4] The shift here was ostensibly radical, as “sovereignty” moved from a globally based hegemony towards an essentially multi-polar and localized world: the world internalizes a fundamental difference in its very constitution through the recognition that various political normativities should be allowed to autonomously develop according to geopolitical divisions rooted in the common organism of the state.

Yet this apparent emphasis on what may be termed localized as opposed to globalized sovereignties, at the same time, does not preclude a world-order of its own: as MacMillan notes “the peace placed each state firmly in control of its internal and external affairs and saw the birth of a nascent form of “international law.””[5] International law arose from the Westphalian arrangement precisely because of its strict delimitation of sovereignty in terms of state actors. Namely, a community of sovereign states replaced the centralized, globally-thinking hegemony that took the form of a unilateral (religious sectarian) authority. Sovereignty according to the Westphalian paradigm marks a bifurcation in terms of the sovereign political decision, by simultaneously isolating the latter to specific state frameworks, whilst concomitantly these states, by their very existence as states, exist in relation to their exteriority, such that an “inter-national” (in the etymological sense” community becomes a possibility. The guarantee of internal political sovereignty is simultaneously the flourishing of an external community of state-actors that appear on the scene, as it were, because of this very definition of sovereignty: state sovereignty is accompanied by a multiplicity of states that possess this same sovereignty and a common ground is thus established between state actors according to their possession of internal sovereignty. Hence, as “sovereignty defined boundaries that were to protect one state from the intervention of others”,[6] the strategic life of the state is thereby constituted by both an inside and an outside: its subsistence depends upon its recognition as a state by the other communities of state actors, (i.e., “the intervention of others” is essentially the non-recognition of sovereignty) and this subsistence is crucial to the maintenance of its internal sovereignty. It is thus a simplified account to state that Westphalia merely introduced state sovereignty; rather, national forms of political life  intersected with international forms of political life because the very notion of the state qua sovereign (and by definition a multiplicity of states) engendered a community of states, i.e., the inter-national.

Placing the Question of American Sovereignty in the Context of Westphalia

When thinking the American independence movement according to the post-Westphalian conception of sovereignty, independence became necessary to ensure autonomy in regards to political decisions, insofar as the latter is conceived on a state-based level. Concepts such as secession are therefore legitimate strategic approaches within this space that can potentially yield the desired sovereignty. The decision for a radical form of U.S. independence as opposed to another form of autonomy is tied directly to the sovereign state-based model of Westphalia. Accordingly, within the political space that was inaugurated by the treaty of Westphalia, there is the concomitant inauguration of a new type of political movement which takes the name of “revolution”: revolution, to the extent that it is concentrated within the closed boundaries of a sovereign state which is guaranteed its autonomy in regards to political decision-making, marks a gesture in which the aim is precisely to seize this very internal autonomy so as to acquire political power. Hence, to the extent that violation of soverigenty occurs “if another political power entered the territory of the sovereign (whatever the reason) without his permission, his sovereignty was violated.”[7] Revolution, however, is a clearly wholly internal and endemic violation of this sovereignty. Moreover, considering the international dimension of state-based sovereignty, revolution entails the desire to join this very international community, so as to have its internal sovereignty recognized. Revolution in a broad sense becomes a legitimate political option in the post-Westphalian space. By defining sovereignty in terms of the state-actor instead of some infallible transcendent authority, as evinced in various monarchies and religious-sectarian arrangements in which sovereignty is closely tied to a form of tradition and the ideological claims this tradition makes (the infallibility of the monarch, the right to rule), post-Westphalian political space re-defined the conceptual scope of the “right to rule”: it is the state that possesses the latter. However at the same time, to the extent that there is no subsequent guarantor of what exactly constitutes a state, that is, to the extent that the state is not reduced to such transcendent figureheads as the “divine monarch”, revolution becomes a legitimate political strategy within the post-Westphalian space, by pushing the opening-up of the conceptualization of sovereignty that emerges with the treaty to its extreme limits. In other words, the grounding of sovereignty in the state actor corresponds to an un-grounding of sovereignty from ideological meta-narratives, as sovereignty becomes something concrete as opposed to abstract: what exists after Westphalia is the political potential to declare oneself a state and thus acquire legitimate sovereignty according to the parameters of the treaty.

In the case of the United States, it would of course be a historiographical error to merely reduce this idea of “becoming-state” to a spontaneous and autonomous decision. Rather, political relationships within a sovereign state in the first instance arise as problematic because the internal sovereignty practiced by a given state is somehow deemed inefficient. Whereas Westphalia provided a pretext for the possibility of the revolution that is the “becoming-state”, it is nevertheless internal decisions concerning sovereignty that ultimately engender the desire for independence.

In this regard, the U.S. revolution can be primarily described as a recognition of limitations to the internal sovereignty practiced by the Great Britain and the fallibility of their “independent determination” vis-à-vis the colonies. The U.S., as clearly falling within the topology of the colony, was clearly exposed to the sovereignty of Great Britain. It is therefore crucial to understand how the conception of injustices in regards to such independent determination engendered the American Revolution.

Aetiologies of American Revolution

The American Revolution, from the perspective of the concept of sovereignty, demarcated a consciousness of some type of fallacy inherent to the Westphalian model. For if the political thinkers at the heart of the U.S. independence movement had merely accepted the post-Westphalian space, they would subsequently have considered themselves as part of sovereign Great Britain and thus as subject to the latter’s own internal decisions. In the case of the U.S, therefore, there was a questioning of the legitimacy of British sovereignty that corresponded to the need to form an autochtonic U.S. sovereignty. In this very gesture, however, there was a simultaneous upholding and transgression of the conceptualizations produced at Westphalia: on the one hand, revolution was a clear rejection of internal state rights in political decision-making, i.e., these decisions may be questioned from the point of view of the interior, and on the other hand, this questioning assumed the form of the desired assertion of a sovereign state, as made explicit in the aims of U.S. independence.

As Tyne suggests, however, the narrative that led to the U.S. Revolution itself is ambiguous. For the establishment of Congresses before the Revolution in American history may be interpreted not as a decisive declaration of the sovereignty of the United States, but rather as attempts to clarify the terms of the latter’s relationship to Great Britain. Accordingly, in this interpretation, there is no radical undermining of Great Britain’s right to sovereignty, but rather a concern motivated by ameliorating the conditions in the United States and thus engaging Great Britain in a dialogue whose aim was to induce Great Britain to re-think its application of sovereignty. Hence, Tyne notes that:

the majority of Congress would vote repeatedly for addresses, to the king, the inhabitants of Great Britain…which asserted, “We have not raised Armies with ambitions Designs of separating from Great Britain and establishing independent states”, and assured the king that they most ardently wished the former harmony with Great Britain, vowing their allegiance to him and that they would cheerfully bleed in defense of him in a righteous cause.[8]

Furthermore, Tyne notes that even as late as January 15, 1775, political intentions strove to communicate to the American public “that reconciliation was the desire of Congress.”[9] Whatever the main motivation of these political actions were, it was clear that a conceptualization of sovereignty, however unarticulated, underlined the political debates of the period. Hence, “the Congress of 1775 accordingly assumed at once the exercise of some of the highest functions of sovereignty. They took measures for national defense and resistance, raised an army and navy, established a post-office, emitted bills of credit, and “contracted debts upon national account”, authorized captures and condemnations of prizes.”[10] These acts, described as the “highest functions of sovereignty,” occurred with a certain autonomy in regards to Great Britain, despite any discourses that suggested the need for reconciliation. What is important to glean from this account, however, is that there seemed to be a certain ambiguity in regards to the U.S. conception of sovereignty, while the latter nonetheless functioned as a guiding point, perhaps entirely unconscious: before the Revolution the U.S. Congress was performing seemingly autonomous acts that “were the highest functions of sovereignty”, while a movement of reconciliation with Great Britain was at the same time prevalent.

Problematic in this respect is the historiographical tendency to reduce events to lucid teleologies (i.e., act X was committed for effect Y), insofar as this approach presupposes that such a homogeneous conception of etiology exists: This is clearly demonstrated in the seemingly contradictory actions of Congress. Nevertheless, there is a clear question of sovereignty that is surfaced amidst this very ambiguity, as political questions of the period, as Tyne notes, revolved entirely around events that could be considered as either evoking or questioning sovereignty as it was defined in the post-Westphalian space. It is thus noted that Carl Becker’s “famous phrase” summarizes the Revolutionary movement as a “two-fold contest: a struggle not only over “home rule” but also over “who shall rule at home.””[11] The underlying continuity of the apparent ambiguity in terms of such political decision making thus lies in the notion that it appears that a broad conceptualization of sovereignty defined the tension of this period: the latter is informed by the question of the seizure or the acquiescence of sovereignty in its various practical manifestations. From this perspective, the remark of H.T. Dickinson is pertinent: “in the final analysis the most serious point at issue between the mother country and her colonies rested on a fundamental disagreement over the nature and location of sovereignty.”[12]  Dickinson’s summary essentially contracts the potentially diverse etiological history of the U.S. Revolution into a singular question. Particular historical events, such as economic taxation, the question of individual rights, etc., effectively find themselves recapitulated in their entirety by a notion of sovereignty, however obtuse. And it is this very obtuseness that opens “the question”, as Dickinson phrases it, of a definition of sovereignty. Accordingly, what is at stake is a clarification of the concept of sovereignty in regards to U.S. colonial life, insofar as the concept entails both the right to be “determined by the decision” and the right to make the political decision itself: A question emerged as to where hegemony lies and to what extent it may be exercised. This gesture both preserved and canceled, in a somewhat dialectical manner, the state sovereignty conceptualization inaugurated at Westphalia. Namely, insofar as sovereignty itself became a question, this indicated a certain re-thinking, however tied to the post-Westphalian space by the very allusion to sovereignty, of this same space. At the same time, in Dickinson’s synopsis another crucial aspect of sovereignty is surfaced, and one that is perhaps especially pertinent to the issue of U.S. sovereignty: the “location” of sovereignty itself, as opposed to the mere “nature” of sovereignty. The problematization of sovereignty’s location denotes a clear challenge to Westphalia. With the questioning of sovereignty’s location, the state is no longer defined in terms of a centralized apparatus, for in this case, it would be entirely irrelevant as to where the state lies in purely geographical and geopolitical terms: geopolitics is insufficient insofar as one places emphasis merely on the hegemony conferred to the state. This may be preliminary termed as a rising of a colonial consciousness that is tied to or rather engendered by sovereignty, while simultaneously radically opposing it: The U.S. Revolution somehow conceived, in its very questioning of British sovereignty, the colony as a type of supplement to the state. Namely, the colony does not share a contiguous border location with the state. From this perspective, geography (and ultimately geopolitics) emerged within the framework of sovereignty, as a radical difference is inaugurated between the homogeneous space of the sovereign state and the “satellites” that are not contiguous with the state’s geopolitical land mass. On the basis of the phenomenon of the colony, an internal fissure is introduced within the state sovereignty concept itself.

Certainly, as Reid suggests in response to Dickinson, the question of location of sovereignty also infers the nature of sovereignty itself: “disagreement over (sovereignty’s) location included the question whether sovereignty had to be indivisible.”[13]  Namely, the  question regarding location becomes one as to whether state sovereignty could not be somehow dissipated throughout the state apparatus in its various forms, i.e., parliamentary representation of sovereignty in the “mother country” simultaneously is sufficient vis-à-vis the colonies. Yet the very issue of location arguably becomes more prevalent when the colony is introduced into the paradigm of state sovereignty: the colony ipso facto is separated from the hub of sovereignty and thus the question concerning location naturally arose in terms of a colonial consciousness that challenged state sovereignty by the fact of its very emergence. The colonial consciousness in the American situation thus became, as Dickinson suggests, a radical questioning of the nature and location of sovereignty, however in terms of a location and nature that are fundamentally bound to each other: in essence, the question of the nature of sovereignty can not entirely be separated from the question of the location of sovereignty itself. In this regard, U.S. independence becomes a model for further examples of colonial independence: “the revolution of colonial independence revised the requirements for becoming a state, yet extended the sovereign states system to the entire globe.”[14] The nature of sovereignty is preserved, whereas its location is challenged: this, however, is a revision of the nature of sovereignty, while also simultaneously preserving its link to the form of the state.

Such an interpretation of the U.S. Independence movement is clearly a continuation of the post-Westphalian political space, insofar as the nature of sovereignty, i.e., the political “independent determination”, is primarily defined in terms of its location qua state. A homogeneity of the state is thus the pre-condition for the very assertion of sovereignty itself in the post-Westphalian context. But what the US independence movement questioned with its critique of British sovereignty is precisely this aspect of location. If Westphalia evoked a fusion of sovereignty to the state (i.e., the location of the state and the indivisibility of the state in regards to the independent determination of political power), the American Revolution represented a further radical step in this conceptual history of sovereignty by attempting to question the homogeneity of state actors.

Certainly, it is in this regard crucial to underscore that insofar as the aim of the American Revolution was U.S. independence, the latter entailed an effort to re-construct a homogeneous state: otherwise independence itself, by definition, is not required. However, at the same time, the principle of state sovereignty is critiqued according to a notion of location that radically undermined the possibility of a given state being considered homogeneous. In this regard, although Westphalia provided a certain pre-condition for the questioning of sovereignty according to a state based model, it also provided a possibility for further radicalization of what sovereignty itself implied. This is a possibility that perhaps took an even more diffuse form according to the uniquely American understanding of sovereignty as demonstrated in the questioning of British rule.

Such ideas lose their abstractness when they are tied to the historical events commonly cited as eventually engendering the Revolution, the latter potentially reduced to the interrogation of where sovereignty lay, and thus an American attempt to define what sovereignty in the post-Westphalian space in fact indicated. And from this point of view there is a clear entanglement between the practical actions of political bodies and the question of sovereignty, particularly underscored in the British reliance on sovereignty to explain their policy in the American colonies. This relation between the theoretical (the conception of sovereignty) and the practical (practical actions of the government) takes on a certain circular structure: British policy was justified according to sovereignty, whereas sovereignty was defined in terms of the autonomous decision to enact policy. Bailyn, in his already seminal The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution summarized the close relation between practical policy decisions and sovereignty that was prevalent in the British argumentation of the time: “Thomas Pownall identified that “for there were few who would deny that ‘a power to tax is a necessary part of every supreme legislative authority.”[15] Pownall’s argument, as Bailyn cited in regards to taxation, is that ““its truth is intuitive” and “need not be demonstrated” – and it quickly became the foundation of the English claim against America.”[16]  Hence, relying upon the legal works of Blackstone, British claims in the colonies took a lucidly Westphalian form: “there is and must be in all (forms of government) a supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority, in which the jura summi imperii, or the rights of sovereignty reside,” and that in England this “sovereignty of the British constitution” was lodged in Parliament, the aggregate body of King, Lords and Commons, whose actions “no power on earth can undo.””[17] According to this logic of Westphalia, Pownall’s main argument against U.S. political autonomy can be easily anticipated: “if Parliament ‘have not that power over America they have none, and then America is at once a kingdom of itself.”[18] The circular structure of sovereignty promoted by the British – the right of sovereignty is manifested in the ability to tax, whereas the ability to tax is grounded in sovereignty – is not so much an example of a fallacious tautological argument, but rather underscored the importance of how power was conceived in the British-American relation, a power that was consistent with the state-based model of the Post-Westphalian space. The sovereign is autonomous political “independent determination”: to somehow undermine this ability to independently determine is to reject British sovereignty.

As Bailyn suggests, it is precisely this question of sovereignty that becomes decisive in the American relation to Britain: “how to qualify, undermine, or reinterpret this tenet of English political theory was the central intellectual problem that confronted the leaders of the American cause.”[19]  However, Bailyn also notes that the emergence of this problem itself had a clear politico-theoretical logic: “for if in England the concept of sovereignty was not only logical but realistic, it was far from that in the colonies.”[20] Namely, a certain disjunction in regards to sovereignty came into play: the logical consequences of sovereignty in Britain, i.e., the right for autonomous political decision, was questioned in the American context, precisely because this sovereignty undergoes a disconnect from the reality on the (American) ground.  The nature of sovereignty is to a degree unquestioned in the American critique of Britain: sovereignty entails autonomous political decision, i.e., independent determination of the political. Nevertheless, it is the location of sovereignty in Britain that is “unrealistic” for the American cause. The clearest manifestation of this “unrealism” was the aforementioned issue of taxation, which itself became something to the effect of a symptom of the problematic of sovereignty. As Reid notes, the inseparability of these two issues was clear in the discourse of the period. British thinkers posited that “the power to tax was ‘the very essence of Sovereignty.”[21] Prime Minister George Grenville, infamous for his more aggressive treatment of the colonies, clearly embodied this approach: “That this Kingdom has the sovereign, the supreme legislative power over America, is granted…and taxation is a part of the sovereign power.”[22] Hence, whereas there is a sense in which taxation was therefore conceived as the natural extension of sovereignty, as“parliament aggressively asserted its sovereignty by taxing the colonists”,[23] there is another sense in which taxation according to its close relation to issues of sovereignty became an avenue with which to address the very question of American sovereignty itself. A rejection of taxation was thus not merely the rejection of a singular policy, but rather indicated, from both the British and the American perspective, a challenge to sovereignty. Taxation, in this regard, becomes a tactical front within a greater strategic context that is defined entirely by sovereignty. As Reid suggets, this was especially the case in the whig movement: “Sovereignty was simply too strong a notion for some American whigs to ignore.”[24] The scope of this remark may nevertheless be extended. The sole reason that taxation itself became an issue of political debate was because it subsisted within a theoretical context that allowed issues of policy to become challenged: the theoretical space of sovereignty is precisely the pre-condition for the very dialogue concerning taxation, insofar as the policy concerning the latter is construed as a manifestation of sovereign powers.

In this regard, the oft-cited etiology of the American revolution, understood as a course of events that was primarily engendered by the question of taxation, may be conceivably placed within a greater post-Westphalian framework in which sovereignty is not only inaugurated as a lucid concept, i.e., the form of state sovereignty, but this very inauguration itself opened the door for the critique of sovereignty, according to the post-Westphalian space’s conception of sovereignty: to the extent that the latter is precisely tied to the model of the state, the location of sovereignty as centered in the state model becomes emblematic of this potentiality of critique through a critique of the sovereign actions of the state. Practical incidents that engendered the American Revolution, such as the Stamp Act in 1765 which “taxed all printed documents in the colonies, such as newspapers, legal documents, and playing cards”[25] demarcated key catalyst-like moments in which “resistance began”.[26] Yet such resistance is only possible insofar as the sovereign right to taxation is itself radically questioned. And perhaps in this lies a nascent definition of the American as opposed to British conception of sovereignty: the nature and location of power qua sovereignty in its American formulation contains the addendum that sovereignty in itself, as conceived within this new post-Westphalian context, is itself subject to critique:  this can be termed a radically democratic conception of sovereignty, as opposed to the mere “statist” sovereignty of Westphalia. Hence, insofar as “American resistance stemmed from the slogan “no taxation without representation”[27], this formulation of resistance denoted a radical break within the conceptualization of sovereignty: sovereignty must not only be conferred to the state, but the state itself must be reflected in representation, i.e., the state is simply not an autonomous entity, but is itself composed of individual entities. Representation thus essentially became a cipher for the questioning of the state and sovereignty link. Whereas it could be argued that the British conception of sovereignty, with its heavy emphasis on representation in the form of Parliament, thus served as a context for the very possibility of U.S. colonial critique, the latter nevertheless inferred a certain inadequacy of this context itself. From this perspective, the critique of the location of sovereignty is conjoined with a critique of the nature of sovereignty. Certainly, U.S. independence affirmed post-Westphalian sovereignty to the extent that the resolution of the perceived British misuse of sovereignty lay in American independence on a state-based level. Yet this very critique is based upon the notion that states can also inappropriately exercise sovereignty. Whereas from the British perspective, sovereignty constituted the state’s hegemonic and unquestionable ability to make political decisions, in the American variation of sovereignty, the latter concomitantly opened a space for the possible critique of these “sovereign” political decisions in cases when the determinations engendered by the latter are deemed lacking. The aim of American resistance and ultimately resolution was not the effacement of sovereignty, but rather its preservation in a particular form, insofar as this form provides the pre-condition for the potential for autonomous political decisions.

The Sovereignty of the Decision

Perhaps this particular form of American sovereignty as developed in the Independence movement and Revolution may be clarified in terms of sovereignty as “decision.” In his controversial work, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, American academic Paul W. Kahn attempted to develop an account of sovereignty that is especially sensitive to the American historical context. Based upon the work of the German jurisprudential scholar Carl Schmitt, Kahn extrapolates the latter’s so-called “decisionist” version of sovereignty. According to Carl Schmitt’s acute definition: “sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”[28] Zahn attempts to unpack this dense formula as follows: “This approach is a kind of mirror image of the political theory of liberalism: not law, but exception; not judge, but sovereign; not reason, but decision. The inversion is so extreme that we might think of political theology as the dialectical negation of liberal political theory.”[29] Now, certainly, within the American context, insofar as certain currents in the literature have emphasized the roots of American political conceptions of sovereignty in liberal theory,[30] Kahn’s thesis may be considered to be controversial. However, this history is by no means unanimous – the anti-liberal historians have opened a space in which the American conception of sovereignty is not merely reducible to so-called “liberal ideas.”[31] The Schmittian model conjoins to this latter current, although in a unique manner.  Following Schmitt, sovereignty is defined by he who decides on the exception: the exception here is that which falls outside of the view of the law. That is, the sovereign decision forms the law itself, but it also simultaneously exists outside the law – sovereignty is as much a decision about who has sovereignty as who does not. Hence from a Schmittian perspective, at Westphalia the decision to emphasize sovereignty in terms of the state was not itself founded in the law: the treaty itself is the spontaneous decision to afford sovereignty in this manner. This is because the previous legal order, characterized by religious-sectarian (transcendent) forms, did not contain the legal norms to ascribe sovereignty to the state: rather, Westphalia was an autonomous decision to ascribe sovereignty to the state. Accordingly, as Kahn puts it: “there can be no exception without reference to a norm.”[32] Appyling the Schmittian doctrine to the American case, therefore, the critique of inappropriate British utilization of sovereignty to a certain extent must fall outside of the normativities established by the latter: American critique of British sovereignty had to radically interrogate the British right to decide from a certain exterior position to British law. In the Schmittian perspective, this exterior location is precisely the location of sovereignty. Whereas the critiques of the British government followed the aforementioned slogan of “no taxation, without representation”, the British legal system did not confer parliamentary representation to the colonies on a de jure level: accordingly, the American argument emanated from a position exterior to British law, while remaining thoroughly underneath its aegis. This articulation of sovereignty is still valid from a Schmittian perspective to the extent that sovereignty also indices the insufficiency of the law itself: sovereignty infers an “exception”. In this regard, the concept of revolution was not merely a reaction against particular British legal normativities, but rather a struggle for the sovereign position that decided about the “exception” to the law; the American critique of sovereignty emerged in a space wherein British legal-political theory could no longer justify itself according to its own endemic logic. Accordingly, it became necessary to inaugurate a new political order. In this very gesture, however, the extra-legal nature of sovereignty that exists in the Schmittian definition is evinced. As the exception is that which is outside the law and it is the sovereign decision that forms a legal order, this sovereignty is external to this order to the extent that it precedes it.

Accordingly, if the American Revolution was informed by various notions of a new “popular form” of sovereignty (i.e., as Levin suggests, “the Constitution symbolizes the formal political relationships between individual citizens and the state based on the theory of popular sovereignty”[33]), the emergence of this form occurred as corollary of the insufficiency of a state sovereignty determined by a colonial-satellite relationship overseen by a hegemonic state such as Britain within a strictly Westphalian context. In other words, such “popular” sovereignty was precisely not the norm within such a system, but rather the exception: sovereignty in this sense indicated the “independent determination” of deciding as to whether popular sovereignty shall become a norm of the political system. Accordingly, sovereignty is entirely separated form its purely legal meaning: sovereignty indicated, in this case, the right to create a system of law, a system which itself possessed “exceptions”, as the Schmittan argument states. Westphalia begins this process by putting into question the very notion of who holds such sovereignty. It thus opens a space for critique that is radicalized by the American conception of sovereignty, insofar as the terms of Westphalia are not accepted, i.e., that state sovereignty itself may be questioned. Hence, in Kahn’s interpretation of Schmitt, what the latter terms “the exception” is in fact that which “represents the possibility of free choice.”[34] The American continuation of Westphalia thus radicalized Westphalia: this was a re-interpretation of the sovereignty conferred on a state level in terms of the free choice to establish sovereignty itself. Whereas certainly it can be argued that this was not a uniquely American experience, (i.e., the French Revolution may be said to represent a similar paradigm shift in the conception of sovereignty, whereas Schmitt’s theory itself is a trans-historical definition of sovereignty), the crucial aspect of such an account within the context of the American Revolution is the questioning of the location of sovereignty in terms of who decides on the exception or “free choice.” Reduced to bare form and thus irrespective of its particular demands, the American Revolution realized itself as a commitment to this “location of sovereignty” and the attempt to seize this very location. Only after this seizure is it possible to decide on the nature of sovereignty, that is, only then is it possible to decide on the norm as well as the exception; but this seizure, itself is a form of sovereignty.

Conclusion

Sovereignty as concept allows the historian a certain dexterity in regards to the understanding of both the structure of political orders and thus both the political hegemony and the fluxes that constitute these orders, to the extent that it begins from the question of both the “nature and location” of political power. The radical changes at Westphalia arguably initiated this modern conception of sovereignty: With the changes inherent to the state-based model of power, the importance of where political decision-making lies is emphasized by the necessity of this shift itself.

Thinking the American Revolution in terms of the concept of sovereignty advanced at Westphalia thus generates two immediate interpretations: the thesis that sovereignty now exists in the form of state actors, or rather, on a deeper level, what Westphalia inferred was an account that sovereignty may be heterogeneously defined precisely because it can be defined, or in Schmittian terms, legal or political orders can be decided upon. In the former model, there is merely a transfer of power, whereas in the latter the crucial political issue becomes the very movement of power itself. Insofar as political power is in flux, the location and nature of the sovereignty may be radically questioned and is thus not grounded in any illusory a prior metaphysical certainties: the heterogeneity of sovereignty itself undermines such notions. From this perspective, explicit “practical” issues in the conflict between Great Britain and the United States, such as the nature of taxation, functioned as symptoms of sovereignty: the more fundamental issue was therefore not some quantitative analysis of tax (i.e., what would be a correct tax that would quell American unrest in the colonies), but rather that the very fact that a particular issue such as taxation may be questioned is coextensive to the nature and location of political power: it is the identification in Schmittian terms, of the “exception” and thus of the “free choice.” From the perspective of the historian, defining the revolution in terms of sovereignty allows this more fundamental aspect of the American Revolution to distinguish itself from being overwhelmed by the “surface effects” of the political space.

This is not to undermine the very real factors that determine any particular history in favor of some abstract idealism that is entirely disconnected from the world, i.e., the existential difficulties of Americans living in the colonies as engendered by particular British policy decisions. Rather, this conception of sovereignty presents a new construct from which to view these very real difficulties and thus critique them in a radical manner. This critique, in the American revolutionary context, was radical because it does not occur within the pre-given paradigm, but rather created an exterior space in regards to the latter. The American Revolution intimates that the problematization of sovereignty, i.e., who makes the sovereign decision, is a problematization that is inherent to the very definition of sovereignty itself.

Bibliography

Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Balogun, M.J. Hegemony and Sovereign Equality: The Interest Contiguity Theory in International Relations, New York, Springer, 2011.

Breen, T.H. “Narrative of Commerical Life: Consumption, Ideology, and Community on the

Eve of the American Revolution.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser. Vol. 50, No. 3, July 1993. pp. 471-501.

Close, Paul and Askew, David. Asia Pacific and Human Rights: A Global Political Economy Perspective. London: Ashgate, 2004.

Dickinson, H.T. “The Eighteenth-Century Debate on the Sovereignty of Parliament”, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. Vol. 26, 1976. pp. 189-210.

Dworetz, Steven M. The Unvarnished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism, and the American Revolution. Duke University Press, 1990.

Egnal, Marc & Ernst, Joseph A., “An Economic Interpretation of the American Revolution”, The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 29, No. 1, January 1972. pp. 3-32.

Garry, Patrick W. Liberalism and American Identity, Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1992.

Kahn, Paul W. “The Question of Sovereignty”, Stanford Journal of International Law, Vol., 40, 2004 259, 2004. pp. 259-282.

Kahn, Paul W. Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Levin, Daniel Lessard. Representing Popular Sovereignty: The Constitution in American Political Culture. New York: SUNY Press, 1999.

MacMillan, Ken. Sovereignty and Possession in the English New World: The Legal Foundations of Empire, 1576-1640. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Philpott, Daniel. Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Reid, John Phillip. The Authority of Rights: Constitutional History of the American Revolution.

Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Reese, Ty M. “The American Revolution: 1775-1783”, in The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia, Cynthia L. Clark (ed.), Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011. pp. 17-18.

Reisman, W. Michael. Sovereignty and Human Rights in Contemporary International Law, The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 84, 1990. pp. 866-876.

Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Steiner, Henry J., Alston, Phillip and Goodman, Ryan. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Tyne, Charles W. “Sovereignty in the American Revolution: An Historical Study.” The American Historical Review, No. 3, April 1907. pp. 529-545.

Abstract

The text develops an analysis of the etiology for the American Revolution through a conceptual framework provided by the concept of sovereignty. Insofar as sovereignty has become increasingly relevant in the literature of political theory and international relations – most likely the result of the concept’s “realist” emphasis on who holds within power in a given political structure, alongside its development by influential theorists such as Carl Schmitt and Paul Kahn – the application of sovereignty to the paradigm of the American Revolution enables an understanding of the latter as an attempt to re-formulate the problem of power and politics structures. The text argues that two decisive moments in this conceptualization of sovereignty informed the Revolution and U.S: Independence movement. Firstly, the treaty of Westphalia, by establishing the equation of sovereignty with the political form of the state, marked a radical break with previous arrangements of political power, as a certain individual autonomy within politics is developed according to this new formulation. The U.S. Revolution to a certain extent adheres to this same formulation of autonomy precisely by seeking autonomy on the level of national independence. Secondly, and perhaps more important, is that the U.S: thinkers concomitantly did not merely adhere to a “sovereignty = state” model, as this would mean there would be no space for objection to British policy in the colonies. Accordingly, the concept of sovereignty in the post-Westphalian space is decisive not so much because it confers sovereignty to the state, but that it opens the very question of where sovereignty should lie: it is this very questioning that was a crucial impetus for the Independence movement in the U.S.. In order to further support this thesis, the essay concludes by arguing for a Schmittian account of sovereignty that is coextensive to the American Revolution’s account of the latter, as informed by the work of Paul W. Kahn.

[1] Hence, Kofi Anan, former Secretary-General of the United Stations conceives the post-Declaration context as one in which “indiviudal sovereignty, rooted in human rights, is taking its place in international relations alongside state sovereignty.” (Paul Close & David Askew, Asia Pacific and Human Rights: A Global Political Economy Perspective, (London: Ashgate, 2004), 51.

[2] Henry J. Steiner, Phillip Alston and Ryan Goodman, International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008), 590.

[3] M.J. Balogun, Hegemony and Sovereign Equality: The Interest Contiguity Theory in International Relations, (New York, Springer, 2011), 43.

[4] Ken MacMillan, Sovereignty and Possession in the English New World: The Legal

Foundations of Empire, 1576-1640. (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press), 18-19.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Paul W. Kahn, “The Question of Sovereignty”, Stanford Journal of International Law, Vol., 40, N. 259, 2004, 260.

[7] W. Michael Reisman, Sovereignty and Human Rights in Contemporary International Law, The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 84, 1990, 867,

[8] Charles W. Tyne, “Sovereignty in the American Revolution: An Historical Study.” The American Historical Review, No. 3, April 1907, 533.

[9] Ibid., 533.

[10] Ibid., 532.

[11] Marc Egnal & Joseph A. Ernst, An Economic Interpretation of the American Revolution, The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 29, No. 1, January 1972, 6.

[12] H.T. Dickinson, “The Eighteenth-Century Debate on the Sovereignty of Parliament”, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 26, 1976, 189.

[13] John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Law, (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 63.

[14] Daniel Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Revolutions, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 90.

[15] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 202.

[16] Ibid., 202.

[17] Ibid., 201-202.

[18] Ibid., 202.

[19] Ibid., 202.

[20] Ibid., 202.

[21] John Phillip Reid, The Authority of Rights: Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 95.

[22] Ibid., 95.

[23] T:H. Breen, “Narrative of Commerical Life: Consumption, Ideology, and Community on the Eve of the American Revolution”, The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser. Vol. 50, No. 3, July 1993, 480.

[24] John Phillip Reid, The Authority of Rights: Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 96.

[25] Ty M. Reese, “The American Revolution: 1775-1783”, in The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia, Cynthia L. Clark (ed.), (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 18.

[26] Ibid., 18.

[27] Ibid., 18.

[28] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 5.

[29] Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011), 1.

[30] i.e., Patrick M. Garry: “The Declaration of Independence stands as a lasting statement of the liberal foundation of American politics”. (Liberalism and American Identity, Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1992), 43.

[31] Dworetz frames this anti-liberal current in American historiography as follows: “From this…historiographical perspective, the principles of liberalism appeared to be inconsistent with the ‘principles of 1776’.” Steven M. Dworetz, The Unvarnished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism, and the American Revolution, (Duke University Press, 1990), 6.

[32] Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, 34.

[33] Daniel Lessard Levin, Representing Popular Sovereignty: The Constitution in American Political Culture, (New York: SUNY Press, 1999), 18.

[34] Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, 35.

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