JMC Fellow Mark Somos will deliver a lecture on his recent research titled “American States of Nature: The Rise of Scientific Constitutionalism”.
The exact phrase, “state of nature,” was used thousands of times in the British colonies between 1630 and 1810, in theological, scientific, economic, political, and other senses. By the 1760s a distinct American state of nature discourse started to emerge. It combined existing semantic ranges, excluded others in clear and specific contestation over the term’s meaning (for instance after the Stamp Act, and during the First Continental Congress), and served to justify independence at least as much as American formulations of liberty, property, and individual rights did. The distinct and coherent American state of nature discourse also played a role in early constitutional and policy design. Suffrage, slavery, copyright, urbanisation, and westward expansion were framed by the American state of nature discourse until the twentieth century.
Recovering this distinct discourse, and its combination of law and science, is essential not only for American historiography. The success of the Revolution generated tremendous interest in, and adaptations of, the American state of nature in Germany, France, and Britain. The perfectibility of the working class, environmentalism, animal rights, eugenics, biopolitics, and scientific racism are among the historical and contemporary issues that cannot be understood well without the American state of nature discourse as a prism.