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The history of the concept of empire

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Why the empire? Let us start from a premise: it is surely a mistake to see the history of political and legal thought or the history of the institutions of Europe as a linear history in which we would pass from great empires to the 16th - 17th centuries and then to the constitution of nation-states. Professor Keller refuses to see the institutional history of the legal and political history of Europe as a linear history. It is a mistake to read history in this way because there is not a very simple passage between medieval Europe, Renaissance Europe, modern Europe and finally contemporary Europe.

In fact, this history of European legal and political thought is the history of a conflict of tension between two important concepts that have always been opposed: the concept of the state and the concept of empire. European political and legal thought should not be read as a chronological and linear sequence of great ideas, but as a tension of great ideas. Historians have often forgotten this tension and in particular two very important points.

L'arrivée de Christophe Colomb en Amérique, gravure de 1893.
  • the very emergence of the European States took place in parallel with the emergence of the great empires: when we look at the great institutions, they were set up in parallel with the French, English, Spanish and Portuguese empires. There is a tension because these two concepts have evolved together. The birth of the English state went hand in hand with that of the English empire.
  • We underestimate the colossal impact that the discovery of the New World in 1492 by the Europeans had on Western legal thought. From 1942 onwards, a whole series of problems arose, political, theoretical, legal and practical, which influenced law, the concept of the state and the concept of empire. In particular, European jurists asked themselves who owned the newly conquered territories, the status of indigenous peoples, and how to include them in a legal order if they were men.

These questions relating to the right of conquest will have a colossal impact on the very vision of the great European empires and in particular on the vision of the law of nations that will be defended by the great founders of classical international law. The history of Europe is a tension between the concept of state and the concept of empire. This issue has been little studied, as historians have forgotten two important facts, namely that European states were born in parallel to European empires and the failure to take into account the discovery of the New World. When we include these two parameters, we realise that Europe was built largely on and from the idea of empire.

The aim of this course is to show how since Rome this concept of empire has constituted the intellectual matrix of classical international law and contemporary thinking on classical international law.

When we look a little bit at the history of terms in the French language, we are supposed to see that the three main terms have a fairly recent history. The term "empire" should not be confused with the term "imperialism". The word "empire" refers first of all to the ideology in favour of an imperial regime, but basically the word only appears in the French language at the beginning of the 20th century. Imperialism" is a word and an ideology that emerges at the beginning of the 20th century in Lenin's Imperialism, the supreme stage of capitalism. The terms "imperialism" and "imperial" were debated in the French language at the beginning of the 20th century.

Scene at the signing of the United States Constitution, by Howard Chandler Christy. This chart depicts the 33 delegates who signed the Constitution.

The term "empire" refers to a plurality of experiences, one thinks of extremely varied things. We're going to realise that there are many different conceptions of empires, there are extremely different visions and models of empires. There is a Roman conception of empire, a papal conception, a European conception and an extremely precise American conception of empire, which is based on a fascinating ideology with the ideology of Manifest Destiny. The word "empire" refers to realities and pluralities of experience. We can see this very clearly in historiography, where everyone has their own definition. Contrary to the idea of "state", the idea of "empire" or the "imperial fact" is based on great heterogeneity.

The term "colonialism" is a term which also appears very late in the French language, in 1904, to be precise, referring to a real system of colonial expansion which marked the whole of the 19th century. This term appears late, which is not the case with the term "colony", which appeared in English in the 16th century, referring to a territory administered by a foreign power, but also to a people living on this territory. The term "colony" is used in both French and English to refer to the point of view of both the settler and the colonised. The term colony refers to a group of people exploiting a territory. The term is ambiguous because it refers to a territory without designating to whom that territory belongs.

The term "emperor" and the term "empire", basically, until the end of the 18th century, are terms that hardly appear in official documents, be it treaties or constitutions. The reason for this is that when we speak of an "emperor" or "empire" up to the French Revolution and precisely up to 1806, we are talking about an entity that bears the name of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire. In legal terms, the only one who had the right to bear the term "emperor" until 1806 in the European constitutional order was the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This is the attribute of only one entity in Europe. The French, the English or the Spanish and the empires do not call themselves "Empire". It is this ambiguity of language that makes the English have a very large empire in 1870, but do not speak of it in official terms, we speak of the "lands of the King of England".

Coronation of Charlemagne. Grandes Chroniques de France (illuminated version by Jean Fouquet).

The concept of empire therefore has a history that can be traced. The history can be divided into five parts:

  1. The Roman model: this is an extremely important model because Rome has haunted Western thought, it is the common heritage of Western thought.
  2. The coronation of Charlemagne in the year 800, which will give the concept of empire another meaning, we leave the model of the Roman empire in order to give a quasi-religious meaning to the idea of empire.
  3. The birth of the Holy Roman Empire in 962, whose jurists also gave a new meaning to the term "empire" and the imperial model. The dimension of "Saint" is the religious dimension, the imperial jurists will defend the idea that the emperor is the holder of the "dominus mundi". Basically, the religious heir of the Empire is the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. "Roman" because the Holy Roman Empire will claim to be the heir of the Roman Empire, 'Germanic' because it has a German connotation, German is gradually becoming the language of the Empire. This is the emergence of the largest empire model that Europe experienced between 962 and 1806. This model will not remain unchanged. The Pope is also an empire, the Holy Roman Empire will be challenged by the papal model. The Pope will defend the thesis that he is the one who holds the "dominus mundi". One should not forget the universalist claim of the church with a claim to rule the world and not to have a statutorily superior emperor. The German imperial model will be criticised by the papal model.
  4. The moment after the discovery of the New World: until the end of the 15th century, the Germanic model and the papal model clashed, and the discovery of the New World brought everyone to agree. A new conception of the imperial model was born, with the Spanish model in particular at the beginning, with the famous questions that European jurists were asked. The question of whether the natives are men is a fundamental question, because if they are men, they have natural rights. John Locke will be the absolute champion of property rights. If you are a man, you have natural rights to ownership of your body and material goods.
  5. The moment after the American Revolution: this is the moment when the American Republic comes into being. The victors of history are going to defend a republic model resembling the Roman ideology, that is, the model of the imperial republic. A fact that has to be justified from the point of view of international law is the shifting of borders. The United States of America was formed between 1776 and 1793 around thirteen colonies on the east coast. The question of shifting to the east coast arises. The American Republic is faced with the legal problem of whether it is possible to become an empire, to apply the Roman models. The United States has had lively debates, especially with the Supreme Court, which has tried to stop the expansion of the American Republic towards the west and to show the illegality of the conquest of the west. In particular, the Supreme Court handed down three decisions called the Marshall decisions, named after the Chief Justice, which called for the Native American nations to be considered to stop the illegal expansion towards the West. The then U.S. President Andrew Jackson says « John Marshall made his decision, let him enforce it! ». Thus we will see the imperial origins of the American Republic. The tension around the imperial vision of the United States of America is still the subject of debate today.

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