David Armitage: George III and the Law of Nations

The second Berriedale Keith Lecture was delivered in Edinburgh on 5th December, 2019. The lecturer was Professor David Armitage of the History Department at Harvard https://scholar.harvard.edu/armitage/home. Professor Armitage talked on “George III and the Law of Nations” https://www.law.ed.ac.uk/news-events/events/george-iii-and-law-nations-david-armitage. The lecture was a tour de force. Starting with the “indictment” of King George in the American Declaration of Independence, arguing that this was based on principles of the law of nations, and in a sense was claiming that George had acted contrary to the law of nations, the lecture explored the king’s attitude to the law of nations. In fact despite the list of grievances, Professor Armitage, drawing on the Royal Archives at Windsor as well as the Royal Library, showed that the king was well-educated in the law of nations, and placed importance on the study of history, the law of nature and nations, the civil law, and the municipal law. He had been prepared and educated for his role as king, and was aware both of his prerogative and of his authority under the law of nations. Some of this reminded me of the education in law his tutor, the Earl of Bute, will have received at Groningen and Leiden. Professor Armitage showed how the young Prince George had assimilated and made his own Montesquieu’s arguments against slavery, leading him to produce in the 1750s an account of the law of nations, under the title, “Of Laws Relative to Government in General” (one of the documents now accessible in the excellent Georgian Papers Online), that incorporated a radical abolitionist argument. Influenced by both Montesquieu and Blackstone, the young king was aware of the foundations of the law of nations in natural law and treaties, while aware that treaties with other sovereigns fell under his prerogative and were a mark of his sovereignty.  The successful (from the British perspective)  Treaty of Paris of 1763 was followed later by the Treaty of Paris of 1783 recognizing the loss of the American colonies and Florida, which was returned to Spain. This was a hard blow for the king, who saw himself as sovereign of all the varied peoples of his Empire. A last interesting act was the protection sought from George by Kamehameha the King of the Sandwich Islands. This led to the Hawaiian flag having the Union flag emblazoned in its top left corner, which it still bears as a state of the U.S.A. In all the paper was a rich and brilliant contribution to the ongoing revision of our understanding of George III.

It is worth saying a little on the lecture series and Arthur Berriedale Keith (1879-1944). Back in the late 1970s, when working on his PhD thesis, your blogger for the first time encountered the extensive Berriedale Keith Collection in Edinburgh University Library. He was too ignorant to know who Berriedale Keith was, but found in the collection material that he needed on Quebec. Subsequently he has become very aware of Berriedale Keith’s importance both as a philologist and scholar of Sanskrit and as a (in reality “the”) legal expert on the history and constitution of the British Empire and Commonwealth. In recent years, your blogger in working on the development of comparative law in Great Britain has had occasion to consult some of Berriedale Keith’s own works to understand the legal nature of the Empire. Ridgway F. Shinn published an excellent biography of Berriedale Keith in 1990, and, with Richard A. Cosgrove, published his correspondence with A. V. Dicey in 1996. Shinn’s biography revealed that in Berriedale Keith’s house in Polwarth Terrace in Edinburgh the professor had the great good fortune to have two studies.

Colleagues in Edinburgh, Dr Harshan Kumarasingham and Dr Asanga Welikala, have established the Keith Forum on Commonwealth Constitutionalism https://www.keithforum.law.ed.ac.uk , naming it for Berriedale Keith. Its website states: “The Keith Forum on Commonwealth Constitutionalism aims to harness the reservoir of comparative ideas from the Commonwealth for current UK constitutional debates; and conversely, to benefit Commonwealth states facing similar challenges, from a closer engagement with constitutional developments in the UK.” It adds that “Edinburgh was once the centre of this scholarship through the work of Arthur Berriedale Keith. This project places Scotland at the heart of this global intellectual reengagement.” It inaugural event on 5 November 2018 was the first Berriedale Keith Lecture,  entitled “Things Done in the Dark and in the Middle of the Night’: Nehru, Kashmir, and the Subterfuges of Building Constitutional Democracy”, delivered by Professor Sunil Khilnani, Director of the King’s India Institute. This was linked with a two-day discussion of the history of the Commonwealth’s constitutional experiences, its politics and law.