Dominic Sachsenmaier’s Laudation for 2019 Toynbee Prize winner Lauren Benton

Dominic Sachsenmaier, President of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, delivered the following laudation in awarding the 2019 Toynbee Prize to Lauren Benton, Nelson O. Tyrone, Jr. Professor of History and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. The prize was formally awarded to Benton at the 133rd Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. Benton then delivered the 2019 Toynbee Prize Lecture, “Law and Conquest in World History.”

It is my great honor to introduce this year’s Toynbee prize winner, Lauren Benton. We are particularly impressed with Lauren’s path-breaking work investigating the various roles of law and legal practices in the history of colonialism. As I will explain in a minute, her work has left a deep imprint on several branches of global historical scholarship.

But before I switch to Lauren’s own work, I would like to put the spotlight briefly on her remarkable career path. While she has been – and continues to be – an amazingly prolific scholar, she can also – already at this stage – look back at a significant career in senior administrative positions. She graduated with a PhD in History and Anthropology from The Johns Hopkins University. After short-term or visiting appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University, Lauren held her first faculty position as an assistant professor of history and anthropology at the University of Washington, Bothell. In 1992, she transferred to the Federated Department of History at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University. A few years later, she became full professor of history at that same department. Then, from 2003 to 2015, Lauren held the Silver Professorship of History — and at the same time served as an affiliated professor of Law — at New York University. And during the last six years at New York University, Lauren served as Dean for the Humanities and subsequently as Dean for the Graduate School of Arts and Science. Since 2015, Lauren has been the Dean of the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt University, where she is also the Nelson O. Tyrone, Jr. Professor of History and Professor of Law.

I hardly need to mention how exceptional a combination of heavy administrative responsibilities and an unbroken publication record is. But in the case of Lauren, we are looking at a scholar who manages to combine institutional leadership with a leading role in several academic fields. She is somehow able to play these roles simultaneously, and I put the stress on “somehow.” Please don’t ask me how – maybe she will be able to tell us how all this is possible.

This combination of responsibilities is even more impressive when we consider that the administrative positions that I just mentioned aren’t Lauren’s only institutional responsibilities. She has served on many editorial boards and institutional committees and in addition is currently the President-elect of the American Society for Legal History. She has won many fellowships and awards, including the World History Association Book Award.

Lauren Benton is the author, or co-author, of four monographs, and she has edited or coedited two additional volumes. Some of the more recent titles include, for example, her monograph “A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900” that was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009 as well as a book entitled “Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800–1850” that she co-authored with Lisa Ford and that was published by Harvard University Press in 2016. At the same time, she has managed to publish some 30 journal articles and an even larger number of book chapters or other substantial pieces.

Like many important protagonists of global history, Lauren did not start out as a globalist but, in her case, as a historian of Spain. Her first book did not even deal with the history of the colonial period, nor did it have a strong connection with the field of legal history. Rather, that monograph, entitled “Invisible Factories: The Informal Economy and Industrial Development in Spain,” offers an innovative study of the economic transformations during the post-Franco period, i.e. during the Spanish transition to democracy of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Several years later, in 2002, Cambridge University Press published Lauren’s award-winning book “Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400-1900.” The shift from studying the informal socioeconomic sector in post-Franco Spain to research on law and colonial cultures was a significant one – not many scholars take such daring turns in the periods, regions and topics they work on.

Nevertheless, there have been some continuities between Lauren’s research on her first and second books. In an interview published in 2015, Lauren pointed out that the complex entanglements between the formal economy and the underground economy in Spain during the 1980s led her to develop a strong interest in the diversified worlds of the legal sector. She also stressed that when finishing her first book, she realized that her heart was not necessarily with the study of the contemporary world but with history.

But let me return to the seminal work, “Law and Colonial Cultures,” that covers half a millennium in world history. In this book, Lauren Benton illuminates a shift – but not necessarily a decline – of patterns of legal pluralism between the 15th- and the 19th-century world. She has added much substance to the idea that early modern colonial empires were certainly not neatly ordered legal universes. Using a skillful combination of global and local perspectives, she shows that colonial conquerors rarely dismantled indigenous legal systems and replaced them with their own European laws. Rather, local legal systems and laws of the colonizers got entangled in layered jurisdictional orders.
The same book – as well as some of her later work — also covers the nineteenth century, a period increasingly characterized by state-centered forms of law, both in the colonial and the postcolonial world. Yet Benton cautions us against assuming too quickly that an ever-more ambitious, hegemonic state acted as the main driver of state-centered legal systems. Actually – and she provides a wealth of fascinating case studies to illustrate this development – it was “policies promoting a structured legal pluralism [that] brought challenges that in turn drew the state into a leading role in ordering multiple legal authorities, producing implicit and at times explicit claims for legal hegemony.” (p.29).

Yet her emphasis on legal pluralism as a key aspect of pre-19th century colonial rule does not lead Lauren to relativize the importance of legal institutions for our understanding of the early modern world. Quite to the contrary, she regards the colonial worlds of legal pluralism as forms of institutional ordering that connected individuals and institutions from different parts of the world with each other. In many regards, her approach to the study of legal regimes greatly helps us to bridge the gap between global structures and local agents.
In addition, Lauren’s work helps us to overcome very influential, Eurocentric world historical narratives. For instance, she challenges ideas about the allegedly unique character of European legal institutions, and the idea that these European legal traditions first developed in an autochthonous manner and then turned into global forces. The reality, she demonstrates, was much more shaped by global encounters than by pristine European traditions.

Much could be said, in great detail, about each of these works as well as several of Lauren’s field-defining articles. Yet when we regard them together, we recognize the contours of a rich and at the same time pointed scholarly oeuvre. Besides her interventions described above, Lauren is one of the pioneering scholars who has moved the study of legal history from its previous focus on laws to the study of legal cultures. In many regards, this move can be likened to the transition of the older history of ideas to the field of intellectual history. The latter – like research on legal cultures — pays much more attention to broader historical contexts, and it has been seasoned by fields like social history, cultural history and institutional history.

But to come back to Lauren’s work on legal cultures: she has written much about the powerful roles of the law in the minds – and lives – of those vast numbers of people who never had any former legal training. As is so often the case today, the vast majority of merchants, investors, military and public officials of the colonial period were not legal experts. They acted according to some randomly acquired legal knowledge, much of it based on anecdotal experience and hearsay. Yet as Benton emphasizes, this does not mean that these individuals were operating in a lawless world. We shouldn’t rush to assume that such amateurish legal knowledge did not have an impact on the legal frameworks of the British and other European empires. Lauren in fact shows that many important legal reforms originated in the minds of people who didn’t have more than a basic lay knowledge of what the law actually said.

Lauren has opened up a whole range of additional fields of inquiry. For example, she has revealed how the study of legal conflicts – or clusters thereof – can lead us to a better understanding of much larger institutional and cultural transformations. She also entices us to view the worlds of jurisdiction as arenas for performing conflict rather than primarily as sites of conflict resolution. She even encourages us to look at early modern pirates as lawyers, and their ships as “vectors of law” that carried claims to legal authority onto the oceans.

For all these outstanding achievements, the Toynbee Prize Foundation has selected Lauren Benton as the recipient of the 2019 Toynbee Prize. Our foundation recognizes both outstanding work in global history as well as academic contributions more generally, as defined from a broad historical view of human society. We believe that Lauren Benton has excelled in both areas, and we proudly present this year’s award to her. Congratulations!

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