Lauren Benton wins 2019 Toynbee Prize

Lauren Benton

Lauren Benton has been named winner of the 2019 Toynbee Prize. Benton is Nelson O. Tyrone, Jr. Professor of History and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University.

Benton was selected as winner of the Prize by the Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Both Dominic Sachsenmaier, President of the Foundation and Chair Professor of Modern China at the University of Göttingen, and Darrin McMahon, Foundation Vice-President and Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor of History at Dartmouth College, applauded the choice of Benton. “Lauren Benton has made enormous contributions to the global historical study of empires and international legal systems,” said Sachsenmaier. “We are delighted to award her the 2019 Toynbee Prize for the excellence and broad range of her global historical scholarship.”

The Trustees agreed. Jennifer Pitts, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, commented:

Lauren Benton has been an indispensable voice in global history, imperial history, and the history of international law, especially in the lively and ongoing interdisciplinary debate about the formation of the global legal order. She has broken important new ground with each of her books, as well as many articles on subjects from legal pluralism to piracy to the abolition of the slave trade. She has made a uniquely powerful case that the history of international law must take into account not simply the arguments of prominent legal theorists but also the actions and arguments of a host of actors from all over the world, what she has called “vernacular forms of political theory.” Her lively authorial voice, incisive arguments and conceptual innovations, engaging narratives, and remarkable archival work have made her work equally valuable to students and specialists alike.

David Armitage, Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University wrote:

Lauren Benton has done more than any other scholar in recent generations to reintegrate global history with legal history. With archival tenacity and broad conceptual sweep, she has used fine-grained microhistory in the service of world-spanning arguments about the tentative distribution of imperial power, the informal elaboration of international law, and the paradoxes of sovereignty in a world unevenly colonized and incompletely decolonized. Her achievements, alone and in collaboration with a wide range of younger scholars, make her an apt and inspirational recipient of the Toynbee Prize.

Jeremy Adelman, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History and Director of the Global History Lab at Princeton University enthused:

Lauren Benton has opened new frontiers for global history. She has challenged us all to rethink how we think about empires by spotlighting the spaces in between, the anomalies, and the fringes as locations of improvisation and development.  She has upended the traditional understandings of law and outlawry in the making of practices of modern sovereignty.  And the breadth of her research is simply astonishing.

Jie-Hyun Lim, Professor of Transnational History and Director of the Critical Global Studies Initiative at Sogang University, Seoul, added that “[b]y investigating “jurisdictional politics,” Lauren Benton has contributed to our understanding of the global legal regime as the palimpsest of historical negotiations between centers and peripheries.”

Benton is the author of four books and editor of three. She is perhaps best known for her three seminal works of comparative legal history: Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400–1900 (Cambridge UP, 2002), which was awarded the J. Willard Hurst Prize and the World History Association Book Prize; A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (Cambridge UP, 2010); and, most recently, Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800–1850 (Harvard UP, 2016), co-written with Professor Lisa Ford. In his review of Law and Colonial Cultures, the late Adam McKeown, former professor of history at Columbia University, hailed the book as “a landmark in the creation of a more complex modern global cultural history built on more than just expansion and resistance, but on a shifting negotiation of power, culture, difference, homogenization, identity, and rights.” [1] Her other books include Invisible Factories: The Informal Economy and Industrial Development in Spain (State University of New York Press, 1990); with Bain Attwood and Adam Clulow, Protection and Empire: A Global History (Cambridge UP, 2017); with Richard Ross, Legal Pluralism and Empires, 1500-1850 (New York UP, 2013); and, with Alejandro Portes and Manuel Castells, The Informal Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries (1989). Benton received her A.B. with a concentration in economics from Harvard University in 1978 and a Ph.D. in anthropology and history from Johns Hopkins University in 1987. Prior to her position at Vanderbilt, she was Julius Silver Professor of History and Affiliated Professor of Law at New York University. She has also taught at Rutgers University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, the University of Washington, Bothell, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Toynbee Prize is awarded biennially “for work that makes a significant contribution to the study of global history.” In winning the Prize, Benton joins a distinguished roster of Toynbee Prize recipients, including Natalie Zemon Davis, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Christopher Bayly and, most recently, Jürgen Osterhammel.

Benton will formally accept the Prize and deliver the Toynbee Prize Lecture at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, Illinois, in early January 2019. Details of the lecture to follow.


[1] Adam McKeown, “Review of Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400-1900,” Journal of World History 14, no. 2 (2003): 261.

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