In Federalist no. 2, John Jay considered the ‘wide spreading country’ of the American republic. It was, he argued, as if the land itself was fashioned by the hand of Providence, which ‘in a particular manner blessed it with a variety of soils and productions, and watered it with innumerable streams, for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants. A succession of navigable waters forms a kind of chain round its borders, as if to bind it together’.
When we think of early American political thought, we tend to overlook the powerful influence of the natural environment on the formation of settlement in both theory and practice. Seminal studies of the ideological origins of the American Revolution approached colonial political ideas as largely derivative from the deep wells of Anglophone ideas, and framed largely in opposition to Britain. Yet, as Jefferson reminded his British audience in the Declaration of Independence, it was important to consider the ‘circumstances of our emigration and settlement here’. Or, as a writer in 1620s Virginia explained, colonial law was a product of the ‘nature’ and ‘novelty’ of the place.
In American States of Nature: The Origins of Independence, 1761-1775 (Oxford UP, 2019), Mark Somos recovers a powerful and coherent theme in colonial political thought, a ‘constitutive’ state of nature that identified the American colonies that would declare independence as a natural community in a ‘state of nature viewed as irreducibly and unexchangeably American'.
Mark Somos holds the Heisenberg Position at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law.