Historical Concepts and Biographical Research

Ben Lyons
Engraved portrait of John Jay

Cornelius Tiebout, John Jay (1745–1829). Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

My article on the peace negotiations of 1782 is an instance of scholarship in which the sum is greater than the parts. At the heart of the piece are two elements that achieve greater significance in combination than they would on their own—the person of John Jay and the concept of a law of nations. I was drawn to the elements separately, not expecting that they were in any way related. With Jay, I wondered why a figure who was so esteemed by his colleagues (as judged by his position as first chief justice) had attracted so little scholarly attention. The consensus among historians was that Jay was a man of integrity who had held many high offices, but no one had been able to specify the significance of Jay’s contribution to the founding era. The mystery deepened when I learned that Jay spent most of his public career as a diplomat—not the typical career path for a chief justice. What had Jay accomplished as a diplomat to merit his later elevation to the High Court?

As for the law of nations, my interest was sparked by David Armitage’s argument in a 2001 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, that the Declaration of Independence should be read as a legal brief, written to satisfy early-modern conceptions of “international law.” In that context, Armitage argued that the document’s defining claim was not about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” but that the American colonies had become “Free and Independent States . . . [with] full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” Armitage pointed to “the law of nations” as the eighteenth-century term for international law, but he did not elaborate on its source or practical role in diplomacy.[1]

As I probed for insight, I found that legal historians generally linked the law of nations to the writings of European legal philosophers such as Hugo Grotius or Emerich de Vattel, whose treatises were popular among the leaders of the American Revolution. Yet diplomatic historians dismissed the law’s significance, arguing that assertions of law and legal right among early-modern statesmen was nothing but a veil for self-interest. But, why did Americans read the treatises of Grotius and Vattel—and craft the Declaration of Independence as they had—if the law of nations carried so little weight in Europe?

My inquiry eventually settled on two specific questions: Jay’s accomplishments as a diplomat and the role of law in early-modern diplomacy. As an initial method, I decided to probe Jay’s diplomatic papers for instances in which he referenced the law of nations. I found only a few, though they were enough to suggest that the law of nations was a significant factor in European diplomacy.

Title page from Of the Law of Nature and Nations.

Title page from Of the Law of Nature and Nations. Courtesy George Wythe Collection, Wolf Law Library, College of William & Mary.

Greater breakthroughs came when I began to read the papers of Jay’s European counterparts. The papers confirmed that a body of customary norms and protocols governed the routine conduct of early-modern diplomacy in Europe. The existence of this customary law of nations was significant in its own right, but also lent significance to Jay by highlighting his role as one of the only American emissaries of the revolutionary era to have mastered the use of these norms and protocols in real-world negotiations.

There are at least three methodological lessons can be drawn from this account. First, as a mentor in graduate school once told me, it is critical to have a concept at the heart of one’s scholarly inquiry. I have found his advice to be especially relevant to a biographical inquiry such as this one, where the concept of a law of nations has been the key to unlocking the significance of an obscure or perplexing individual like Jay.

Second, historians should check their concepts against the primary sources, and not rely solely on the secondary literature for definitions. In this case, the law of nations has long been tied to the history of international law. The field is vast and insightful, yet it revolves around questions and assumptions that obscure the law’s role in early-modern diplomacy. Only when I looked for law in the diplomatic record, and without reference to the literature, did the significance of customary law become clear.

Finally, in researching multi-faceted concepts such as the law of nations, historians may be drawn far beyond their core area of expertise—in my case, early American history. To write this article I had to become conversant with the histories of international law, early-modern political theory, and the political history of early-modern Europe—in addition to early American legal, diplomatic, and intellectual history.

A risk to this approach is that one may become mired in each field’s internal debates. I found, however, that by reading judiciously, I could extract essential perspective without losing track of my objectives. As historical sub-fields become increasingly specialized, this broad approach to historical inquiry should be encouraged. In my case, it yielded greater insight than would have been possible if I had confined my inquiry to my core discipline.


[1] David Armitage, “The Declaration of Independence and International Law,” William and Mary Quarterly 59 (Jan. 2002), 42–46.

11 July 2022

About the Author

Ben Lyons is a recent graduate of the doctoral program in history at Columbia University.

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