William Pettigrew and the “Global Determinants of the English Constitution”

Historian William Pettigrew asks “what were the relationships between England’s remarkable commercial expansion overseas in the 17th century and the profound changes to her government that define England’s domestic history in the 17th century?[1] As the English Empire expanded, the constitution “changed from a divinely ordained absolutist monarchy to a mixed constitution in which Parliament enjoyed supremacy and supported a more powerful state.” How did expansion influence the domestic sphere? The Leverhulme Trust awarded Pettigrew a Research Leadership Award to conduct research on this topic. He is currently leading a team of researchers to investigate the archives of trading corporations to gain insight into connections between England’s external expansion and “domestic governance.” He approaches this topic through the use of archives from several trading corporations. Trading companies he argues, not only altered how contemporaries thought and practiced government, but also “served as structures that assisted the reciprocal interactions between Europeans and non-Europeans around the world.” Companies were on the frontline of expansion. Employees interacted with “non-European cultures of governance,” and they translated, then accommodated, and then fed these ideas back to the mother country.” Pettigrew’s research situates English political history in a global context.

Before the development of the modern English state, the Crown outsourced domestic and imperial governance to corporations.  Contemporaries considered corporations as ‘legal persons’ constituted ‘for better government.”  According to Pettigrew “historians are now more appreciative of the corporations’ political and governmental roots.” Cities acquired charters from the Crown, which made them into corporations, but these differed from trading companies. Joint-stock companies, such as the Royal African Company, provided their own capital, ships, foreign trading posts, and military support.  When needed, the Crown would call upon these companies to protect ‘national’ interests.  Companies also provided an administrative structure, which the state lacked.  As governing entities, they often became the subject of constitutional debates, which inevitably caught the attention of the public.

Pettigrew’s Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752 (2013) provides an example of “Global Determinants.”  Freedom’s Debt is a revisionary history of the demise of the Royal African Company.  Historians, such as K.G. Davies, have focused on the economic causes of the company’s demise, but Pettigrew offers a political history of the company, which sheds light on early free trade liberalism. The Royal African Company was a powerful joint stock company that oversaw the African slave trade.  From 1672 to 1698, the company held a monopoly on the African trade, but after the Glorious Revolution, independent merchants challenged the legality of the company’s monopoly charter.  In 1698, King William refused to renew the charter, thereby opening trade to all free Englishmen.  Political contest between individual merchants and the company continued until the company fell into bankruptcy and closed its doors in 1750.  Private merchants argued that it was their natural liberty as Englishmen to trade with Africa for slaves. The Royal African Company’s trade with Africa, for Pettigrew, lead to monumental political debates that influenced the English constitution and the rights of individual merchants.

Pettigrew puts “Global Determinants” to further use in “Corporate Constitutionalism and the Dialogue between the Global and Local in Seventeenth-Century English History,” where he offers a new “category of historical analysis,” which focuses on the legal sphere of trading companies to help “understand the cross-cultural dynamics at work in European expansion.”  This essay marks a “constitutional turn” in English history. According to historian David Armitage, Pettigrew’s article “presents an excitingly expansive research agenda that cuts across many of the traditional divisions of early modern history: domestic and foreign, internal and imperial, constitutional and commercial, English and British, British and European, national and global.”

“Global Determinants” provides a means of including non-Europeans into the history of modernity, which is often considered a uniquely European event. Legal, philosophical, economic and other attributes of modernity, emerged concurrently with European expansion and global trade. Before the 19th century, relations between Europeans and indigenous people were more akin to trading partners than conquerors and conquered–though not in all cases. The institutions of indigenous people influenced how trading companies conducted business, which, in turn, influenced the legal, political, economic, and public spheres in Europe. Pettigrew’s work should be seen as part of a broader movement by scholars—which began nearly four decades ago– to decenter Eurocentric histories. “Global Determinants,” along with works such as Rethinking Modernity (2007), by Gurminder K. Bhambra and other connected histories, can help expand our understanding of modernity.[1]




[1] Bhambra, Gurminder K. Rethinking Modernity: Post colonialism and the Sociological Imagination. Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave, 2007.  See also: Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia.” Modeasiastud Modern Asian Studies 31, no. 3 (1997): 735–62.



[1] “The Global Determinants of the English,” A Leverhulme Trust funded research project conducted by Dr Will Pettigrew Constitutionhttps://www.kent.ac.uk/history/projects/global-determinants.html


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