New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

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94 N.C. L. REV. 1599 (2016)


This Article examines the early modern revival and subtle transformation in what is here called the merchants’ chapter of Magna Carta and then analyzes how lawyers, judges, and government officeholders invoked it in the new American federal courts and in debates over congressional power. In the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1790s, a British creditor and an American State debated the meaning and applicability of the merchants’ chapter, which guaranteed two rights to foreign merchants: free entry and exit during peacetime, without being subjected to arbitrary taxes; and, in wartime, the promise that their persons and goods would not be harmed or confiscated, unless their own king attacked and confiscated English merchants. In other words, no harm to enemy aliens, except as retaliation. Tit for tat.

The idea that reciprocity was a fundamental mechanism of international (and interpersonal) relations became something like a social science axiom in the early modern Enlightenment. Edward Coke claimed to find that mechanism in the merchants’ chapter and publicized it to lawyers throughout the emerging British Empire and beyond. Montesquieu lauded the English for protecting foreign commerce in their fundamental law, and Blackstone basked in that praise. American lawyers derived their understanding of the merchants’ chapter from these sources and then, in the early Republic, stretched the principle behind it to protect foreign capital, not just resident merchants. The vindication of old imperial debt contracts would signal to all international creditors that, in the United States, credit was safe. Federalists then invoked the chapter outside of the courts to resist Republican attempts to embargo commerce and sequester foreign credit. For Republicans, doux commerce had become the Achilles heel of the great Atlantic empires: their reliance on American trade could be used to gain diplomatic leverage without risking war. For Federalists, economic sanctions threatened not just their fiscal policy but their entire vision of an Atlantic world that increasingly insulated international capital from national politics. They all agreed, however, that the role of foreign capital in the American constitutional system was a central issue for the new and developing nation.

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