Sunday, August 31, 2014

By What Authority Do You Exist?

When a baby takes its first breath of air, it is not how legitimate the child is deemed to be by onlookers that determines whether it will live or die. Viability is an issue for survival. Legitimacy is not. And yet authorities have since time immemorial taken upon themselves the right to determine the legitimacy of children and nations.

Authority is a strange and mysterious topic. It is a concept resorted to during power struggles, but it purports to be about more than who is bigger and stronger. It is about legitimacy or lawfulness, but what can that possibly mean when the topic in question is anyone's right to exist?

When the British Mandate was lifted, it was not the Balfour declaration of 1917 nor the United Nations General Assembly's recommendation of partition in 1947 that created the State of Israel. It was winning the ensuing war  in 1948 that ensured its existence.

Yet the word "authority" is often  bandied about, when the existence of countries is in question. Take for instance James Monroe's envoy to Galveston, George Graham, who was sent by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to deal with Jean Laffite.  Here is the beginning of a letter Graham presented to Jean Laffite.

Image from Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain

Jean Laffite's initial response to this inquiry was short and sweet.

Image from Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain
When the reply came in the form of authorization from John Quincy Adams, the Secretary of State under James Monroe, Jean Laffite found himself being more circumspect and explaining that he was there to help the United States. But what did all this back and forth correspondence about authority really signify?

When someone asks you by what authority you exist, chances are what he really means is: Whose guns will protect you if I decide to do away with you? Is there anything else it could mean?


  1. Exactly. Who will be upset if I take your territory/property/home/rights.