Professor Edward Kolla of Georgetown University Qatar discusses the inspiration for his next project and its ties to his recently published book (Sovereignty, International Law, and the French Revolution) in this third segment of our interview series. You can watch the interview in the video clip below and follow along with the lightly edited transcript that follows. Want to learn more about Professor Kolla’s work? Check out interview installments one and two in the Studies in Legal History video series.
So, I would say the writing process for the book was challenging; it was the first time I’ve done anything like this and so it was a lot of work (but I enjoyed it, obviously). I’m now straight into my next project, which is a similar project in terms of the history of international law. It’s about the history of the passport.
This project is born of my love of travel. I’ve always loved to travel; I’m sure I was standing in a lineup somewhere, staring down at my passport, waiting to go through immigration and thought, you know, “what is the history behind this document? I should probably know the history behind this document.” It’s actually quite an elusive history. In that way, it’s similar to my first book because the way that popular sovereignty enters discourse about international law is not something that is proactively decided by states. The principle of popular sovereignty does not become a principle of international law because all countries get together and agree on it; revolutionaries start embracing these ideas, they apply them in certain diplomatic situations, and slowly over time it becomes a principle of international law. The history of the passport is also one of legal happenstance. All states never got together and agreed they needed passports and that passports needed to look a certain way. It’s, again, a story of historical development, so in that way the projects are very similar.
The other overlap between the projects is that the French Revolution was an important moment in the history of the passport. Up until the French Revolution, it was taken for granted that if you were carrying some kind of identity document when you’re traveling, the person carrying that document is the person for whom it was intended. It was only at the time of the French Revolution that Revolutionaries started thinking, “Oh no! People could be smuggling, or émigrés could be escaping from France.” So they actually started to write the description of the bearer of these documents on the documents themselves. So, not just hair color or eye color, but shape of nose, and size of forehead. That was really the first moment that these documents started to include information about who the bearer was and this is obviously the precursor to the photographs and biometric data that are used in passports today.