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Emer Vattel and His Influence on Early America

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Emer Vattel’s “Law of Nations” (1758) remained overdue on President George Washington’s library account until it was returned in 2010 with a waived fee of $300,000. As a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress, historian Theo Christov has researched the influence of Vattel’s work on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the early American republic. Christov sat down with Jason Steinhauer to discuss impact of Vattel’s work on the 18th century and its relevance to international law today.

Hi Theo. Let’s start with a basic question: who was Emer Vattel?

Born in 1714 in the Swiss principality of Neuchatel, Vattel came from a privileged background: his father was a high-ranking clergyman in the Reformed Church, while his mother was the daughter of the treasurer general of the King of Prussia. His interest in philosophy, coming from his father’s side, and taste for politics on his mother’s side defined Vattel’s passion for both.

As customary at the time, he was trained in the humanities and the philosophy of the polymath Leibniz, in particular, stimulated his thinking on the nature of human morality within a larger cosmic order. His first published work, which helped him secure his first public office, was in defense of Leibniz’s philosophic system.

Working as a minister of the Elector-King of Saxony, Vattel spent a good part of the year with his family back Neuchatel. When he died at the age of 53, he left a young widow and a 2-year-old son. When one of his close friends, Hennin, introduced Vattel to Voltaire after his death, he was described as loved “for the candor of his heart and the tenderness of his spirit.”

What led him to write the “Law of Nations”?

Had a disciple of Leibniz—Christian Wolff, another German philosopher—not produced a major work on the law of nature, then Vattel would have likely not written his “Law of Nations.” Wolff’s work, ingenious as it was, was largely inaccessible to a wider audience: written in Latin, full of with mathematical demonstrations to prove the inclinations of human nature, Wolff’s book had to be popularized if it were to have any large impact.

Vattel’s ”Law of Nations” was precisely that kind of book: not content with the absence of an integrated approach to philosophy and politics, he set out to transform Wolff’s ideas in a comprehensible way and freed his cumbersome system from obscurities. The irony is that Vattel never intended to make an original contribution to the ideas that govern the conduct among nations, but simply to systematize it and make it accessible. And yet the ”Law of Nations” became an instant classic and a guidebook in the hands of statesmen and diplomats.

What was the reaction to the treatise during Vattel’s lifetime?

Vattel did not work in isolation from other political authors at the time: in fact, without acknowledging it openly, he engaged with the ideas of his Swiss contemporary Rousseau on the question of sociality (a large point which I discuss in my own book “Before Anarchy“).

Unlike other eighteenth century philosophers who had little, if any access to the world of politics, Vattel was a practicing diplomat and understood well the practicality of international affairs. His work fared well in the hands of practitioners, who were eager to apply general theoretical principles to the conduct among nations. But his work was certainly noticed among other philosophers: the leading German thinker of the time, Immanuel Kant, grouped Grotius, Pufendorf and Vattel as “sorry comforters,” whose ideas about international conduct were impractical because they had no legal force.

Screenshot of title page from “The Law of Nations” by Emer Vattel, Sixth American Edition, 1844. Source:

How did his ideas influence America’s founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?

John Locke, among other major European political thinkers, is generally credited with influencing the thought of the founding fathers, especially on the idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Their conception of “happiness,” however, resonates with a distinctly Vattelian theme in its appeal to provide a general framework of fulfillment for individuals and the entire citizenry as a whole. Moreover, on the central question of how to engage America in the world, the ”Law of Nations” prescribes a distinct path for a nation to emerge as a respectable actor on the international stage. First introduced to the colonies in 1762, Vattel’s work and its timely ideas circulated widely among leading statesmen. What the ”Law of Nations” offered, while no other treatise did in the same way, was a recipe for a rising state to emerge as a credible actor on international arena. It offered colonists not only reasons for sovereignty and independence, but also for international recognition and equality among other states.

Vattel delineates the obligations and rights of nations, and how they ought to behave. On what did he base this?

Vattel derived the general law of nature not from divine ordinances, but from reason and customs: the conduct of the morally righteous individual is invariably in accordance with the light of reason, which illuminates the precepts of human sociability. The law of nations was merely the law of nature as applied to nations: it derived its force largely from human reason, in which all individuals participated equally, and partly from the voluntary consent that nations practiced among themselves. But just like individuals in a state of nature were completely free, so did nations retain their natural liberty: the general principle of non-interference laid the groundwork for the development of positive international law in the 19th century. Vattel’s vision was for an international order of states where they were obligated to guard their own liberty and equally engage with others in the promotion of ameliorative international relations.

How much do you see Vattel as a product of the Enlightenment’s fascination with natural law and how does his work support or challenge notions of natural law put forth by, say, Locke, Rousseau and Voltaire?  

The middle of the 18th century, when Vattel produced his major work, was a time of great fascination with natural law as political philosophers attempted to understand the normative framework for human conduct. While many vigorously rejected any proposition of a divinely ordained order, very few, including Vattel himself, insisted on an essential analogy between the law of nature and that of nations. What defined natural law were the principles of reason, liberty, and equality, and they all retained their force at the level of states. Paramount in those debates was, of course, the question of human sociability: do we have a natural tendency to associate with others, or are we innately unsociable? Unlike the more pessimistic view of Rousseau, for whom only a small community of individuals may produce the desired effects of benevolence, Vattel’s vision was far more socially tasteful: sociability drives human progress and he almost took it for granted that the society of individuals, in organizing itself into a system of states, had to follow the same principles of reason and reciprocity.

Theo Christov
Kluge Fellow Theo Christov is researching the influence of Emer Vattel’s “Law of Nations” on the early United States. Photo courtesy the scholar, used with permission.

Do Vattel’s ideas still hold resonance today, or do they feel dated? Why or why not?

Hardly any other major political thinker has been more influential for the founding tradition of this country than Vattel: he was, by far, the most cited author in legal cases and court proceedings during the 19th century.

What the founding fathers discovered in Vattel was not merely a theoretical framework for explaining international conduct, but also a practical mechanism for implementing it into a diplomatic practice. What has been largely taken today as the pillar of international law—that international legal sovereignty is based in recognition, liberty, and equality—derives its original meaning from Vattel.

In our world today, when the very idea of the sovereign state is constantly being undermined by non-state actors, the legacy of Vattel should appear ever more relevant for us: the idea of the sovereign state bears a close resemblance to its cousin- the autonomous individual. We all desire to be free and live in free states, but as the ”Law of Nations” continually reminds us, such freedom demands a responsibility toward ourselves and obligations toward others.

Theo Christov is Assistant Professor of Honors, History, and International Affairs at The George Washington University. He lectures on the “Law of Nations” in America’s independence on Thursday, May 12 at 4 p.m. at the Kluge Center. The event is cosponsored by the the Embassy of the Republic of Bulgaria as part of the European Month of Culture.

Read the “Law of Nations” in its entirety here

Comments (4)

  1. Very well written. Thank you.

  2. I wish Dr. Christov had addressed your question about Vattel’s theory of natural law. Given that Vattel was a student of G. W. Leibniz, I would expect his answer to confirm a material difference from Locke’s theory.

    Jefferson, a Locke admirer, proffered “Life, Liberty, and Property” as inalienable rights; but Ben Fanklin, with his copy of Vattel’s book n his hands, replaced “Property” with “The Pursuit of Happinsess.”

    The answer to question #4 above (diplomatically) gets at this issue. I am persuaded that the principles of natural law developed by Leibniz were (via Vattel) the definitive influence shaping our founding documents. Hence, the credit showered on Locke (a member of and apologist for the British Aristocary, and still the enemy of our republic at the time!), is unjustified.

  3. I think the most interesting thing about Vattel is how idealistic he was. Hardly a panacea for the post-modern cynicism we see destroying the West. It does not help that Western Ideals have been turned against itself by the younger, more virile doctrines of religious fundamentalists.

  4. Did the Framers of our U.S. Constitution use Vattel’s definition of a ‘natural born citizen’ when they wrote the requirements for one to become president?

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