Law of Nations


Exerpts frm Vattel | Locke vs. Leibniz | Vattel's Natural Law | Law of Nations | Declaration of Independence | U.S. Constitution | Alexander Hamilton

Law for Man, Whose Nature Is Creative Reason: A Summary of Vattel's Law of Nations


Vattel derives a system of law governing the nation-state and relations between nations, from his natural law hypothesis (presented in Exceprt 1). To have legitimacy, all law written by man must be coherent with this natural law hypothesis. Throughout his work, Vattel constantly addresses the leaders of nations, that a well functioning state will only exist, if they govern so that every citizen is encouraged to develop within himself those agapic qualities needed for society to flourish.

THE SOVEREIGN. When men join together in society, they must establish a Public Authority, or Sovereignty, to direct society in meeting its common aims, be it in the form of a Democracy, an Aristocracy, or a Monarchy. The rights and authority of the Sovereign are derived from his duties of preserving and perfecting the nation. Since the survival and perfection of man is based on his creative reason, the purpose of society is to create conditions for the development of those powers in each individual, and it is the duty of the sovereign to ensure that those conditions exist. Hence, the sovereign must not surround himself with a crowd of servile courtiers who convince him to consider ``the kingdom as a patrimony that is his own property, and his people as a herd of cattle.''

Vattel discusses the duties of the sovereign to perfect the nation, under three headings: (1) by procuring the accommodations of life, (2) by procuring the true happiness of the nation, and (3) by ensuring the nations defense against external violence. Likewise, since the individual in the state, finds a well-regulated state the most powerful succor to enable him to perfect himself, he is obliged to contribute all in his power to render that society more perfect.

CONSTITUTION Each nation must be governed by a constitution, or a fundamental regulation, which determines the manner in which government functions. The nation must choose the best constitution to allow the foundation for the nation's preservation, safety, perfection, and happiness. Since the constitution of a nation is determined by what is best for the perfection of the nation, it can be changed. However, the constitution ought to possess stability, so its alteration should not be taken lightly, and requires the support of the entire nation. Neither the legislature, nor the sovereign, has the power to change the constitution on its own.

The assertion that each state must be governed according to a constitution, which meets these conditions, was a very revolutionary idea at that time, when Germany was made up of approximately three hundred separate, little states. In each, the prince or duke could rule with complete disregard for law. Even worse, the constitution of Germany, under the Holy Roman Empire, was a reactionary force on the German states. Vattel takes the opportunity to urge that a new constitution be adopted, so that the German nation might flourish.

LEGISLATIVE POWER. The legislative power is the body which makes civil and political laws to ``furnish the state with laws suited to particular conjunctures,'' for the perfection of the nation and its people. The nation may intrust this function to the prince or an assembly, but the laws enacted by the legislature must be consistent with the laws of nature and the constitution. ``No engagement can oblige, or even authorize, a man to violate the law of nature.''

JUDICIARY. Vattel establishes the basis in natural law for the establishment of an independent judicial system. Since men have joined society and given up a part of their natural liberty to live in peace, the nation and its sovereign have a duty of ensuring justice. This requires both good laws, and a system which ensures that these laws are executed. It is in the interest of the sovereign, whether he be an assembly or a prince, that the people have confidence in the judicial system. ``Confusion, disorder, and despondency will soon arise in a state, where the citizens are not sure of easily and speedily obtaining justice in all their disputes; without this, the civil virtues will become extinguished, and the society weakened.'' The judicial system must be independent of the sovereign; a nation has the right, ``to establish a supreme tribunal to judge all disputes, independently of the prince.'' This independent judicial system should decide all disputes between the sovereign and the citizens. The state should also practice distributive justice in giving out rewards of the state, such as public employment, rather than treating these benefits as patronage. Vattel also stresses that the nobility must obey the laws, and attacks dueling, a ``frenzy'' and ``manifest disorder, repugnant to the ends of civil society,'' as an example of how the nobility set themselves above the law.

Three Principal Objects of a Good Government

'To Provide for the Necessities of the Nation.' The first duty of the sovereign is ``providing for the all wants of the people, and producing a happy plenty of all the necessaries of life, with its conveniences and innocent and laudable enjoyments.'' This allows them to better labor after their principal duty, which is their own perfection. In other words, {a program for national economic development is a duty of the sovereign.} Vattel describes the key areas necessary for a national economic development program:

*Economic development requires ``a sufficient number of able workmen in every useful or necessary profession.'' Wise regulations and assistance properly granted will work better than constraint which is always fatal to industry. ``Liberty is the soul of abilities and industry.''

*The development of agriculture. Large landholders cannot leave large plots uncultivated. Vattel proposes a program for public granaries to guarantee a secure food supply. These granaries must be used to keep the price of grain from wildly fluctuating. This both allows the nation to feed its people at a reasonable price during times of scarcity, and to preserve the farmers and gain higher export prices during times of plenty.

*Commerce must be regulated from the standpoint of national economic development. Trade, within the nation and with other nations, is necessary and beneficial. However, each nation has the right to impose controls on imports to protect and encourage its own industries. Therefore, nations often sign treaties to regulate trade. Nations have a duty to trade, when another country is threatened. For example, if a nation is suffering a famine, other nations with surplus food have a responsibility to ensure that it receives necessary food supplies.

*Transportation and communications. France and Holland, for example, benefit from good transportation systems. The whole nation should contribute to such useful undertakings. Vattel defends the practice of charging tolls to pay for investment in infrastructure, but attacks the strangulation of trade, by tolls charged merely for the right of passage, a practice which was strangling the German economy at the time.

*The sovereign has the right to control the issuance of money. He must guarantee the value of the coin. Unstable money hinders production and trade.

To Procure the True Happiness of the Nation.

All the measures required for the development of the nation, are necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure its happiness. The desire for happiness ought to be the grand object of the public will. True happiness, or 'agape,' is attained when the people recognize that the development of creative reason is the true human identity. ``To succeed in this (happiness), it is necessary to instruct the people to seek felicity where it is to be found; that is, in their own perfection,-- and to teach them the means of obtaining it.'' The sovereign, and the entire nation, must fund and encourage the arts and sciences, and useful inventions. Public education is one of the most important concerns for government. A just ruler encourages learning; a tyrant demands ignorance. Freedom of philosophical discussion is necessary for a climate of discovery.

Merely to instruct the nation is not sufficient, however. The ruler must inspire within the people, the love of virtue and love for their country. The leaders of the government should set a personal example by themselves not indulging in hedonistic pleasures. If the rulers govern the country thus, they will inspire the citizens with an ardent love for their country. Each will then apply all his powers and abilities to the advantage and glory of the nation.

Piety and religion are essential for the happiness of a nation. Vattel is addressing this question a century after the end of the Thirty Years War, which was caused by Venetian manipulation of religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, and in which approximately a third of the population of Germany was killed. By piety, Vattel means, ``the disposition of the soul that leads us to direct all our actions towards the Deity, and to endeavor to please him in everything we do.'' The leaders of the nation should endeavor to practice piety in everything they do, and encourage piety in the people. The sovereign should allow freedom of religious belief; however, he must control actions, which are committed in the name of religion, from the standpoint of the happiness and perfection of the state. Disorders, in the name of religion, or doctrines which threaten the state are not to be tolerated. ``It is a principle of fanaticism, a source of evils and of the most notorious injustice, to imagine that frail mortals ought to take up the cause of God, maintain his glory by acts of violence, and avenge him of his enemies.'' Vattel criticizes those doctrines of the Church which he believes violate national sovereignty.

Declaration of Independence

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Part 4 of:
"Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness, How the Natural Law Concept of G. W. Leibniz Inspired America's Founding Fathers."
For the Introduction and Table of Contents, go to:

Leibnizian Natural Law

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Gottfried Leibniz


Emmerich de Vattel

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