International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Spring 2013 Issue

Leading Figures in International Law


Emmerich de Vattel (Switzerland) (1714 – 1767)

Emmerich de Vattel

By: James G. Apple, Editor-in-Chief, International Judicial Monitor and President, International Judicial Academy

At a time when international law has in some quarters not only come into disrepute, but also whose very existence has been questioned, it is useful to remind citizens of the United States as well as those who live elsewhere in the world that the United States was founded on principles of international law. The reminder should also include the fact that the “law of nations” as it was called then, was a major influence on the so-called “Founding Fathers” of the U.S., including especially those who signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776, and participated in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in that same city in 1787.

One of the most influential early writers on the subject of the law of nations was a Swiss jurist and philosopher, Emmerich de Vattel (whose name is also sometimes spelled as Emerich de Vattel). It is well established that de Vattel’s seminal work, The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law Applied to the Conduct and to the Affairs of Nations and of Sovereigns, had a significant influence in the drafting of both the United States Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Emmerich de Vattel was born in Couvet in Neuchatel, Switzerland in 1714, the son of a Protestant clergyman. De Vattel’s mother was the daughter of a Swiss diplomat. De Vattel studied humanities at the University of Basel where he was exposed to the writings of the German international jurist, Samuel Pufendorf. Later he traveled to Geneva to pursue studies in theology and metaphysics and was a student of another European international law jurist, Jean-Jacques Burlamaque. Here he was again exposed to the principles of natural law and the law of nations.

In 1740 and 1741 he wrote a series of essays, one of which was a defense of the philosophy of Leibniz. After seeking and failing to secure a diplomatic post, he moved to Dresden and then returned to Neuchatel and spent three years writing and studying the works of yet another international jurist, the German philosopher Christian Wolff. He later secured a diplomatic position in Berne and entered the Saxon diplomatic service, where he eventually acted as adviser and minister-plenipotentiary. He was appointed Privy Councillor in 1758. It was during this period of his life that he wrote and published his most famous work, The Law of Nations, in 1757-1758. It was favorably and widely received and established de Vattel as a “major authority on natural jurisprudence.”

In 1759 he secured a position in Dresden advising the government of Saxony on foreign affairs. He wrote two additional works under this appointment, one a critique of the works of Christian Wolff. In 1764, he wed the daughter of a prominent Huguenot family, a marriage that produced one son. However the challenges of the court appointment proved too great for him, and he died in 1767 at the age of 53.

One commentary summed up the importance of The Law of Nations thus:

The importance of The Law of Nations…resides both in its systematic derivation of international law from natural law and in its compelling synthesis of the modern discourse of natural jurisprudence with the even newer language of political economy. These features help to explain the continuing appeal of this text well into the nineteenth century among politicians, international lawyers, and political theorists of every complexion.


He, in effect, laid “the foundations of modern political philosophy and international law.”

Of particular importance to modern international jurisprudence, both in the United States and elsewhere, is the influence that The Law of Nations imposed on the American revolutionaries of the late 18th Century and early 19th Century. In one passage of The Law of Nations, de Vattel asserted:

There certainly exists a natural law of nations, since the obligations of the law of nature are no less binding on states, on men united in political society, than on individuals. But, to acquire an exact knowledge of that law, it is not sufficient to know what the law of nature prescribes to the individuals of the human race…. Hence, it follows, that the natural law of nations is a particular science, consisting in a just and rational application of the law of nature to the affairs and conduct of nations or sovereigns. All treatises, therefore, in which the law of nations is blended and confounded with the ordinary law of nature, are incapable of conveying a distinct idea, or a substantial knowledge of the sacred law of nations.

There are some specific incidents known about the use of The Law of Nations by American revolutionaries. The Swiss editor, Charles W.F. Dumas, sent three copies of the work to Benjamin Franklin, one of which he presented to the Library Company of Philadelphia. In a letter of thanks to Dumas, Franklin noted that the work had come “to us in good season, when the circumstances of a rising State make it necessary to frequently consult the Law of Nations.” He later stated that the work “has been continually in the hands of the members of our Congress now sitting.”

Another commentary about the influence of de Vattel’s magnus opus on early American politicians observed:

There is no question that Emmerich de Vattel was the favorite writer in America on “Law of the Nations.” Vattel’s material was even used in college textbooks. In court proceedings from 1789 to 1820, Vattel was cited more than Grotius and Pufendorf…Those citing Vattel in legal cases and government documents were: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay and John Marshall. John Marshall, during his thirty-four years as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, quoted Vattel by far the most among all authors on the “Law of the Nations.”

George Washington also was “associated” with de Vattel’s work. He borrowed a copy from the New York Society Library on October 8, 1789, together with a volume containing transcripts of debates in the English House of Commons. He failed to return the books. Many years later, museum curators at Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon, on the banks of the Potomac River near Alexandria, Virginia, could not locate the two works. They purchased a copy of the de Vattel work (for the sum of $12,000) and returned it to the New York library 221 years late, on May 20, 2010. It was noted that the library “waived” the unpaid late fees.

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© 2013 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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