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

Fall 2017 Issue

Leading Figures in International Law


Henry Wheaton, Jurist, United States

Henry Wheaton

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

Currently the United States is not viewed as a world leader in the promulgation and acceptance of international law. However it has not always been that way. The “founding fathers” of the United States, including such notable figures as Chief Justice John Marshall, Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, were all schooled in the then prevailing principles and applications of international law, recognized its validity as part of the law of the United States, and encouraged its development in the new nation. And they were followed by distinguished jurists and lawyers on into the 19th Century.

One such lawyer and jurist was Henry Wheaton, whose most notable contribution to the law of nations, as international law was first known, was two seminal books on the subject: Elements of International Law (1836) and A History of the Law of Nations in Europe and America (1838). Both of these books achieved high rankings and were widely read in the legal communities of the new world.

Wheaton was a New Englander, having been born in Rhode Island in 1785. He attended and graduated from Rhode Island College, which is now Brown University, in 1802, followed by apprenticeships with local lawyers in preparation for admittance to the Rhode Island Bar, which he achieved in 1805. After two years of study in the United Kingdom, he returned to Rhode Island for the opening of his law practice and the beginning of other legal activities.

Some of the activities in which he engaged in the following 22 years were:

Private law practice in Providence (RI) and New York City


Reporter of United States Supreme Court decisions

Editor of the journal of a political party

Writing and publishing articles on rights in war

Division judge advocate of the U.S. Army

Justice of the Maine Court (in New York City)

Member of the constitutional convention for the creation of a new constitution for New York

Member of a commission to revise New York statutes

Wheaton’s legal career ended in1827, when he became a member of the U.S. diplomatic corps. His diplomatic activities centered on relations with German and Prussia. His diplomatic career ended in 1896, when he agreed to resign at the request of President James K. Polk. , who wanted to fill the position with one of his own appointees.

Henry Wheaton is known now, if he is known at all, for the authorship of the two international law books previously mentioned. He is possibly also known as the reporter for Supreme Court opinions, probably because law students remember picking up one or more volumes of those reports which had the name “Wheaton” on the spine of the book.

Although international law was fully recognized and used by lawyers in the 18th and 19th Centuries, they very often relied on texts written by English and European jurists. In that period of American history there were only limited offerings from American legal authors.  Henry Wheaton’s two contributions thus helped fill a gap in the literature of international law, which greatly enhanced the use and application of that law for American judges and lawyers.

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2017 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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