Emer de Vattel’s The Law of Nations

Luhmann is forever talking about the second half of the 18th century as the pivotal era in the transition to modern society. One very important book published during these years was Le droit des gens, ou Principes de la loi naturelle, appliqués à la conduite et aux affaires des Nations et des Souverains  (2 vols.), published in 1758 by Emer de Vattel. The first English edition appeared in 1760 and was read by Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and other US Founding Fathers. The expanded 1797 English edition was titled The Law of Nations, Or, Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns, with Three Early Essays on the Origin and Nature of Natural Law and on Luxury.

In the Preliminaries section (1797 edition), Vattel writes,

Nations or states are bodies politic, societies of men united together for the purpose of promoting their mutual safety and advantage by the joint efforts of their combined strength.

Such a society has her affairs and her interests; she deliberates and takes resolutions in common; thus becoming a moral person, who possesses an understanding and a will peculiar to herself, and is susceptible of obligations and rights

To establish on a solid foundation the obligations and rights of nations, is the design of this work. The law of nations is the science which teaches the rights subsisting between nations or states, and the obligations correspondent to those rights.

It’s interesting that the Vattel speaks not only of rights, but obligations as well.

We shall examine the obligations of a people, as well towards themselves as towards other nations; and by that means we shall discover the rights which result from those obligations.

The word obligations only appears once in the US Constitution. Stratified, pre-revolutionary society paid a great deal of attention to duties and obligations, but not rights, while functionally differentiated society pays more attention to rights.

Earlier theorists–such as such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), John Locke (1632-1704), Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) & Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694)–spoke of natural law and natural rights, not human rights.  Natural law and natural rights were said to be independent of the monarch or the church.


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