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Emer de Vattel

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Emer de Vattel
Born(1714-04-25)25 April 1714
Died28 December 1767(1767-12-28) (aged 53)
Notable workThe Law of Nations
SchoolInternational law
Main interests
International law
Plaque on the home of Emer de Vattel

Emer (Emmerich) de Vattel (French pronunciation: [vat-těl] 25 April 1714 – 28 December 1767[1]) was a Prussian international lawyer. He was born in Couvet in the Principality of Neuchâtel (now a canton part of Switzerland but part of Prussia at the time) in 1714 and died in 1767.

Vattel's work profoundly influenced the development of international law.[2][3] He is most famous for his 1758 work The Law of Nations. This work was his claim to fame and won him enough prestige to be appointed as a councilor to the court of Frederick Augustus II of Saxony. Vattel combined naturalist legal reasoning and positivist legal reasoning.[2]

Early life and career


The son of a Protestant minister, Vattel was born at Couvet, Neuchâtel, on the 25th of April 1714.[3] He studied classics and philosophy at Basel and Geneva.[3] During his early years his favorite pursuit was philosophy and, having carefully studied the works of Leibniz and Christian Wolff, he published in 1741 a defence of Leibniz's system against Jean-Pierre de Crousaz. In the same year Vattel, who was born a subject of the king of Prussia, repaired to Berlin in the hope of obtaining some public employment from Frederick II, but was disappointed in his expectation. Two years later he proceeded to Dresden, where he experienced a very favourable reception from Count Brühl, the minister of Saxony. In 1746 he obtained from the elector, Augustus III, the title of councillor of embassy, accompanied with a pension, and was sent to Bern in the capacity of the elector's minister. His diplomatic functions did not occupy his whole time, and much of his leisure was devoted to literature and jurisprudence.[4]

The Law of Nations

Le droit des gens, 1775.
The cover page from The Law of Nations

Vattel's seminal work was largely influenced by a book titled Jus Gentium Methodo Scientifica Pertractum (The Law of Nations According to the Scientific Method) by Christian Wolff. Vattel's work began, in fact, by translating Wolff's text from Latin, and adding his own thoughts. Vattel's work was also heavily influenced by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Hugo Grotius. Focused largely on the rights and obligations of citizens and states, Vattel's work also had ramifications for Just War Theory as it outlined international diplomacy as we now know it.[5]

Vattel elucidated the "Golden Rule of Sovereigns":

One cannot complain when he is treated as he treats others.[6]

English editions


Vattel's Law of Nations was first translated into English in 1760, based on the French original of 1758. A Dublin translation of 1787 does not include notes from the original nor posthumous notes added to the 1773 French edition. Several other English editions were based on the edition of 1760. However, an English edition from 1793 includes Vattel's later thoughts, as did the London 1797 edition. The 1797 edition has a detailed table of contents and margin titles for subsections.[7]

Benjamin Franklin


Charles W.F. Dumas sent Benjamin Franklin three original French copies of de Vattel's Le droit des gens (The Law of Nations). Franklin presented one copy to the Library Company of Philadelphia. On December 9, 1775, Franklin thanked Dumas: [8]

It came to us in good season, when the circumstances of a rising State make it necessary to frequently consult the Law of Nations.

Franklin also said that this book by Vattel, "has been continually in the hands of the members of our Congress now sitting".[9][10]

George Washington


Two notable copies of The Law of Nations owned by the New York Society Library have been associated with US President George Washington. One copy had been borrowed by Washington on 8 October 1789, along with a copy of Vol. 12 of the Commons Debates, containing transcripts from Great Britain's House of Commons. When the staff of the Washington museum at Mount Vernon heard about the overdue books, they were unable to locate them, but purchased a second copy of the de Vattel work for US$12,000. This identical copy was ceremoniously "returned" 221 years late on 20 May 2010. The library waived the unpaid late-fees.[11]

Other works


Vattel also published works other than his magnum opus. He worked so intensely that his health broke down, and a return to Dresden in 1766 did not improve him. His last work, Questions de droit naturel, ou Observations sur le traité du droit de la nature, par Wolff ("Questions of natural rights...") was published in 1762 and concerned Wolff's natural law philosophy.[12] He died in 1767 during a visit to Neuchâtel.[1]



Vattel was a highly influential international lawyer.[3] Vattel was one of a number of 18th century European scholars who wrote on international law and were "well known in America" at the time, including Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, Cornelius van Bynkershoek, Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, Thomas Rutherforth, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Christian Wolff. The Law of Nations has been described as "unrivaled among such treatises in its influence on the American founders".[13][14]

Vattel is also cited extensively in Lysander Spooner's The Unconstitutionality Of Slavery and appears to be a key Enlightenment thinker in Spooner's thought.

US Department of Defense 2015 Law of War Manual


In 2015 the United States Department of Defense published its Law of War Manual. Vattel is cited after Hugo Grotius and before Francis Lieber and Hersch Lauterpacht as a subsidiary means and an authority in determining the rules of law of war.[15]

See also



  1. ^ a b Chisholm 1911.
  2. ^ a b Orakhelashvili, Alexander (2018). Akehurst's Modern Introduction to International Law. Routledge. pp. 3–4. doi:10.4324/9780429439391. ISBN 9780429439391. S2CID 159062874.
  3. ^ a b c d Fenwick, Charles G. (1913). "The Authority of Vattel". American Political Science Review. 7 (3): 395–410. doi:10.2307/1944965. ISSN 0003-0554. JSTOR 1944965. S2CID 147687975.
  4. ^  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Vattel, Emeric de". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 27 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 951.
  5. ^ Ignatieff, Michael (17 February 2002). "Barbarians at the Gates". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 May 2011.
  6. ^ Emer de Vattel (1916). Le droit des gens ou principes de la loi naturelle Appliqués à la conduite et aux affaires des Nations et des Souverains par M. de Vattel. Vol. II (Reproduction of Books III and IV of Edition of 1758). Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution. p. 79. Retrieved 12 April 2016 – via Internet Archive.
  7. ^ Emer de Vattel (1844). The Law of Nations, Or the Principles of Law of Nature Applied to the Conduct and the Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns with Three Early Essays on the Origin and Nature of Natural Law and on Luxury (PDF). Philadelphia: T. & J. W. Johnson – via Library of Congress.
  8. ^ Emer de Vattel (1916). The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law Applied to the Conduct and the Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns, Translation of the Edition of 1758 by Charles Fenwick with an Introduction by Albert de Lapradelle. Vol. III. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution. p. xxx. Retrieved 12 April 2016 – via Internet Archive.
  9. ^ Emer de Vattel (1916). "Preface by James Brown Scott". Le droit des gens ou principes de la loi naturelle Appliqués à la conduite et aux affaires des Nations et des Souverains par M. de Vattel. Vol. I (Reproduction of Books I and II of Edition of 1758). Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution. p. 1a–2a. Retrieved 13 April 2016 – via Internet Archive.
  10. ^ U.S. Steel Corp. v. Multistate Tax Comm'n. Archived 2012-07-12 at archive.today, 434 U.S. 452, 462 (1977).
  11. ^ "George Washington's 221-year overdue library book: A timeline", The Week, 21 May 2010, retrieved 3 May 2011
  12. ^ Questions de droit naturel, et observations sur le Traité du droit de la nature de M. le baron de Wolf, A Berne : Chez la Societé typographique (1762) Internet Archive
  13. ^ U.S. Department of State: Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State: America's Founders were inspired by the ideas and values of early Swiss philosophers like Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui and Emer de Vattel, and the 1848 Swiss Constitution was influenced by our own U.S. Constitution. Swiss commitment to democracy is an example for nations and people everywhere who yearn for greater freedoms and human rights
  14. ^ Ramsey, Michael D. (14 October 2005). "Law of Nations as a Constitutional Obligation" (MS Word document). International Human Rights Colloquium. Georgetown University Law Center. Retrieved 4 May 2011.
  15. ^ Office of General Counsel, Department of Defense (2016). Department of Defense Law War Manual (PDF) (2nd ed.). Washington, DC. p. 35. Retrieved 18 January 2022.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)