Hugo Grotius Reference

Hugo Grotius

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Grotius’ 1625 treatise On the Law of War and Peace has gained for him the reputation of the father of international law.

Early Life

Hugo Grotius (Huigh de Groot) was born into a prominent Dutch family on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1583. His father was Burgomaster of Delft before becoming curator (member of the board of trustees) of the University of Leiden; an uncle was a professor of law at that institution. A child prodigy, Hugo began his own studies there in 1594 at the age of eleven, majoring in philosophy and classical philology. He received a doctorate of laws in 1598 from the University of Orléans while he was visiting France with a Dutch diplomatic mission. He so impressed his elders with the breadth of his knowledge that the French king, Henry IV, publicly hailed him as “the miracle of Holland.”

In 1599, Grotius was admitted to the bar in his native province of Holland. He was named in 1601 Latin historiographer of Holland, became in 1604 legal counsel to the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United Netherlands, Prince Maurice of Nassau (Orange), and was appointed in 1607 advocaat-fiscaal for the court of Holland, Zeeland, and West Friesland (a position combining responsibility for prosecution of criminal cases with that of looking after the state’s property interests). On July 7, 1608, he married Marie van Reigersberch. The marriage produced four sons and three daughters. One of the sons and two of the daughters died in infancy.

In 1613, Grotius was sent on a special diplomatic mission to England. That same year, he was appointed pensionary (paid officer) of the city of Rotterdam, a post that included a seat in the States (or parliament) of Holland. In 1617, he became a member of the College van Gecommitteerde Raden (committee of councillors), which, with the Landsadvocaat (de facto prime minister) Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, was responsible for the day-to-day administration of provincial affairs. In these positions, Grotius became entangled in the bitter conflict between the Arminians and the Calvinists—with himself emerging as a leader of the Arminian party. The theological issue was the Arminian affirmation of man’s moral freedom, in contradiction to the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional predestination. The conflict became transformed into a constitutional crisis that pitted the provincial authorities of Holland, on one side, against Prince Maurice and the central government of the United Netherlands, on the other. The result was a military coup by Prince Maurice in 1618 in which Grotius was arrested and then sentenced the following year by a special tribunal to life imprisonment for treason. In 1621, he escaped from prison, thanks to a daring plan devised by his wife, and went into exile in France with a modest pension from King Louis XIII of France.

Life’s Work

Grotius was a prolific writer. While still a student, he had gained fame for his poetry in Greek and Latin. He continued his literary endeavors throughout his life. His output included two lengthy poetic dramas in Latin on religious themes, Adamus exul (1601; The Adamus Exul, 1839) and Christus patiens (1608; Christ’s Passion, 1640); editions of Greek and Latin poetic and historical texts; and patriotic histories of ancient Holland. During his later years, his major preoccupation became theology and biblical commentary. Nearly eight thousand letters to and from Grotius have survived.

Grotius is remembered primarily, however, for his legal treatises. His first, De jure praede commentarius, upholding on the grounds of natural law the right of captors to the proceeds of property captured during war, was written around 1604-1606 for the Dutch East India Company. The work was not published, however, until 1868, after the manuscript had been rediscovered. An English translation appeared in 1950 under the title Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty. A chapter from this longer work—setting forth Grotius’ arguments in favor of freedom of navigation and trade—was published anonymously in 1609 as Mare liberum (The Freedom of the Seas, 1916).

In 1622, Grotius published what was simultaneously an analysis of the public law of Holland and a defense of his own official conduct to rebut the accusations for which he had been imprisoned. The work, which appeared in Latin and Dutch editions, is entitled Apologeticus eorum qui Hollandiae Westfrisiaeque et vicinis quibusdam natioibus ex legibus praefuerunt (defense of the lawful government of Holland and West Friesland, together with some neighboring provinces, as it was before the change occurring in 1618). Of more long-term significance was...

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Hugo Grotius

(Comprehensive Guide to Military History)

Article abstract: Military significance: Grotius’s writings on the law of war influenced many later military leaders.

An extraordinarily gifted Dutch humanist, Hugo Grotius was a lawyer, diplomat, historian, theologian, and poet. Calvinist intolerance brought imprisonment, ending his promising political career. Escaping to Paris, he spent most of his mature years there as ambassador for Sweden.

In 1625, he published De jure belli ac pacis (1625; The Law of War and Peace, 1925), a response to his troubled era. He asserted that war is both lawful and—contrary to the assertions of the “reason-of-state” theorists—subject to law. Grotius’s concept of international law rested partly on the principle pacta sunt servanda (respect for promises given and treaties signed). More fundamental was the stoic concept of natural law, which is what reason dictates, something even God’s will cannot change. Attaching natural law to the individual, yielding natural rights, he saw self-preservation as the most fundamental, from which other basic rights of persons and states derive.

His core legal concept about war was the just war, one that has a reasonable cause. Grotius enumerated three: defense against injury, recovery of what is legally due, and the infliction of punishment on a wrong-doing state. Among the implications he drew from these principles are that a subject has a duty to refuse to fight in an unjust war, that alliances with perpetrators of unjust wars are not binding, and that neutral states are required neither to aid such states nor to hinder a state engaged in a just war. Aggression for conquest he dubbed simply “wars of robbers.” Grotius also pleaded forcefully for moderation in the conduct of war (temperameta belli).

Further Reading:

Bull, Hedley, et al., eds. Hugo Grotius and International Relations. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Dumbauld, Edward. The Life and Legal Writings of Hugo Grotius. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.

Gellenic, Christian. Hugo Grotius. Boston: Twayne, 1983.