The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law (1758)

Emmerich de Vattel

General Principles of the Duties of a Nation Towards Itself

§ 12. The objects of this treatise.
IF the rights of a nation spring from its obligations, it is principally from those that relate to itself. It will further appear, that its duties towards others depend very much on its duties towards itself, as the former are to be regulated and measured by the latter. As we are then to treat of the obligations and rights of nations, an attention to order requires that we should begin by establishing what each nation owes to itself.

§ 13. A nation ought to act agreeably to its nature.
The general and fundamental rule of our duties towards ourselves is, that every moral being ought to live in a manner conformable to his nature, naturae conveni enter vivere.1 A nation is a being determined by its essential attributes, that has its own nature, and can act in conformity to it. There are then actions of a nation as such, wherein it is concerned in its national character, and which are either suitable or opposite to what constitutes it a nation; so that it is not a matter of indifference whether it performs some of those actions, and omits others. In this respect, the Law of Nature prescribes it certain duties. We shall see, in this first book, what conduct a nation ought to observe, in order that it may not be wanting to itself. But we shall first sketch out a general idea of this subject.

§ 14. Of the preservation and perfection of a nation.
He who no longer exists can have no duties to perform: and a moral being is charged with obligations to himself, only with a view to his perfection and happiness: for to preserve and to perfect his own nature, is the sum of all his duties to himself.

The preservation of a nation is found in what renders it capable of obtaining the end of civil society; and a nation is in a perfect state, when nothing necessary is wanting to arrive at that end. We know that the perfection of a thing consists, generally, in the perfect agreement of all its constituent parts to tend to the same end. A nation being a multitude of men united together in civil society — if in that multitude all conspire to attain the end proposed in forming a civil society, the nation is perfect; and it is more or less so, according as it approaches more or less to that perfect agreement. In the same manner its external state will be more or less perfect, according as it concurs with the interior perfection of the nation,

§ 15. What is the end of civil society.
The end or object of civil society is to procure for the citizens whatever they stand in need of for the necessities, the conveniences, the accommodation of life, and, in general, whatever constitutes happiness, — with the peaceful possession of property, a method of obtaining justice with security, and, finally, a mutual defense against all external violence.

It is now easy to form a just idea of the perfection of a state or nation: — every thing in it must conspire to promote the ends we have pointed out.

§ 16. A nation is under an obligation to preserve itself.
In the act of association, by virtue of which a multitude of men form together a state or nation, each individual has entered into engagements with all, to promote the general welfare; and all have entered into engagements with each individual, to facilitate for him the means of supplying his necessities, and to protect and defend him. It is manifest that these reciprocal engagements can no otherwise be fulfilled than by maintaining the political association. The entire nation is then obliged to maintain that association; and as their preservation depends on its continuance, it thence follows that every nation is obliged to perform the duty of self-preservation,

This obligation, so natural to each individual of God’s creation, is not derived to nations immediately from nature, but from the agreement by which civil society is formed: it is therefore not absolute, but conditional, — that is to say, it supposes a human act, to wit, the social compact. And as compacts may be dissolved by common consent of the parties — if the individuals that compose a nation should unanimously agree to break the link that binds them, it would be lawful for them to do so, and thus to destroy the state or nation; but they would doubtless incur a degree of guilt, if they took this step without just and weighty reasons; for civil societies are approved by the Law of Nature, which recommends them to mankind, as the true means of supplying all their wants, and of effectually advancing towards their own perfection. Moreover, civil society is so useful, nay so necessary to all citizens, that it may well be considered as morally impossible for them to consent unanimously to break it without necessity. But what citizens may or ought to do — what the majority of them may resolve in certain cases of necessity or of pressing exigency — are questions that will be treated of elsewhere: they cannot be solidly determined without some principles which we have not yet established. For the present, it is sufficient to have proved, that, in general, as long as the political society subsists, the whole nation is obliged to endeavor to maintain it.

§ 17. And to preserve its members.
If a nation is obliged to preserve itself, it is no less obliged carefully to preserve all its members. The nation owes this to itself, since the loss even of one of its members weakens it, and is injurious to its preservation. It owes this also to the members in particular, in consequence of the very act of association; for those who compose a nation are united for their defense and common advantage; and none can justly be deprived of this union, and of the advantages he expects to derive from it, while he on his side fulfills the conditions.2

The body of a nation cannot then abandon a province, a town, or even a single individual who is a part of it, unless compelled to it by necessity, or indispensably obliged to it by the strongest reasons founded on the public safety.3

§ 18. A nation has a right to every thing necessary for its preservation.
Since then a nation is obliged to preserve itself, it has a right to every thing necessary for its preservation. For the Law of Nature gives us a right to every thing without which we cannot fulfill our obligation; otherwise it would oblige us to do impossibilities, or rather would contradict itself in prescribing us a duty, and at the same time debarring us of the only means of fulfilling it. It will doubtless be here understood, that those means ought not to be unjust in themselves, or such as are absolutely forbidden by the Law of Nature.

As it is impossible that it should ever permit the use of such means, — if on a particular occasion no other present themselves for fulfilling a general obligation, the obligation must, in that particular instance, be looked on as impossible, and consequently void.

§ 19. It ought to avoid every thing that might occasion its destruction.
By an evident consequence from what has been said, a nation ought carefully to avoid, as much as possible, whatever might cause its destruction, or that of the state, which is the same thing.

§ 20. Of its right to every thing that may promote this end.
A nation or state has a right to every thing that can help to ward off imminent danger, and kept at a distance whatever is capable of causing its ruin; and that from the very same reasons that establish its right to the things necessary to its preservation.4

§ 21. A nation ought to perfect itself and the state.
The second general duty of a nation towards itself is to labor at its own perfection and that of its state. It is this double perfection that renders a nation capable of attaining the end of civil society: it would be absurd to unite in society, and yet not endeavor to promote the end of that union.

Here the entire body of a nation, and each individual citizen, are bound by a double obligation, the one immediately proceeding from nature, and the other resulting from their reciprocal engagements. Nature lays an obligation upon each man to labor after his own perfection; and in so doing, he labors after that of civil society, which could not fail to be very flourishing, were it composed of none but good citizens. But the individual finding in a well-regulated society the most powerful succors to enable him to fulfill the task which Nature imposes upon him in relation to himself, for becoming better, and consequently more happy — he is doubtless obliged to contribute all in his power to render that society more perfect.

All the citizens who form a political society reciprocally engage to advance the common welfare, and as far as possible to promote the advantage of each member. Since then the perfection of the society is what enables it to secure equally the happiness of the body and that of the members, the grand object of the engagements and duties of a citizen is to aim at this perfection, This is more particularly the duty of the body collective in all their common deliberations, and in every thing they do as a body.5

§ 22. And to avoid every thing contrary to its perfection.
A nation therefore ought to prevent, and carefully to avoid, whatever may hinder its perfection and that of the state, or retard the progress either of the one or the other.6

§ 23. The rights it derives from these obligations.
We may then conclude, as we have done above in regard to the preservation of a state (§ 18), that a nation has a right to every thing without which it cannot attain the perfection of the members and of the state, or prevent and repel whatever is contrary to this double perfection.

§ 24. Examples.
On this subject, the English furnish us an example highly worthy of attention. That illustrious nation distinguishes itself in a glorious manner by its application to every thing that can render the state more flourishing. An admirable constitution there places every citizen in a situation that enables him to contribute to this great end, and everywhere diffuses that spirit of genuine patriotism which zealously exerts itself for the public welfare. We there see private citizens form considerable enterprises, in order to promote the glory and welfare of the nation. And while a bad prince would find his hands tied up, a wise and moderate king finds the most powerful aids to give success to his glorious designs. The nobles and the representatives of the people form a link of confidence between the monarch and the nation, and, concurring with him in every thing that tends to promote the public welfare, partly case him of the burden of government, give stability to his power, and procure him an obedience the more perfect, as it is voluntary. Every good citizen sees that the strength of the state is really the advantage of all, and not that of a single person.7 Happy constitution! which they did not suddenly obtain: it has cost rivers of blood; but they have not purchased it too dear. May luxury, that pest so fatal to the manly and patriotic virtues, that minister of corruption so dangerous to liberty, never overthrow a monument that does so much honor to human nature — a monument capable of teaching kings how glorious it is to rule over a free people!

There is another nation illustrious by its bravery and its victories. Its numerous and valiant nobility, its extensive and fertile dominions, might render it respectable throughout all Europe, and in a short time it might be in a most flourishing situation, but its constitution opposes this; and such is its attachment to that constitution, that there is no room to expect a proper remedy will ever be applied. In vain might a magnanimous king, raised by his virtues above the pursuits of ambition and injustice, from the most salutary designs for promoting the happiness of his people; — in vain might those designs be approved by the more sensible part, by the majority of the nation; — a single deputy, obstinate, or corrupted by a foreign power, might put a stop to all, and disconcert the wisest and most necessary measures. From an excessive jealousy of its liberty, that nation has taken such precautions as must necessarily place it out of the power of the king to make any attempts on the liberties of the public. But is it not evident that those precautions exceed the end proposed — that they tie the hands of the most just and wise prince, and deprive him of the means of securing the public freedom against the enterprises of foreign powers, and of rendering the nation rich and happy? Is it not evident that the nation has deprived itself of the power of acting, and that its councils are exposed to the caprice or treachery of a single member?

§ 25. A nation ought to know itself.
We shall conclude this chapter, with observing that a nation ought to know itself.8 Without this knowledge it cannot make any successful endeavors after its own perfection. It ought to have a just idea of its state, to enable it to take the most proper measures; it ought to know the progress it has already made, and what further advances it has still to make, — what advantages it possesses, and what defects it labors under, in order to preserve the former, and correct the latter. Without this knowledge a nation will act at random, and often take the most improper measures. It will think it acts with great wisdom in imitating the conduct of nations that are reputed wise and skillful, — not perceiving that such or such regulation, such or such practice, though salutary to one state, is often pernicious to another. Every thing ought to be conducted according to its nature. Nations cannot be well governed without such regulations as are suitable to their respective characters; and in order to this, their characters ought to be known.


     1.    If to particularize may be allowed, we may instance Great Britain. Comparatively, with regard to dimensions. it would be but an insignificant state; but with regard to its insular situation and excellent ports, and its proximity to Europe, and above all the singularly manly, brave, and adventurous character of its natives, it has been capable of acquiring and has acquired powers far beyond its diminutive extent. These being established. It becomes the duty of such a state, and of those exercising the powers of government, to cultivate and improve these natural advantages; and in that view the ancient exclusive navigation system, constituting England the carrier of Europe and the world were highly laudable; and it is to be hoped that a return of the system, injudiciously abandoned, will ere long lake place. — C.
     2.    This principle is in every respect recognized and acted upon by our municipal law. It is in respect of, and as a due return for, the protection every natural born subject is entitled to, and actually does, by law, receive from the instant of his birth that all the obligations of allegiance attach upon him, and from which he cannot by any act of his own emancipate himself. This is the principle upon which is founded the rule “Nemo potest exuere patriam,” Calvin’s case. 7 Coke 25. Co Lit. 129, a; and see an interesting application of that rule in Macdonald’s case, Forster’s Crown Law 59. — C.
     3.    In tracing the consequences of this rule, we shall hereafter perceive how important is the rule itself. — C.
     4.    Salus populi supreme est lex. Upon this principle it has been established, that for national defense in war, it is legal to pull down or injure the property of any private individual. See Governors, etc. v. Meredith, 4 Term Rep. 796-7. — C.
     5.    In a highly intelligent and cultivated society like England, this principle is exemplified in an extraordinary degree; for in the legislative assembly, members of parliament, without any private interest excepting the approbation of their countrymen, almost destroy themselves by exertion in discussing the improvement of existing regulations; and this indeed even to excess as regards long speeches, sometimes even counteracting their own laudable endeavors. — C.
     6.    See Book 1. chap. xxiii. § 283, as to the duty of all nations to prevent the violation of the law of nations. — C.
     7.    This is indeed a flattering compliment from Vattel, a foreigner; but certainly it is just; for although, as a commercial nation, it might be supposed that each individual principally labors for his own individual gain; yet when we refer to the spirited employment of capital in building national bridges, canals, railroads, etc. not yielding even 21 per cent., it must be admitted that great public spirit for national good very generally prevails. — C.
     8.    This is one of the soundest and most important principles that can be advanced, whether it refers to individuals or to nations, and is essential even to the attainment of the rudiments of true wisdom. Every moral and wise man should enlarge on this principle, and among others study that excellent, but too little known work, Mason on Self-Knowledge.