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

Emmerich de Vattel

The Third Object of a Good Government — To Fortify Itself Against External Attacks

§ 177. A nation ought to fortify itself against external attacks.
WE have treated at large of what relates to the felicity of a nation: the subject is equally copious and complicated. Let us now proceed to a third division of the duties which a nation owes to itself, — a third object of good government. One of the ends of political society is to defend itself with its combined strength against all external insult or violence (§ 15). If the society is not in a condition to repulse an aggressor, it is very imperfect, — it is unequal to the principal object of its destination, and cannot long subsist. The nation ought to put itself in such a state as to be able to repel and humble an unjust enemy: this is an import duty, which the care of its own perfection, and even of its preservation, imposes both on the state and its conductor.

§ 176. National strength.
It is its strength alone that can enable a nation to repulse all aggressors, to secure its rights, and render itself everywhere respectable. It is called upon by every possible motive to neglect no circumstance that can tend to place it in this happy situation. The strength of a state consists in three things, — the number of citizens, their military virtues, and their riches. Under this last article we may comprehend fortresses, artillery, arms, horses, ammunition, and, in general, all that immense apparatus at present necessary in war, since they can all be procured with money.

§ 179. Increase of population.1
To increase the number of the citizens as far as it is possible or convenient, is then one of the first objects that claim the attentive care of the state or its conductor: and this will be successfully effected by complying with the obligation to procure the country a plenty of the necessaries of life, —; by enabling the people to support their families with the fruits of their labor, —; by giving proper directions that the poorer classes, and especially the husbandmen, be not harassed and oppressed by the levying of taxes, — by governing with mildness and in a manner which, instead of disgusting and dispersing the present subjects of the state, shall rather attract new ones, — and, finally, by encouraging marriage, after the example of the Romans. That nation, so attentive to every thing capable of increasing and supporting their power, made wise laws against celibacy (as we have already observed in § 149), and granted privileges and exemptions to married men, particularly to those who had numerous families: laws that were equally wise and just, since a citizen who rears subjects for the state has a right to expect more favor from it than the man who chooses to live for himself alone.2

Every thing tending to depopulate a country is a defect in a state not overstocked with inhabitants. We have already spoken of convents and the celibacy of priests. It is strange that establishments so directly repugnant to the duties of a man and citizen, as well as to the advantage and safety of society, should have found such favor, and that princes, instead of opposing them, as it was their duty to do, should have protected and enriched them. A system of policy, that dextrously took advantage of superstition to extend its own power, led princes and subjects astray, caused them to mistake their real duties, and blinded sovereigns even with respect to their own interest. Experience seems at length to have opened the eyes of nations and their conductors; the pope himself (let us mention it to the honor of Benedict XIV.) endeavors gradually to reform so palpable an abuse; by his orders, none of his dominions are any longer permitted to take the vow of celibacy before they are twenty-five years of age. That wise pontiff gives the sovereigns of his communion a salutary example; he invites them to attend at length to the safety of their states, — to narrow at least, if they cannot entirely close up, the avenues of that sink that drains their dominions. Take a view of Germany; and there, in countries which are in all other respects upon an equal fooling, you will see the protestant states twice as populous as the catholic ones. Compare the desert state of Spain with that of England, teeming with inhabitants: survey many fine provinces, even in France, destitute of hands to till the soil; and then tell me, whether the many thousands of both sexes, who are now locked up in convents, would not serve God and their country infinitely better by peopling those fertile plains with useful cultivators? It is true, indeed, that the catholic cantons of Switzerland are nevertheless very populous: but this is owing to a profound peace, and the nature of the government, which abundantly repair the losses occasioned by convents. Liberty is able to remedy the greatest evils; it is the soul of a state, and was with great justice called by the Romans alma Libertas.

§ 180. Valor.
A cowardly and undisciplined multitude are incapable of repulsing a warlike enemy: the strength of the state consists less in the number than the military virtues of its citizens. Valor, that heroic virtue which makes us undauntedly encounter danger in defense of our country, is the firmest support of the state: it renders it formidable to its enemies, and often even saves it the trouble of defending itself. A state whose reputation in this respect is once well established, will be seldom attacked, if it does not provoke other states by its enterprises. For above two centuries the Swiss have enjoyed a profound peace, while the din of arms resounded all around them, and the rest of Europe was desolated by the ravages of war. Nature gives the foundation of valor; but various causes may animate it, weaken it, and even destroy it, A nation ought then to seek after and cultivate a virtue so useful; and a prudent sovereign will take all possible measures to inspire his subjects with it: — his wisdom will point out to him the means. It is this generous flame that animates the French nobility: fired with a love of glory and of their country, they fly to battle, and cheerfully spill their blood in the field of honor. To what an extent would they not carry their conquests, if that kingdom were surrounded by nations less warlike! The Briton, generous and intrepid, resembles a lion in combat; and, in general, the nations of Europe surpass in bravery all the other people upon earth.

§ 181. Other military virtues.
But valor alone is not always successful in war: constant success can only be obtained by an assemblage of all the military virtues. History shows us the importance of ability in the commanders, of military discipline, frugality, bodily strength, dexterity, and being inured to fatigue and labor. These are so many distinct branches which a nation ought carefully to cultivate. It was the assemblage of all these that raised so high the glory of the Romans, and rendered them the masters of the world. It were a mistake to suppose that valor alone produced those illustrious exploits of the ancient Swiss — the victories of Morgarten, Sempach, Laupen, Morat, and many others. The Swiss not only fought with intrepidity; they studied the art of war, — they inured themselves to its toils, — they accustomed themselves to the practice of all its maneuvers, — and their very love of liberty made them submit to a discipline which could alone secure to them that treasure, and save their country. Their troops were no loss celebrated for their discipline than their bravery. Mezeray, after having given an account of the behavior of the Swiss at the battle of Dreux, adds these remarkable words; “in the opinion of all the officers of both sides who were present, the Swiss, in that battle, under every trial, against infantry and cavalry, against French and against Germans, gained the palm for military discipline, and acquired the reputation of being the best infantry in the world.”4

§ 182. Riches.
Finally, the wealth of a nation constitutes a considerable part of its power, especially in modern times, when war requires such immense expenses. It is not simply in the revenues of the sovereign, or the public treasure, that the riches of a nation consist: its opulence is also rated from the wealth of individuals. We commonly call a nation rich, when it contains a great number of citizens in easy and affluent circumstances. The wealth of private persons really increases the strength of the nation; since they are capable of contributing large sums towards supplying the necessities of the state, and that, in a case of extremity, the sovereign may even employ all the riches of his subjects in the defense, and for the safety of the state, in virtue of the supreme command with which he is invested, as we shall hereafter show. The nation, then, ought to endeavor to acquire those public and private riches that are of such use to it: and this is a new reason for encouraging a commerce with other nations, which is the source from whence they flow, — and a new motive for the sovereign to keep a watchful eye over the different branches of foreign trade carried on by his subjects, in order that he may preserve and protect the profitable branches, and cut off those that occasion the exportation of gold and silver.

§ 183. Public revenues and taxes.
It is requisite that the state should possess an income proportionate to its necessary expenditures. That income may be supplied by various means, — by lands reserved for that purpose, by contributions, taxes of different kinds, etc. — but of this subject we shall treat in another place.

§ 184. The nation ought not to increase its power by illegal means.
We have here summed up the principal ingredients that constitute that strength which a nation ought to augment and improve. Can it be necessary to add the observation, that this desirable object is not to be pursued by any other methods than such as are just and innocent? A laudable end is not sufficient to sanctify the means; for these ought to be in their own nature lawful. The law of nature cannot contradict itself: if it forbids an action as unjust or dishonest in its own nature, it can never permit it for any purpose whatever. And therefore in those cases where that object, in itself so valuable and so praiseworthy, cannot be attained without employing unlawful means, it ought to be considered as unattainable, and consequently be relinquished. Thus, we shall show, in treating of the just causes of war, that a nation is not allowed to attack another with a view to aggrandize itself by subduing and giving law to the latter. This is just the same as if a private person should attempt to enrich himself by seizing his neighbor’s property.

§ 185. Power is but relative.
The power of a nation is relative, and ought to be measured by that of its neighbors, or of all the nations from whom it has any thing to fear. The state is sufficiently powerful when it is capable of causing itself to be respected, and of repelling whoever would attack it. It may be placed in this happy situation, either by keeping up its own strength equal or even superior to that of its neighbors, or by preventing their rising to a predominant and formidable power. But we can not show here in what cases and by what means a state may justly set bounds to the power of another. It is necessary, first, to explain the duties of a nation towards others, in order to combine them afterwards with its duties towards itself. For the present, we shall only observe, that a nation, while it obeys the dictates of prudence and wise policy in this instance, ought never to lose sight of the maxims of justice.


     1.    This subject, and the necessity for endeavoring to discourage the increase of population, have, in recent years, occasioned the publication of numerous works. See them commented upon, 1 Chitty’s Commercial Law, 1, 2. etc.
     2.    It is impossible to suppress the emotions of indignation that arise on reading what some of the fathers of the church have written against marriage, and in favor of celibacy. “Videtur esse matrimonii et stupri differentia, (says Tertulian): sed utrobique est communicatio.3 Ergo, inquis, et primas nuptios damnas? Nec immerito, quoniam et ipsæ constant ex eo quod est stuprum.” EXHORT. CASTIT. And thus Jerome; “Hanc tantum esse differentiam inter uxorem et scortum, quod tolerabiliu, sit uni esse prostitutam quam pluribus.”
     3.    Contaminatio. —; EDIT.
     4.    History of France, vol. ii. p. 668.