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

Emmerich de Vattel

How a Nation May Separate Itself from the State of Which it Is a Member, or Renounce its Allegiance to its Sovereign When it Is Not Protected

§ 200. Difference between the present case and those in the preceding chapter.
WE have said that an independent nation, which, without becoming a member of another state, has voluntarily rendered itself dependent on, or subject to it, in order to obtain protection, is released from its engagements as soon as that protection fails, even though the failure happen through the inability of the protector. But we are not to conclude that it is precisely the same case with every nation that cannot obtain speedy and effectual protection from its natural sovereign or the state of which it is a member. The two cases are very different. In the former, a free nation becomes subject to another state, — not to partake of all the other’s advantages, and form with it an absolute union of interests (for, if the more powerful state were willing to confer so great a favor, the weaker one would be incorporated, not subjected), — but to obtain protection alone by the sacrifice of its liberty, without expecting any other return. When, therefore, the sole and indispensable condition of its subjection is (from what cause soever) not complied with, it is free from its engagements; and its duty towards itself obliges it to take fresh methods to provide for its own security. But the several members of one individual state, as they all equally participate in the advantages it procures, are bound uniformly to support it: they have entered into mutual engagements to continue united with each other, and to have on all occasions but one common cause. If those who are menaced or attacked might separate themselves from the others, in order to avoid a present danger, every state would soon be dismembered and destroyed. It is, then, essentially necessary for the safety of society, and even for the welfare of all its members, that each part should with all its might resist a common enemy, rather than separate from the others; and this is consequently one of the necessary conditions of the political association. The natural subjects of a prince are bound to him without any other reserve than the observation of the fundamental laws; — it is their duty to remain faithful to him, as it is his, on the other hand, to take care to govern them well: both parties have but one common interest; the people and the prince together constitute but one complete whole, one and the same society. It is, then, an essential and necessary condition of the political society, that the subjects remain united to their prince as far as in their power.1

§ 201. Duty of the members of a state, or subjects of a prince, who are in danger.
When, therefore, a city or a province is threatened or actually attacked, it must not, for the sake of escaping the danger, separate itself from the state of which it is a member, or abandon its natural prince, even when the state or the prince is unable to give it immediate and effectual assistance. Its duty, its political engagements, oblige it to make the greatest efforts, in order to maintain itself in its present state. If it is overcome by force, necessity, that irresistible law, frees it from its former engagements, and gives it a right to treat with the conqueror, in order to obtain the best terms possible. If it must either submit to him or perish, who can doubt but that it may and even ought to prefer the former alternative? Modern usage is conformable to this decision: — a city submits to the enemy when it cannot expect safety from a vigorous resistance; it takes an oath of fidelity to him; and its sovereign lays the blame on fortune alone.

§ 202. Their right when they are abandoned.
The state is obliged to defend and preserve all its members (§ 17); and the prince owes the same assistance to his subjects. If, therefore, the state or the prince refuses or neglects to succor a body of people who are exposed to imminent danger, the latter, being thus abandoned, become perfectly free to provide for their own safety and preservation in whatever manner they find most convenient, without paying the least regard to those who, by abandoning them, have been the first to fail in their duty. The country of Zug, being attacked by the Swiss in 1352, sent for succor to the duke of Austria, its sovereign; but that prince, being engaged in discourse concerning his hawks, at the time when the deputies appeared before him, would scarcely condescend to hear them. Thus abandoned, the people of Zug entered into the Helvetic confederacy.2 The city of Zurich had been in the same situation the year before. Being attacked by a band of rebellious citizens who were supported by the neighboring nobility, and the house of Austria, it made application to the head of the empire: but Charles IV., who was then emperor, declared to its deputies that he could not defend it; — upon which Zurich secured its safety by an alliance with the Swiss.3 The same reason has authorized the Swiss, in general, to separate themselves entirely from the empire, which never protected them in any emergency; they had not owned its authority for a long time before their independence was acknowledged by the emperor and the whole Germanic body, at the treaty of Westphalia.


     1.    Nemo potest exure patriam. This is part of natural allegiance, which no individual can shake off until the part of the country where he resides is absolutely conquered by a foreign power, and the parent state has acknowledged the severance. See 1 Chitty’s Commercial Law. 129.
     2.    See Etterlin, Simler, and De Watteville.
     3.    See the same historians, and Bullinger, Stumpf, Tschudi and Stettler.