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

Emmerich de Vattel

Of the Dignity and Equality of Nations: of Titles and Other Marks of Honor

§ 35. Dignity of nations or sovereign states.
EVERY nation, every sovereign and independent state, deserves consideration and respect, because it makes an immediate figure in the grand society of the human race, is independent of all earthly power, and is an assemblage of a great number of men, which is, doubtless, more considerable than any individual. The sovereign represents his whole nation; he unites in his person all its majesty. No individual, though ever so free and independent, can be placed in competition with a sovereign; this would be putting a single person upon an equality with a united multitude of his equals. Nations and sovereigns are, therefore, under an obligation, and at the same time have a right, to maintain their dignity, and to cause it to be respected, as being of the utmost importance to their safety and tranquillity.

§ 36. Their equality.
We have already observed (Prelim. § 18) that nature has established a perfect equality of rights between independent nations. Consequently, none can naturally lay claim to any superior prerogative: for, whatever privileges any one of them derives from freedom and sovereignty, the others equally derive the same from the same source.

§ 37. Precedency.
And since precedency or pre-eminence of rank is a prerogative, no nation, no sovereign, can naturally claim it as a right. Why should nations that are not dependent on him give up any point to him against their will? However, as a powerful and extensive state is much more considerable in universal society than a small state, it is reasonable that the latter should yield to the former on occasions where one must necessarily yield to the other, as, in an assembly, — and should pay it those more ceremonial deferences which do not, in fact, destroy their equality, and only show a superiority of order, a first place among equals. Other nations will naturally assign the first place to the more powerful state; and it would be equally useless as ridiculous for the weaker one obstinately to contend about it. The antiquity of the state enters also into consideration on these occasions: a new comer cannot dispossess any one of the honors he has enjoyed; and he must produce very strong reasons, before he can obtain a preference.

§ 38. The form of government is foreign to this question.
The form of government is naturally foreign to this question. The dignity, the majesty, resides originally in the body of the state; that of the sovereign is derived from his representing the nation. And can it be imagined that a state possesses more or less dignity according as it is governed by a single person or by many? At present kings claim a superiority of rank over republics: but this pretension has no other support than the superiority of their strength. Formerly, the Roman republic considered all kings as very far beneath them: but the monarchs of Europe, finding none but feeble republics to oppose them, have disdained to admit them to an equality. The republic of Venice, and that of the United Provinces, have obtained the honors of crowned heads; but their ambassadors yield precedency to those of kings.

§ 39. A state ought to keep its rank, notwithstanding any changes in the form of its government.
In consequence of what we have just established, if the form of government in a nation happens to be changed she will still preserve the same honors and rank of which she was before in possession. When England had abolished royalty, Cromwell would suffer no abatement of the honors that had been paid to the crown or to the nation; and he everywhere maintained the English ambassadors in the rank they had always possessed.

§ 40. In this respect treaties and established customs ought to be observed.
If the grades of precedency have been settled by treaties or by long custom founded on tacit consent, it is necessary to conform to the established rule. To dispute with a prince the rank he has acquired in this manner, is doing him an injury, inasmuch as it is an expression of contempt for him, or a violation of engagements that secure to him a right. Thus, by the injudicious partition between the sons of Charlemagne, the elder having obtained the empire, the younger who received the kingdom of France, yielded precedency to him the more readily, as there still remained at that time a recent idea of the majesty of the real Roman empire. His successor followed the rule they found established: — they were imitated by the other kings of Europe; and thus the imperial crown continues to possess, without opposition, the first rank in Christendom. With most of the other crowns, the point of precedency remains yet undetermined.

Some people would have us to look upon the precedency of the emperor as something more than the first place among equals; they would fain attribute to him the temporal head of Christendom.1 And it, in fact, appears that many emperors entertained ideas of such pretensions, — as if, by reviving the name of the Roman empire, they could also revive its rights. Other states have been on their guard against these pretensions. We may see in Mezeray2 the precautions taken by king Charles V. when the emperor Charles IV. visited France, “for fear,” says the historian, “lest that prince, and his son, the king of the Romans, should found any right of superiority on his courtesy.” Bodinus relates,3 that “the French took great offence at the Emperor Sigismund’s placing himself in the royal seat in full parliament, and at his having knighted the Senechal de Beaucaire .” — adding that,” to repair the egregious error they had committed in suffering it, they would not allow the same emperor, when at Lyons to make the Count of Savoy a duke.” At present, a king of France would doubtless think it a degradation of his dignity, were he to intimate the most distant idea that another might claim any authority in his kingdom.4

§ 41. Of the name and honors given by the nation to its conductor.
As a nation may confer on her conductor what degree of authority and what rights she thinks proper, she is equally free in regard to the name, the titles, and honors with which she may choose to decorate him. But discretion and the care of her reputation require that she should not, in this respect, deviate too far from the customs commonly established among civilized nations. Let us further observe, that in this point, she ought to be guided by prudence, and inclined to proportion the titles and honors of her chief to the power he possesses, and to the degree of authority with which she chooses to invest him. Titles and honors, it is true, determine nothing: they are but empty names, and vain ceremonies, when they are misplaced: yet, who does not know how powerful an influence they have on the minds of mankind? This is, then, a more serious affair than it appears at the first glance. The nation ought to take care not to debase herself before other states, and not to degrade her chief by too humble a title: she ought to be still more careful not to swell his heart by a vain name, by unbounded honors, so as to inspire him with the idea of arrogating to himself a commensurate authority over her, or of acquiring a proportionate power by unjust conquests. On the other hand, an exalted title may engage the chief to support, with greater firmness, the dignity of the nation. Prudence is guided by circumstances, and, on every occasion keeps within due bounds. “Royalty,” says a respectable author, who may be believed on this subject, “rescued the house of Brandenburg from that yoke of servitude under which the house of Austria then kept all the German princes. This was a bait which Frederic I. threw out to all his posterity, saying to them, as it were I have acquired a title for you; do you render yourselves worthy of it: I have laid the foundations of your greatness; it is you who are to finish the work.”5

§ 42. Whether a sovereign may assume what title and honors he pleases.
If the conductor of the state is sovereign, he has in his hands the rights and authority of the political society; and consequently he may himself determine what title he will assume, and what honors shall be paid to him, unless these have been already determined by the fundamental laws, or that the limits which have been set to his power manifestly oppose such as he wishes to assume. His subjects are equally obliged to obey him in this as in whatever he commands by virtue of a lawful authority. Thus, the Czar Peter I., grounding his pretensions on the vast extent of his dominions, took upon himself the title of emperor.

§ 43. Right of other nations in this respect.
But foreign nations are not obliged to give way to the will of a sovereign who assumes a new title, or of a people who call their chief by what name they please.6

However, if this title has nothing unreasonable, or contrary to received customs, it is altogether agreeable to the mutual duties which bind nations together, to give to a sovereign or conductor of a state the same title that is given him by his people. But if this title is contrary to custom — if it implies attributes which do not belong to him who affects it, foreign nations may refuse it without his having reason to complain. The title of “Majesty” is consecrated by custom to monarchs who command great nations. The emperors of Germany have long affected to reserve it to themselves, as belonging solely to the imperial crown. But the kings asserted with reason that there was nothing on earth more eminent or more August than their dignity: they therefore refused the title of Majesty to him who refused it to them;7 and at present, except in a few instances founded on particular reasons, the title of Majesty is a peculiar attribute of the royal character.

As it would be ridiculous for a petty prince to take the title of king, and assume the style of “Majesty,” foreign nations, by refusing to comply with this whim, do nothing but what is conformable to reason and their duty. However, if there reigns anywhere a sovereign, who, notwithstanding the small extent of his power, is accustomed to receive from his neighbors the title of king, distant nations who would carry on an intercourse with him cannot refuse him that title. It belongs not to them to reform the customs of distant countries.

§ 45. How titles and honors may be secured.
The sovereign who wishes constantly to receive certain titles and honors from other powers, must secure them by treaties. Those who have entered into engagements in this way are obliged to conform to them, and cannot deviate from the treaties without doing him an injury. Thus, in the examples we have produced (§§ 41 and 42), the czar and the king of Prussia took care to negotiate beforehand with the courts in friendship with them, to secure their being acknowledged under the new titles they intended to assume.

The popes have formerly pretended that it belonged to the tiara alone to create new crowns; they had the confidence to expect that the superstition of princes and nations would allow them so sublime a prerogative. But it was eclipsed at the revival of letters.8 The emperors of Germany, who formed the same pretensions, were at least countenanced by the example of the ancient Roman emperors. They only want the same power in order to have the same right.

§ 46. We must conform to general customs.
In default of treaties, we ought, with respect to titles, and, in general, every other mark of honor, to conform to the rule established by general custom. To attempt a deviation from it with respect to a nation or sovereign, when there is no particular reason for such innovation, is expressing either contempt or ill-will towards them;” a conduct equally inconsistent with sound policy and with the duties that nations owe to each other.9

§ 47. Mutual respect which sovereigns owe to each other.
The greatest monarch ought to respect in every sovereign the eminent character with which he is invested. The independence, the equality of nations, the reciprocal duties of humanity, — all these circumstances should induce him to pay, even to the chief of a petty state, the respect due to the station which he fills. The weakest state is composed of men as well as the most powerful: and our duties are the same towards all those who do not depend on us.

But this precept of the law of nature does not extend beyond what is essential to the respect which independent nations owe to each other, or that conduct, in a word, which shows that we acknowledge a state or its chief to be truly independent and sovereign, and consequently entitled to every thing due to the quality of sovereignty. But on the other hand a great monarch being as we have already observed, a very important personage in human society, it is natural, that, in matters merely ceremonial, and not derogatory to the equality of rights between nations, he should receive honors to which a petty prince can have no pretensions: and the latter cannot refuse to pay the former every mark of respect which is not inconsistent with his own independence and sovereignty.

§ 48. How a sovereign ought to maintain his dignity.10
Every nation, every sovereign, ought to maintain their dignity (§ 35) by causing due respect to be paid to them; and, especially, they ought not to suffer that dignity to be impaired. If, then, there are titles and honors, which, by constant custom, belong to a prince, he may insist upon them; and he ought to do it on occasions where his glory is concerned.

But it is proper to distinguish between neglect or the omission of what the established usage requires, and positive acts of disrespect and insult. The prince may complain of an instance of neglect, and, if it be not repaired, may consider it as an indication of ill-will: he has a right to demand, even by force of arms, the reparation of an insult. The czar Peter the First, in his manifesto against Sweden, complained that the cannon had not been fired on his passing at Riga. He might think it strange that they did not pay him this mark of respect, and he might complain of it; but, to have made this the subject of a war, must have indicated a preposterous prodigality of human blood.


     1.    Bartolus went so far as to say, that “all those were heretics who did not believe that the emperor was lord of the whole earth.” See Bodinus’s Republic, book i. ch. ix. p.m. 139.
     2.    History of France, explanation of the medals of Charles V.
     3.    In his Republic, p. 138.
     4.    Pentherrieder, minister plenipotentiary of the emperor at the congress of Cambray, made an attempt to insure to his master an incontestable superiority and pre-eminence over all the other crowned heads. He induced Count Provana, the king of Sardinia’s minister, to sign a deed, in which he declared that neither his own sovereign nor any other prince had a right to dispute pre-eminence with the emperor, its contents being made public, the kings made such heavy complaints on the occasion, that Provana was recalled, and the emperor ordered his minister to suppress the deed, — affecting, at the same time, a profound ignorance of the whole transaction: and thus the affair was dropped. Memoirs of Mons. de St. Philippe, vol. iv. p. 194.
     5.    Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg.
     6.    Cromwell, in writing to Louis the Fourteenth, used the following style; — “Olivarius, Dominus Protector Angliæ, Scotiæ, et Hiberniæ, Ludovico XIV. Francorum Regi Christianissime Rex.” — And the subscription was — “In Aula nostra Alba. Vester bonus amicus.” The court of France was highly offended at this form of address. The ambassador Boreel, in a letter to the Pensionary De Witt, dated May 25, 1655, said that Cromwell’s letter had not been presented, and that those who were charged with the delivery of it, had withheld it, through an apprehension of its giving rise to some misunderstanding between the two countries.
     7.    At the famous treaty of Westphalia, the plenipotentiaries of France agreed with those of the emperor, “that the king and queen writing with their own hand to the emperor, and giving him the title of majesty, he should answer them, with his own hand, and give them the same title.” Letter of the plenipotentiaries to M. de Brienne, Oct. 15th, 1646.
     8.    Catholic princes receive still from the pope titles that relate to religion, Benedict XIV. gave that of “Most Faithful” to the king of Portugal, and the condescension of other princes connived at the imperative style in which the bull is couched. — It is dated December 23, 1748.
     9.    Formerly all nations used to observe, in the British Seas, the mark of honor, by lowering the flag or top-sail to an English man of war, called the duty of the flag. See 1 Chitty’s Commercial Law, 102, and see end of 2d vol. p. 324. See, as to the sea and incidents, ante, 125 and 131 in notes; and Cours de Droit Public, tum. 2, p. 80 to 64, and 396 to 406. — C.
     10.    The House of Lords recently rather facetiously, maintained the dignity of the king of Spain, by declining to give him costs, on the same principle that our king does not recover costs, saying, we will not disparage the dignity of the king of Spain by giving him costs. Hewlett v. King of Spain, on appeal from Chancery to House of Lords, 1 Dow. Rep. New Series, 177.