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

Emmerich de Vattel

Of the Several Orders of Public Ministers: of the Representative Character, and of the Honor Due to Ministers

§ 69. Origin of the several orders of public ministers.
IN former days, people were scarcely acquainted with more than one order of public ministers, in Latin termed legati, which appellation has been rendered by that of “ambassadors.” But, when courts were become more proud, and, at the same time, more punctilious in the article of ceremony, and especially when they had introduced the idea of extending the minister’s representation even to that of his master’s dignity, it was thought expedient to employ commissioners of less exalted rank on certain occasions, in order to avoid trouble, expense, and disputes. Louis the Eleventh of France was, perhaps, the first who set the example. Thus, several orders of ministers being established, more or less dignity was annexed to their character, and proportionate honors were required for them.

§ 70. Representative character.
Every minister, in some measure, represents his master, as every agent or delegate represents his constituent. But this representation relates to the affairs of his office: the minister represents the subject in whom reside the rights which he is to exercise, preserve, and assert — the rights respecting which he is to treat in his master’s stead. Although such representation is admitted in a general view, and so far as respects the essence of affairs, it is with an abstraction of the dignity of the constituent. In process of time, however, princes would have ministers to represent them, not only in their rights and in the transaction of their affairs, but also in their dignity, their greatness, and their pre-eminence. It was, no doubt, to those signal occasions of state, those ceremonies for which ambassadors are sent, as, for instance, marriages, that this custom owes its origin. But so exalted a degree of dignity in the minister is attended with considerable inconvenience in conducting business, and, besides occasioning trouble and embarrassment, is often productive of difficulties and disputes. This circumstance has given birth to different orders of public ministers, and various degrees of representation. Custom has established three principal degrees. What is, by way of pre-eminence, called the representative character, is the faculty possessed by the minister, of representing his master even in his very person and dignity.

§ 71. Ambassadors.1
The representative character, so termed by way of pre-eminence, or in contradistinction to other kinds of representation, constitutes the minister of the first rank the ambassador. It places him above all other ministers who are not invested with the same character, and precludes their entering into competition with the ambassador. At present there are ambassadors ordinary and extraordinary: but this is no more than an accidental distinction, merely relative to the subject of their mission. Yet almost everywhere some difference is made in the treatment of these different ambassadors. That, however, is purely matter of custom.

§ 72. Envoys.
Envoys are not invested with the representative character, properly so called, or in the first degree. They are ministers of the second rank, on whom their master was willing to confer a degree of dignity and respectability, which, without being on a level with the character of an ambassador, immediately follows it, and yields the pre-eminence to it alone. There are also envoys ordinary and extraordinary; and it appears to be the intention of princes that the latter should be held in greater consideration. This likewise depends on custom.

§ 73. Residents.
The word resident formerly related only to the continuance of the minister’s stay; and it is frequent, in history, for ambassadors in ordinary to be designated by the simple title of residents. But, since the practice of employing different orders of ministers has been generally established, the name of residents has been confined to ministers of a third order, to whose character general custom has annexed a lesser degree of respectability. The resident does not represent the prince’s person in his dignity, but only in his affairs. His representation is in reality of the same nature as that of the envoy: wherefore we often term him, as well as the envoy, a minister of the second order, — thus, distinguishing only two classes of public ministers, the former consisting of ambassadors who are invested with the representative character in pre-eminence, the latter comprising all other ministers who do not possess that exalted character. This is the most necessary distinction, and, indeed, the only essential one.

§ 74. Ministers.
Lastly, a custom of still more recent origin has introduced a new kind of ministers without any particular determination of character. These are called simply ministers, to indicate that they are invested with the general quality of a sovereign’s mandatories, without any particular assignment of rank and character. It was likewise the punctilio of ceremony which gave rise to this innovation. Use had established particular modes of treatment for the ambassador, the envoy, and the resident. Disputes between ministers of the several princes often arose on this head, and especially about rank. In order to avoid all contest on certain occasions when there might be room to apprehend it, the expedient was adopted of sending ministers not invested with any one of the three known characters. Hence, they are not subjected to any settled ceremonial, and can pretend to no particular treatment. The minister represents his master in a vague and indeterminate manner, which cannot be equal to the first degree; consequently he makes no demur in yielding pre-eminence to the ambassador. He is entitled to the general regard due to a confidential person intrusted by a sovereign with the management of his affairs; and he possesses all the rights essential to the character of a public minister. This indeterminate quality is such that the sovereign may confer it on one of his servants whom he would not choose to invest with the character of ambassador; and, on the other hand, it may be accepted by men of rank, who would be unwilling to undertake the office of resident, and to acquiesce in the treatment at present allotted to men in that station. There are also ministers plenipotentiary, and of much greater distinction than simple ministers. These also are without any particular attribution of rank and character, but, by custom, are now placed immediately after the ambassador, or on a level with the envoy extraordinary.

§ 75. Consuls, agents, deputies. commissioners, etc.2
We have spoken of consuls in treating of commerce (Book II. § 34). Formerly, agents were a kind of public ministers: but in the present increase and profusion of titles, this is given to persons simply appointed by princes to transact their private affairs, and who not unfrequently are subjects of the country where they reside. They are not public ministers, and consequently not under the protection of the law of nations. But a more particular protection is due to them than to other foreigners or citizens, and likewise some attention in consideration of the prince whom they serve. If that prince sends an agent with credentials and on public business, the agent thenceforward becomes a public minister; his title making no difference in the case. The same remark is also applicable to deputies, commissioners, and others intrusted with the management of public affairs.

§ 76. Credentials.
Among the several characters established by custom, it rests with the sovereign to determine with what particular one he chooses to invest his minister; and he makes known the minister’s character in the credentials which he gives him for the sovereign to whom he sends him. Credentials are the instrument which authorizes and establishes the minister in his character with the prince to whom they are addressed. If that prince receives the minister, he can receive him only in the quality attributed to him in his credentials. They are, as it were, his general letter of attorney, his mandate patent, mandatum manifestum.

§ 77. Instructions.
The instructions given to the minister contain his master’s secret mandate, the orders to which the minister must carefully conform, and which limit his powers. Here we might apply all the rules of the law of nature respecting procurations and mandates, whether open or secret. But exclusive of their being more particularly applicable to the subject of treaties, we may with the less impropriety dispense with such details in this work, as the custom has wisely been established, that no engagements into which a minister may enter, shall have any validity between sovereigns, unless ratified by his principal.

§ 78. Right of sending ambassadors.
We have seen above that every sovereign, every community, and even every individual, who has a right to treat with foreign powers, has also that of sending ambassadors. (See the preceding chapter.) The question admits of no difficulty so far as respects simple ministers or mandatories, considered in general as persons intrusted with the affairs, and vested with the powers, of those who have a right to treat. Further, the ministers of every sovereign are, without hesitation, allowed to enjoy all the rights and prerogatives belonging to ministers of the second order. Powerful monarchs, indeed, deny to some petty states the right of sending ambassadors: but let us see with what reason. According to the generally established custom, the ambassador is a public minister, representing the person and dignity of a sovereign; and, as this representative character procures him particular honors, great princes are therefore unwilling to admit the ambassador of an inconsiderable state, from a repugnance to paying him honors of so distinguished a kind. But it is manifest that every sovereign has an equal right of causing himself to be represented in the first as well as in the second or the third degree: and the sovereign dignity is entitled to distinguished respect in the great society of nations. We have shown (Book II. Ch. III.) that the dignity of independent nations is essentially the same: that a sovereign prince, however low he may rank in the scale of power, is as completely sovereign and independent as the greatest monarch, in the same manner as a dwarf is a man equally with a giant: although, indeed, the political giant makes a more conspicuous figure in the general society than the dwarf, and has, on that account, a greater portion of respect and more signal honors paid to him. It is evident, then, that every prince, every state, truly possessed of sovereignty, has a right to send ambassadors, and that to contest their right in this instance is doing them a very great injury; it is, in fact, contesting their sovereign dignity. And if they have that right, their ambassadors cannot be refused those regards and honors which custom particularly assigns to the representative of a sovereign. The king of France admits no ambassadors from the princes of Germany, as refusing to their ministers the honors annexed to the first degree of representation; yet he receives ambassadors from the princes of Italy. The reason alleged for this conduct is that he considers the latter to be more perfectly sovereign princes than the former, because, though equally vassals of the emperor and the empire, they are not equally dependent on the imperial authority. The emperors, nevertheless, claim the same rights over the princes of Italy, as over those of Germany. But France, seeing that the former do not actually constitute a part of the Germanic body, nor assist at the diets, countenances their absolute independence, in order as much as possible to detach them from the empire.

I shall not here enter into a detail of the honors due and actually paid to ambassadors: these are matters which altogether depend on institution and custom: I shall only observe, in general, that they are entitled to those civilities and distinctions which usage, and the prevailing manners of the time, have pointed out as proper expressions of the respect due to the representative of a sovereign. And it must be observed here, with regard to things, of institution and custom, that, when a practice is so established, as to impart, according to the usages and manners of the age, a real value and a settled signification to things which are in their own nature indifferent, the natural and necessary law of nations requires that we should pay deference to such institution, and act, with respect to such things, in the same manner as if they really possessed all that value which the opinion of mankind has annexed to them. For instance, according to the general usage of all Europe, it is the peculiar prerogative of an ambassador to wear his hat in presence of the prince to whom he is sent. This right expresses that he is acknowledged as the representative of a sovereign: to refuse it, therefore, to the ambassador of a state which is truly independent, would be doing an injury to that state, and, in some measure, degrading it.

The Switzers, who formerly were much deeper adepts in the art of war than in the etiquette of courts, and far from being punctilious on the score of mere ceremony, have, on some occasions, submitted to be treated in a manner unbecoming the dignity of their nation. In 1663, their ambassadors suffered the king of France, and the nobles of his court, to refuse them those honors which custom has rendered essential to the ambassadors of sovereigns, and particularly that of being covered before the king at their audience.3 Some of their number, who knew better what they owed to the glory strongly insisted on that essential and distinctive honor; but the opinion of the majority prevailed, and at length they all yielded, on being assured that the ambassadors of their nation had not worn their hats in presence of Henry the Fourth. Allowing the fact to have been true, the argument was not unanswerable. The Switzers might have replied, that in Henry’s time their nation was not yet solemnly acknowledged free and independent of the empire, as it had lately been by the treaty of Westphalia in 1648. They might have said, that, although their predecessors had not been duly attentive to support the dignity of their sovereigns, that gross error could not impose on their successors any obligation to commit a similar one. At present, as the nation is more enlightened, and more attentive to points of that nature, she will not fail to support her dignity in a more becoming manner. Whatever extraordinary honors may, in other respects, be paid to her ambassadors, she will not, in future, suffer herself to be so far blinded by those empty marks of distinction, as to overlook that peculiar prerogative which custom has rendered essential. When Louis the Fifteenth visited Alsace, in 1744, the Helvetic body declined sending ambassadors to compliment him according to custom, until informed whether they would be allowed to wear their hats: and on the refusal of that just demand, none were sent. Switzerland may reasonably hope that his most Christian majesty will no longer insist on a claim which does not enhance the luster of his crown, and can only serve to degrade an ancient and faithful ally.


     1.    An ambassador may annul a treaty, see authorities collected in 1 Chitty’s Commercial Law, 46. In the event of his nation rejecting a person sent by the friendly nation as consul, he is to assign the reasons and request the appointment of another consul. Id. 55. In his absence a consul of his nation may demand an audience with the minister of the friendly state, (Id. 63), although a consul has not the same privileges as an ambassador in other respects, Id, 70. The children of an ambassador and of his attendants, though born in a foreign state, are considered natural-born subjects. Id. 110, 112. An ambassador from a foreign court, formerly, could not come into England without a license and safe-conduct. Id. 131. He is the proper person to grant a passport. Id. 492. The ambassador of an enemy at a neutral court may recover and insist on having restored despatches sent by a neutral vessel, and captured by an enemy; and he is peculiarly an object of the protection and favor of the law of nations. Id. 461-2; The Caroline, 6 Rob. Rep. 461; The Madison, 1 Edw. R. 224.

As respects an ambassador or minister in Great Britain, this is declared and enforced by 7 Anne, c. 12; see the decisions thereon. Chitty’s Col. Stat. 13; Novello v. Toogood, 1 Barn. & Cres. 554, 2 Dowl. & Ryl. 833, S.C.; and 13 Price Rep. 805. And a servant of a foreign minister, though not lodging in his house, is protected by that act. In re Count Haslang. Dick 274, But a plaintiff under such protection of a foreign ambassador has been compelled to give security for costs before he will be allowed to proceed. Adderly v. Smith, Dick 355. But that act does not extend to consuls, who are therefore, liable to arrest. Vivearls v. Belcher, 3 Maule & Selwyn, 284. — C.
     2.    Ante, 147 and 459.
     3.    In Wicquefort, may be seen a particular account of the whole transaction. That writer is justifiable in expressing a degree of indignation against the Swiss ambassadors; but he ought not to have insulted the whole nation by coarsely asserting that “they prefer money to honor.” Ambassador, book i. § 19. See also 18.