Hugo Grotius

by: in Law

To any international lawyer, Hugo de Groot (10 April 1583 – 28 August 1645), usually referred to by his Latin name as Hugo Grotius, does not need any introduction. He is generally seen as the “father of public international law”, often together with Francisco De Vitoria (1483-1546) and Alberico Gentili (1552-1608). It seems fitting that his life more or less coincided with what is seen as a foundational moment of public international law, as he passed away three years before the Peace of Westphalia (1648) which gave birth to the modern state system.

Although the founding myths of public international law are currently the subject of vigorous scholarly re-examination as the discipline has “turned to history”, it is unlikely that this will diminish the appreciation of Grotius’ importance. This re-examination does however help us to both understand and question why Grotius was elevated to his current status in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and whether the Maastricht Faculty of Law was right to name a tutorial room after him. After all, there is some irony in the fact that during most of Grotius’ lifetime, Maastricht was not under the control of the Dutch Republic of which he was such a prominent representative.

Grotius was not only a famous lawyer and jurist, but also an historian, theologian and mathematician. He mastered these disciplines at a time when the homo universalis was an ideal many aspired to, but also before some of these disciplines had been separated. Part of Grotius’ legacy indeed derives from his excision of theology from the law, emphasising the irrelevance of any conception of divine law to the study of the law of nature and founding it exclusively on reason instead. He developed a comprehensive system of international law (which encompassed a large measure of what we would now consider private international law) and wrote treatises on the laws of war (De iure belli ac pacis) and the law of the sea (Mare Liberum). Although his views on the laws of war retained the theological distinction between just and unjust wars, which has since gone out of fashion, his ideas still influence contemporary thinking on aggression, self-defence and intervention. His central proclamation of the freedom of the seas remains a core element of the contemporary law of the sea, which still embraces the freedom of the high seas.

Little Hugo was born in Delft, in a patrician family (regentenfamilie), to Jan de Groot and Alida van Overschie. From an early age, he received a traditional humanist and Aristotelian education and performed so well that he entered Leiden University, then in its first heyday, at the ripe young age of eleven. Both his scholarly and political careers advanced quickly: he published his first book at the age of sixteen and had already accompanied Johan van Oldenbarnevelt on a diplomatic mission to Paris the year before, presented before king Henri IV of France as “the miracle of Holland” (and obtaining a law degree from the University of Orléans in the process). Van Oldenbarnevelt was the landsadvocaat (later raadpensionaris) of the province of Holland, a position which allowed him to rise to great political prominence and power in the fledgling Dutch Republic, which had been revolting against king Philip II of Spain since 1566 and formally abjured allegiance to him in 1581.

De Groot established himself as an advocate at the age of 16 in 1599 and remained under Van Oldenbarnevelt’s patronage, allowing him to be appointed to a number of high-level positions both in the Province of Holland as well as at the level of the Republic, including Advocaat-Fiscaal (public prosecutor) of Holland in December 1607. At the same time, in his role as a private advocate, he was happy to accept a request from the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to defend its privateering campaign in Asia, which notably included the seizure of the Portuguese ship Estado da India. The resulting treatise (originally titled De Indis) was only published in the nineteenth century as De Iure Praedae (“on the law of prize and booty”). Once chapter was however published already in 1609, at the request of the VOC’s Directors, as the Mare Liberum. Grotius’ famous proclamation of the freedom of the seas, even if following in De Vitoria’s footsteps and couched in the language of high principle, were written to serve the interests of emerging Dutch power. In the meantime, Grotius married Maria van Reigersberch in 1608, with whom he went on to have seven children, of whom four survived beyond youth.

De Groot’s close association with Van Oldenbarnevelt led to a change of his fortunes in 1618, after the latter lost a political conflict and subsequently his head against the stadhouder Prince Maurice (Maurits) of Orange, the son of William the Silent and the military leader of the Dutch Republic. The political conflict had started ten years earlier as a theological controversy within the Dutch Protestant church between the followers of Jacobus Arminius (also known as remonstrants), a professor of theology at Leiden University. Arminius departed from a number of key points in orthodox calvinism and was opposed by Franciscus Gomarus, also a professor of theology at Leiden University, who favoured an orthodox calvinist line. The conflict between their followers became increasingly heated in the 1610s, just when the Dutch Republic was having a respite from its war with Spain due to the Twelve Years’ truce (1609-1621). Not only Van Oldenbarnevelt, but also Grotius himself supported the Arminians, albeit indirectly by maintaining an official stance of religious neutrality while the orthodox majority increasingly saw Arminians and their followers as heretics. Maurice, who had supported the Gomarists and gotten increasingly annoyed with Van Oldenbarnevelt, seized the opportunity presented by further escalation of the religious conflict and had Van Oldenbarnevelt tried and executed in 1619.

Grotius was fortunate only to be imprisoned in Castle Loevestein, where he was supposed to spend the remainder of his life. However, on 22 March 1621 he managed to pull off a daring escape with the help of his wife and his maidservant by, appropriately enough for a scholar, hiding in a large book case. To this day, he remains more famous in the Netherlands for this feat than for being a father of international law – so famous that no less than three Dutch museums claim to be in possession of the original book case in which De Groot escaped.

Grotius went into exile in Paris, dedicating De iure belli ac pacis (1625) to Louis XIII of France and resisting Cardinal De Richelieu’s attempts to tap his knowledge and enlist him in establishing a French East India Company. Somewhat overconfident that he would be rehabilitated, he returned to Holland in October 1631, only to be exiled again in 1632. He spent two years in Hamburg before accepting a Swedish offer to become ambassador in Paris, where he served until January 1645, when he was recalled to Stockholm. He arrived there after a long and arduous journey of six months, but took the first ship back to Paris as soon as he arrived. This journey proved even more of an ordeal. After becoming shipwrecked in the Baltic, Grotius reached the shore safely but ill. He died an inn in Rostock on 28 August 1645. His remains were repatriated and he was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, which erected a statue for him in 1886 on the Markt in front of the church.

Hugo Grotius had a rich and eventful life, intertwined with the history of the day. He left a lasting legacy in international law, already demonstrating its uneasy relationship with power in his own life and work, as well as in political theory, and in protestant theology. While his title as “father of international law” may be somewhat exaggerated, as much a product of nineteenth century Dutch nationalism combined with a favourable environment for the promotion of international law in 1899, he remains an indispensable figure to understand the modern discipline of public international law. It is therefore only fitting for the Maastricht Law faculty to name a room after him. In addition, Grotius’ personal motto, ruit hora (“time is running away”), may be an incentive for students at Maastricht University to make the most of their time here. He himself certainly seems to have lived by it.

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  • W.C.L. Muller

    Wim Muller is an Assistant Professor of Public International Law. He joined Maastricht University in 2015. He has worked at the universities of Manchester, Essex, Leiden, and Amsterdam and for the Bosnian delegation to the International Court of Justice. He is a Doctor of Laws of the European University Institute (2013), where he researched the Chinese approach and practice of public international law.

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