Remembering Vattel’s impact (5/2/2010)

Some may not know that George Washington’s library fines can lead us to a book that influenced the making of this nation, writes David Adler.

Americans recently learned that their first president, the redoubtable George Washington, died without returning two books that he had checked out on Nov. 2, 1789, from the New York Society Library.

Given Washington’s incapacity to tell a lie, we can only assume that no librarian ever told him of his failure to return the books, which, according to a dusty old ledger, showed they had been borrowed by the “president.” Rough estimates indicate that late fees accumulated over 220 years, at an inflation-adjusted rate, would mean that President Washington owes some $300,000 in fines.

Ever wonder what a president reads? Washington borrowed a volume of debates in the House of Commons and a book — “The Law of Nations” — that the national press has described as an obscure book on international relations. That’s what you call an understatement. As I learned in the course of my own research and writing on international law, Emmerich de Vattel’s “The Law of Nations” was not just any book; for the nation’s Founding Fathers, it was the bible on matters of international law, known in their time as the law of nations. There is no exaggeration in saying that few legal treatises have rivaled, in the eyes of American law, the stature of this book, written in 1758 by a Swiss republican.

Lawyers, judges, Supreme Court justices, professors and members of Congress and Washington’s Cabinet alike relied on Vattel to resolve issues of international law. No writer could match, in the view of Americans, the authority of Vattel.

In 1814, Chief Justice Marshall and Justice Story, rarely on opposite sides of an issue, were at odds over a passage in Vattel, but they agreed that the correct reading of his work would determine the outcome of a case before the court.

Patrick Henry, the great orator and a very fine lawyer, once appeared before a U.S. circuit court in Richmond, Va., and sent his grandson on a 60-mile ride on horseback to retrieve a copy of Vattel, which enabled him to win his case.

Vattel’s book arrived in America in 1775, when a European publisher printed three copies of it and sent them to Benjamin Franklin. Thanking his benefactor in a letter of Dec. 19, 1775, Franklin remarked that the book had arrived in “good season, when the circumstances of a rising State make it necessary frequently to consult the Law of Nations.” Franklin kept a copy for himself, deposited one in the College of Massachusetts Bay, and the other in the “hands” of the Continental Congress, which drew upon the book to justify the American Revolution.

Book club, anyone?

Adler is a political science professor at Idaho State University who has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the presidency.