On Oct. 5, 1789, President Washington checked out Vattel’s Law of Nations from the Manhattan library, and failed to return it. He has now wracked up a $300K late fee on that and another volume, although the odds of collecting on the debt are, as the library acknowledges, remote.
I’m not so disappointed in GW’s failure to return the book as I am in the fact he had to borrow a copy of Law of Nations at all. Surely the man should have possessed his own copy of the book. After all, Vattel was a significant influence on the U.S. Constitution — but then again, maybe GW only got around to reading it until after the Constitution had been finished up, and suddenly George found himself in charge of faithfully executing what was in it.
Even before George Washington was president, however, he would have dealt with people quoting Vattel at him. John Jay, the future first Chief Justice, wrote to GW, who was presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and made a recommendation to him regarding the requirements of holding office under the new Constitution. Jay’s letter borrows the phrasing of “natural born citizen” from Vattel’s Law of Nations:
“Permit me to hint, whether it would be wise and reasonable to provide a strong check to the admission of Foreigners into the administration of our national Government; and to declare expressly that the Commander in Chief of the American army shall not be given to nor devolve on, any but a natural born Citizen.”
Still, perhaps George Washington made good use of his stolen copy of the Law of Nations. Less than four years after he checked it out, in 1793, Vattel played an important role in an early United States’ foreign affairs crisis, when the actions of the French ambassador, Edmond-Charles Genêt, threaten America’s neutrality to European conflicts. Hamilton and Jefferson wrote to Genêt, in which they defended the right of the United States to suspend the treaties in place between itself and France. Vattel, they conceded, had written that there was a “fundamental principle of republican government, which admits the right of the people to alter or abolish the established Constitution, whenever they find it inconsistent with their happiness.” However, Hamilton argued that, although France may have had a right to changes its government, France did not have any right to force the United States to become involved in that civil conflict. If international law allowed for such a situation, “[t]his would be to give to a nation or society, not only a power over its own happiness, but a power over the happiness of other Nations or Societies. It would be to extend the operations of the maxim, much beyond the reason of it—which is simply, that every Nation ought to have a right to provide for its own happiness.”
This was (and is) a pretty subtle question of international law, really. In the case of a nation torn by civil war, to which faction is a duty arising to that country under international law owed? To the established government? To the belligerents? At what point do the belligerents become the establishment, and are therefore the inheritors of the rights and duties under treaties incurred by previous administrations?
Young America, following a policy of neutrality set by President Washington, simply did not want to become involved. Ambassador Genêt was less than impressed with the Washington Administration’s reliance on the subtleties of international law, however. He wrote back, angrily, accusing the federal government of “bring[ing] forward aphorisms of Vattel, to justify or excuse infractions committed on positive treaties.”
This all sounds pretty familiar, really. For as long as the U.S. has been a nation, it has been using complicated interpretations of international law in order to avoid duties incurred under treaties. And for all the haters out there who think America shouldn’t bother itself with international law, I say that if it was good enough for George Washington to steal, it’s good enough for us to pay attention to today.