Hugo Grotius

The Dutch jurist, statesman, and historian Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) founded the modern school of international law.

Born in Delft on April 10, 1583, Huig de Groot is known by the Latinized form of his name Hugo Grotius. As a boy, he excelled his father, a learned patrician of Delft, Johan Hugo de Groot, by becoming a marvel of scholarly precocity. He wrote Latin poems at the age of 8 and attended Leiden University from 1594 to 1597. He took his doctorate in law at Orléans in 1599, during a stay in France as a member of a diplomatic mission led by Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, Land's Advocate of Holland, his political sponsor for the next 2 decades. He entered the private practice of law in The Hague at the age of 16 and 8 years later was named state's attorney (advocate fiscal) of the Court of Holland. In 1608 he married Maria van Reigersberch, a Zeelander who stiffened his rather soft personality with her own determination and resourcefulness.

In 1604 Grotius wrote a treatise, The Law of Prizes, for the East India Company, which was not published until its discovery in 1864; however, one chapter, which defended Dutch trading and sailing rights, was published in 1609 under the title Mare liberum (The Free Sea). In 1610, in De antiquitate reipublicae Batavae (The Antiquity of the Batavian State), he argued that the province of Holland had been sovereign and independent since the time of the Romans. In 1613, at Oldenbarnevelt's suggestion, Grotius accompanied a delegation sent by the Dutch East India Company to London as juridical counselor to plead its case in a dispute with the English East India Company. Although favoring free trade in Europe, he argued for the monopoly of the Dutch company in the East Indies, as granted by the native princes for the sake of its protection.

When Grotius was named pensionary (legal officer and political representative) of Rotterdam in 1613, he entered the higher ranks of Dutch politics. He represented Rotterdam in the States of Holland and supported the strongly Remonstrant (moderate Calvinist) position of Oldenbarnevelt against the increasing hostility of Prince Maurice of Nassau, the stadholder and captain general. In that same year Grotius published a treatise defending Holland's right to intervene in church affairs, and various theological treatises from his pen appeared from 1613 to 1618 defending the Remonstrant position. He became Oldenbarnevelt's right hand and was arrested with him on Aug. 29, 1618, when Maurice decided to cut short the measures taken by the States of Holland against his military authority. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on May 18, 1619; Oldenbarnevelt received the death penalty. After almost 2 years of imprisonment in Loevestein Castle, Grotius escaped in a book chest brought in by his wife and servant and went to France.

Grotius continued his scholarly publications in Paris. The most notable was his masterpiece, De iure belli ac pacis (1625; The Law of War and Peace), in which he argued for a system of law in the relations between sovereign states, with emphasis upon the notion of "just war." He built his arguments upon the idea of "natural law, " derived from ancient, medieval, and recent (especially Jesuit) authors, as a principle of right deriving from the nature of things rather than from the commandments of either God or lay rulers.

In 1631 Grotius published Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Holland, which profoundly influenced legists in the Netherlands and abroad and continues to be considered part of the constitutional law of South Africa. His religious ideas evolved into a broad ecumenicism, whereby he favored reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics. He lost his certitude that the Protestant revolt against Rome had been justified—without, however, gaining confidence in Rome's infallibility. His De veritate religionis Christianae (1627; The Truth of the Christian Religion) was an attempt with the weapons of legal scholarship to prove the unity of Christendom; it was widely read in his own time and long afterward.

Incurring Cardinal Richelieu's hostility, Grotius returned to Holland in October 1631 and lived quietly; but he would not request pardon and fled in April 1632 to avoid arrest. Taking refuge in Germany, he came into contact with the Swedish authorities and returned to Paris in 1634 as Swedish ambassador. He proved a better scholar than diplomat and was recalled in 1644. On his return from Stockholm, Grotius suffered shipwreck at Rostock, Germany; he was rescued but died 2 days later, on Aug. 28, 1645, from exhaustion. When his identity was discovered, his body was brought home to Delft for burial.

Further Reading on Hugo Grotius

The standard life of Grotius is William S. M. Knight, The Life and Works of Hugo Grotius (1925). Robert W. Lee, Hugo Grotius (1931), is a collection of essays.

Additional Biography Sources

Vreeland, Hamilton, Hugo Grotius:the father of the modern science of international law, Little, Colo.:F.B. Rothman, 1986, 1917.