In the United States’ Capitol, twenty-three marble relief portraits of historical figures central to the principles of American law oversee the House Chamber. These portraits include Moses, Pope Gregory IX, Sir William Blackstone, and Hugo Grotius. In truth, Grotius’s jurisprudence was considered authoritative by the American Founders.
A diplomat, lawyer, magistrate, scholar, and teacher, Grotius was born in Delft, Holland, on April 10, 1583. In 1625, the excesses of the Thirty Years’ War compelled Grotius, a lifelong opponent of tyranny, to write his magnum opus, The Law of War and Peace, which is an excellent example of the many treatises on natural law written by jurists and theologians in western Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. For this reason, Grotius is considered the father of international law.
The concept of man’s natural rationality and sociability is central to Grotius’s understanding of natural law. What distinguishes man from the beasts is reason, which perceives that justice is a virtue, apart from any considerations of self-interest or expediency. Further, due to this natural rationality, man seeks society with others, possesses speech, and is inclined to behave justly, despite the fact that some choose not to follow their true nature. From these principles of rationality and sociability, Grotius derives his concept of human law: “To this sphere of law belong the abstaining from that which is another’s, the restoration to another of anything of his which we may have, together with any gain which we may have received from it; the obligation to fulfill promises, the making good of a loss incurred through our fault, and the inflicting of penalties upon men according to their deserts.”
Grotius’s thought is a watershed in the history of Protestant natural-law thinking because he grounded natural law in human nature rather than in the command of God. In spite of this, he still maintains a close connection to the classical tradition, in contrast to his contemporary Thomas Hobbes.
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Michiel van Mierevelt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-1923