Hugo Grotius Biography – Dutch Jurist, Lawyer, Diplomat, Playwright, Poet, Theologian, Legacy

Hugo Grotius Essay
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Hugo Grotius. Museum Rotterdam, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Hugo Grotius Biography and Legacy

In this essay, we will take a look at the life and work of one of the most influential jurists of all time, Hugo Grotius.

So who was Hugo Grotius? you may wonder. Well, allow me to take over and quench your curiosity. Most of you have probably not heard of him. The few who have heard of him are probably studying, or have already studied, law. A law student has surely heard of Hugo Grotius sometime or the other.

Hugo Grotius, also known as Hugo de Groot or Huig de Groot, was a Dutch jurist, lawyer, diplomat, playwright, poet, and theologian, who became an influential figure in the fields of law, political theory, and philosophy in the 17th century.

He was one of three men, along with Italian-English jurist Alberico Gentili and Spanish jurist Francisco de Vitoria, to lay down the foundations of international law as we know it today.

Grotius was born on 10th April 1583 in the city of Delft in Holland during the Eighty Years’ War, also known as the Dutch War of Independence, to Alida and Jan de Groot.

His father was a fairly influential figure of political distinction who had studied with Flemish humanist philosopher Justus Lipsius at Leiden University in Holland. He was good friends with German-Dutch mathematician Ludolph van Ceulen and was a translator of the works of Archimedes.

Grotius’ family was considered Delft patrician as his ancestors had played a vital role in local government since the 13th century.

From an early age, Grotius’ father imbibed in him a traditional Aristotelian and humanist education. Grotius was said to be an intellectual prodigy and a quick learner. He enrolled at the prestigious Leiden University at the mere age of 11, where he studied the works of prominent intellectuals such as Rudolph Snellius, Franciscus Junius, and Joseph Justus Scaliger.

In 1598, Grotius, aged only 15, accompanied Dutch revolutionary and statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt on a diplomatic mission to Paris, where he is believed to have met King Henri IV of France. It was in France that he either bought or passed a law degree from the University of Orleans.

I know, I know, a 15-year-old boy seems to be way too young to accompany a statesman on a foreign diplomatic mission. But what can I say? Either Grotius was really an extraordinary intellectual prodigy as they say he was, who understood complex foreign affairs and political matters at such a young age, or it was simply his father’s influence that put him in that position. Or maybe times were just different back then when it was probably common or normal to take a smart young kid on diplomatic missions. I suspect it might have been all three of the above reasons or none of them.

I doubt such a thing would happen today, unless, of course, the young kid was the statesman’s child.

When Grotius was 16 years old, he published his first book, which was a scholarly edition of the late antiquity writer Martianus Capella‘s work on the seven liberal arts. The work remained a reference for several centuries since it was published.

Again, in case it did not hit you yet, Grotius was only 16 years old! At the age of 16, I used to spend my time playing football and watching TV. Forget about writing a book (that too a scholarly one), I had never even read a book outside of my syllabus.

The same year, still 16 years old, he was appointed advocate to The Hague. Two years later, aged 18, he was made the official historiographer for the States of Holland and was asked to write Dutch history so as to stand out from Spain.

Three years later, in 1604, he got an opportunity to systematically write down his views on the issues of international justice when he got involved in the legal proceedings following the seizure of a Portuguese carrack and its cargo by Dutch merchants on the Singapore strait.

The seizure was led by Captain Jacob van Heemskerk who was employed by the United Amsterdam Company and caused much public outcry and controversy. The forceful seizure was objected to on moral grounds and the legality of keeping the prize was questioned.

The scandal resulted in a public judicial hearing and a campaign to sway public opinion in favor of the seizure. Grotius was called upon to draft a polemical defense justifying the seizure.

Grotius, aged 21, set to work and drafted a long, theory-heavy treatise titled On the Indies, in which he defended the seizure in terms of the natural principles of justice, focusing on the source and ground of war’s lawfulness in general. However, the treatise was never published in full during his lifetime, perhaps because the court ruling in favor of the Company saved them from the trouble of garnering public support.

In 1609, Grotius published his book on international law, The Free Sea, in which he formulated the new principle that the sea was international territory and all nations were free to use it for seafaring trade. Through his principle of freedom of the seas, Grotius sought to justify the Dutch breaking up various trade monopolies through its naval power in order to establish its own monopoly and dominate world trade.

Although the concept of the freedom of the seas existed prior to Grotius’ work, it is his work and principles that continue to be applied to this very day for much of the high seas, though its concept and scope are slowly altering for the better.

Grotius’ close acquaintance with the influential Oldenbarnevelt, allowed him to make giant leaps and advances in his early political career. Enjoying Oldenbarnevelt’s favor, he was made resident advisor to Oldenbarnevelt in 1605, Advocate-General of the Fisc of Holland, Friesland, and Zeeland in 1607, and Pensionary of Rotterdam in 1613.

But things would not continue as smoothly as they had begun and Grotius’ life would soon undergo a drastic change for the worse.

The politico-religious conflict between the Remonstrants, who advocated religious tolerance, and the orthodox Calvinists, also known as Counter-Remonstrants, was raging across the Republic. Regarding this conflict, I choose not to go into much detail regarding the origin and nature and details of it, for that would take up much time and effort, and words.

So allow me to cut it short.

Grotius, who was Remonstrant, got involved in the conflict when he defended the power of the civil authorities to appoint whomever they wished to a university faculty, independently of the wishes of religious authorities, through a 27-page-long pamphlet titled Ordinum Pietas. He directed the writing against his opponent Calvinist Franeker professor Lubbertus. The polemical and acrimonious work ended up causing great controversy and met with an intense violent reaction from the Counter-Remonstrants. The work did a lot of damage to his reputation.

But this was not the end of his troubles. It would get worse.

As the political conflict between the religious and civil authorities grew worse, Oldenbarnevelt suggested that local authorities should be given the power to raise troops, something that would blatantly undermine the unity of the Republic’s military force.

Captain-General of the Republic Maurice of Orange could not allow this to happen as the Twelve Years’ Truce with Spain, which had been brokered by Oldenbarnevelt against Maurice’s wishes, was coming to an end. He decided to take matters into his own hands and eliminate Oldenbarnevelt, who he thought was a nuisance.

This situation created a conflict between the States of Holland and Maurice. In the meanwhile, Grotius made another attempt to address ecclesiastical politics through his work De Imperio Summarum Potestatum circa Sacra. He hoped that the publication of this work would bring back peace and harmony between the state and the church.

But it did not work. The situation did not improve at all. In fact, it only became worse. In August 1618, The States-General authorized Maurice to arrest Oldenbarnevelt and Grotius.

The men were tried for treason by a court of delegated judges from the States-General and found guilty. Oldenbarnevelt was sentenced to death (beheaded in 1619), and Grotius was sentenced to life imprisonment and transferred to Loevestein Castle.

From prison, Grotius made a written justification of his position, but because his views deprived the church officials of any power, several members of the church declared his views to be diabolical.

What would ensue could perhaps be regarded as one of the greatest and most famous escapes from prison in history. Barely two years after being imprisoned, Grotius managed to escape the Loevestein Castle in a book chest with the help of his wife and maidservant and fled to Paris, where he would end up completing his most famous philosophical works.

The most famous and influential one of them would be On the Law of War and Peace: Three Books, published in 1625. He had begun writing it in prison and eventually completed and published it during his exile in Paris.

The book dealt with matters of conflicts between nations and religions and the legal status of war. It advances a system of principles of natural law, which are held to be binding on people and nations regardless of local customs.

The first book deals with his conception of war and natural justice, in which he argues that there are certain circumstances under which war is justifiable. The second book identifies the three ‘just causes’ for war per him, which are self-defense, reparation of injury, and punishment. He considers a wide variety of circumstances under which these rights of war attach and when they do not. And the third book deals with the question of what rules govern the conduct of war once it has begun. Here he argues that all parties to war are bound by such rules, regardless of whether their cause is just or not.

Together the three books would come to be regarded as foundational works in international law.

Grotius’ work espoused principles of natural law and his concept of natural law would go on to have a deep impact on the philosophical, theological, and political thought of the 17th and 18th centuries.

His concept of natural law had a theological foundation, as according to him nature was not an entity in itself but God’s creation. His concept also took inspiration from the moral precepts contained in the Bible, believing that biblical revelation and natural law both originated in God and therefore did not contradict each other.

Grotius’ writings would go on to influence great philosophers and thinkers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, such as John Locke, Thomas Reid, David Hume, Adam Smith, Pierre Bayle, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Francis Hutcheson.

Through these thinkers, his works have influenced the Glorious Revolution in England, the American Revolution, the Scottish Enlightenment, etc. King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden was said to have always carried a copy of On the Law of War and Peace in his saddle while leading his troops.

However, not all subsequent thinkers admired Grotius’ work. The prominent figures of the French Enlightenment such as Voltaire and Rousseau were generally critical of his work.

By the 19th century, the influence of Grotius waned as interest in natural law philosophy declined due to the rise of positivism in international law. But his influence was never completely eradicated or extinguished. Interest in his ideas rose after the end of the First World War and he continues to be read and studied widely, although, no doubt, his importance has declined as the times have changed.

After the death of Prince Maurice in 1625, Remonstrants who were in exile began returning to the Netherlands. Toleration was granted to them, and within 5 years they were given the freedom to settle and live anywhere in the Netherlands and were even allowed to build and run their schools and churches.

Upon his return, Grotius began teaching in a theological seminary in Amsterdam, which was set up by the Remonstrants.

In 1634, he accepted an offer to serve as Sweden’s ambassador to France on the insistence of Axel Oxenstierna, the regent successor of the recently deceased Swedish King, Gustavus Adolphus. He took up residence in Paris, where he would remain until he was released from his post in 1645.

Unfortunately, upon his departure from Sweden, his ship was shipwrecked during the voyage and he washed up on the shore of Rostock, sick and weather-beaten.

On 28th August 1645, Grotius, aged 62, died in Rostock. He was interred at the Protestant Church of Nieuwe Kerk in his home city of Delft.

It is said that his last words were, “By understanding many things, I have accomplished nothing.”