To the Princes and Free States
of the Christian World
It is no less ancient than a pestilent error wherewith many men (but they chiefly who abound in power and riches) persuade themselves, or (as I think more truly) go about to persuade, that right and wrong are distinguished not according to their own nature but by a certain vain opinion and custom of men. These men therefore think that both laws and show of equity were invented for this purpose: that their dissensions and tumults might be restrained who are born in the condition of obeying; but unto such as are placed in the height of fortune they say that all right is to be measured by the will and the will by profits. And it is not so great a wonder that this absurd opinion, and altogether contrary to nature, hath procured unto itself some little authority, seeing to that common disease of mankind (whereby, as vice, so we follow the defense thereof) the craft and subtlety of flatterers is added, whereunto all power is subject.
But on the contrary part, in all ages there have been some wise and religious men (not of servile condition) who would pluck this persuasion out of the minds of simple men and convince the others, being defenders thereof, of impudency. For they declared God to be the creator and governor of the world, especially the father of the nature of man which, therefore not as other living creatures, he severed into divers kinds and divers differences, but would have them of one kind and to be contained under one name; and gave moreover the same beginning and the like composition of members, countenances turned each to other and speech also, and other instruments of imparting, that all might understand there was a natural society and kindred between them. And to this house or city built by him that great prince and householder had written certain laws of his, not in brass or tables, but in the minds and senses of everyone, where they shall offer themselves to be read of the unwilling and such as refuse. By these laws both high and low are bound. It is no more lawful for kings to transgress these than for the common people to impugn the decrees of senators, senators to resist the edicts of presidents, and viceroys the laws and statutes of their kings, for those very laws of people and all cities flowed from that fountain; thence they received their sanctimony and majesty.
But as in man himself there are some things which are common with all, and other some whereby everyone is to be distinguished from other, so of those things which nature had brought forth for the use of man she would that some of them should remain common and others through every one’s labor and industry to become proper. But laws were set down for both, that all surely might use common things without the damage of all and, for the rest, every man contented with his portion should abstain from another’s.
If no one can be ignorant of these things, unless he cease to be a man, if the nations saw this to whom the light of nature only shined (who otherwise were dull sighted in discerning truth), what beseemeth ye to think and do who are princes and Christian people?
If any think it hard that those things should be exacted of him which the profession of so holy a name requireth (the least whereof is to abstain from injuries) surely everyone may know what his duty is by that which he commandeth another. There is none of you who would not publicly exclaim that everyone should be moderator and arbitrator in his own matter, who would not command all citizens to use rivers and public places equally and indifferently, who would not with all his power defend the liberty of going hither and thither and trading.
If that little society which we call a commonwealth is thought not to stand without this (and indeed cannot stand without it), why shall not the self-same things be necessary to uphold the society and concord of all mankind? If any man violate these ye are justly displeased and make them also examples according to the quality and greatness of the offence, for no other reason but because the state of empire and government can never be quiet where these things may everywhere be done. If so be a king offer injury and violence unto a king, and people unto peoples, doth it not concern the perturbation of the peace and quiet of that city and the injury of the great keeper and commander? This only is the difference, that as subordinate magistrates judge the people, you the magistrates, so the king of all the world hath commanded you to take notice and punish all other men’s faults. Yours only he hath excepted to himself who, though he hath reserved to himself the highest degree of punishment, slow, secret and inevitable, yet hath he assigned two judges from himself to be always present in men’s affairs, whom the most happy offender cannot escape: to wit, every man’s own conscience and fame, or other men’s estimation of them. These seats of judgement stand always open to them to whom other tribunals are shut up; to these the weak and poor complain; in these they that master others in strength are vanquished themselves who are licentious out of measure, who esteem that at a base rate which was bought with man’s blood, who defend injuries with injuries, whose manifest wickedness must needs be both condemned by the consenting judgment of the good and also not to be absolved in the opinion of their own mind.
To both these judgment places we bring a new case. Not truly of sinks or gutters or joining one rafter in another (as private men’s cases are wont to be), nor yet of that kind which is usual among the people, of the right of a field bordering upon us or of the possession of a river or island, but almost of the whole sea, of the right of navigation and the liberty of traffic. These things are litigious between the Spaniards and us: whether the huge and vast sea be the addition of one kingdom (and that not the greatest); whether it be lawful for any people to forbid people that are willing neither to sell, buy nor change nor yet to come together; and whether any man could ever give that which was never his or find that which was another’s before, or whether the manifest injury of long time give any right.
In this disputation we offer the counters to those who among the Spaniards are the principal doctors of the divine and humane law; and, to conclude, we desire the proper laws of Spain. If that prevail not, and covetousness forbid them to desist whom some reason convinceth, we appeal, oh ye princes, to your majesty; we appeal to your upright conscience and fidelity, oh ye nations, how many soever you be, wheresoever dispersed.
We move no doubtful or entangled question, not of doubtful principles in religion, which seem to have much obscurity, which being so long disputed with so stout courage, have almost left this for certain amongst wise men: that truth is never less found than when consent is compelled; not of the state of our commonwealth and liberty scarce gotten but defended by taking arms, whereof they can rightly determine who have exactly known the country laws of the Belgae, their ancient customs, and that it was not made a kingdom against the laws but an earldom by the laws. In which question, notwithstanding necessity was driven from equal judges of extreme servitude, making a more curious search the authority of the decree of so many nations became public; the confession of the adversaries, even to the malicious and ill-willers, left no matter of doubt.
But that which we here propound hath nothing common with these; it needeth no man’s curious search; it dependeth not on the exposition of the Bible (whereof many understand not many things), not on the decrees of one people whereof the rest may justly be ignorant.
That law by whose prescript form we are to judge is not hard to be found out, being the same with all and easy to be understood, which being bred with everyone is engrafted in the minds of all. But the right which we desire is such as the king himself ought not deny unto his subjects, nor a Christian to infidels, for it hath his original from nature, which is an indifferent and equal parent to all, bountiful towards all, whose royal authority extendeth itself over those who rule the nations and is most sacred amongst them who have profited most in piety.
Understand this cause, oh yea, princes, and consider it, oh yea, people. If we demand any unjust thing, ye know of what account your authority and theirs who amongst you are nearer unto us hath always been with us: advise us, and we will obey. But if we have offended anything in this matter, we beseech you not to be offended; the hatred of mankind we pray not against. But if the matter fall out otherwise, we leave it to your religion and equity what you censure of it and what is to be done.
In times past, among the milder people it was accounted great impiety to assail them by war who would put their cause to arbitrement; on the contrary part, they who would refuse so equal a condition were repressed by the common aid not as enemies of one but of all. Therefore to that purpose we have seen truces made and judges appointed, kings themselves and puissant nations accounted nothing so glorious and honorable as to restrain others’ insolency and to support others’ infirmity and innocence.
Which custom, if it were in use at this day, that men thought no human thing strange unto them, surely we might have a more quiet world, for the presumption of many would wax cold and they who now neglect justice for profit’s sake should learn to forget injustice with their own loss.
But as in this cause peradventure we hope for that in vain, so this we verily believe: that things being well weighed, you will all think the delays of peace are no more to be imputed unto us than the causes of war, and therefore as hitherto you have been well-willers and favorable friends unto us so you will much more befriend us hereafter, than the which nothing more desired can befall them who think it the first part of felicity to do well and the other to be well reported.
The Free Sea, or a Disputation Concerning
the Right Which the Hollanders Ought
to Have to the Indian Trade