The Reading Room

OLL’s April Birthday: Hugo Grotius (10 April 1583 – 28 August 1645)

April’s OLL Birthday essay is in honor of the Dutch political philosopher Hugo de Groot, Latinized as Grotius.  Sometimes referred to as “the father of Natural Law,” his writings can be seen as marking the origins of Natural Law theory.  His work thus signaled a fundamental turning point in political philosophy, especially in the field of International Relations, as well as the area of political sovereignty and religious toleration.   
Grotius was born into a wealthy and powerful family in the city of Delft, in the province of Holland, one of the United Provinces of the Netherlands.  The UP had wrested its independence from Spain only in 1579, after a long struggle in which his family had played an important part.  Due to their illustrious history and service in the war, the family emerged after independence as one of the oligarchic rulers of Delft, and an important family in the politics of the province and in the Dutch Republic as a whole.  They were commercially powerful as well, as major stockholders in the recently formed Dutch East India Company (VOC), the first of the private companies that were to dominate the Mercantilist empires of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  
Young Grotius was thus brought up in comfortable surroundings and received a fine education (at which he excelled) in the best Renaissance Humanist tradition.  A child prodigy, he entered Leiden University at age eleven, and was well known by his teenage years for his poetry and historical writing (all in Latin). In 1609 he published Mare Liberum (The Free Sea), an argument in favor of free navigation (written as a defense of a VOC ship’s capture of a Portuguese vessel loaded with Oriental luxury goods in the Gulf of Singapore).
In the meantime, in 1608, he had married Maria van Reigersberch (1589-1653) from another rich and powerful family. Together, they had eight children, five of whom survived to adulthood.  Maria, as was typical of the time, had no formal education, but could read and write and, as future events would show, was a highly intelligent and resourceful person.   
Shortly thereafter, Grotius was hired as the secretary of Jan van Oldenbarnevelt, a leading politician and famous statesman.  Grotius had, in fact, known Oldenbarnevelt for years, and he had emerged as a mentor to the younger man.  The two shared many ideas and sensibilities, perhaps most importantly an unease with the growing connections between the dominant Calvinist church and the Statholder, Prince Maurice of Orange, the de facto Head of State of the United Provinces.  Grotius and Oldenbarnevelt worried that this increasingly close relationship represented a threat to religious dissenters (particularly followers of Jacobus Arminius, who came to be called the Remonstrants), as well as to the autonomy of the individual provinces, against the rising strength of the Statholder and the central government.  They finally determined that the only way to solve the problem was by mounting a coup against Prince Maurice. Unfortunately for them, their plot was discovered and Oldenbarnevelt was publicly beheaded in May 1619, while Grotius got away with life in prison.  
Grotius was imprisoned in Louvenstein Castle, in the southern part of the United Provinces, where he was allowed to have a small library and spent his time developing his earlier ideas regarding law and theology.  In March 1621 he was able to escape in a trunk (he was quiet small) in which his loyal wife had brought him a load of books. He managed to make his way to France where (after being joined by Maria and their children) he lived for most of the rest of his life, protected and supported by friends and, eventually, the king of France himself.  
During his years in France he polished and expanded upon the notes he had made while in prison to publish two of his most famous and enduring works, the first edition of what became The Truth of the Christian Religion (1627) and, perhaps even more importantly, The Rights of War and Peace (1625).  The latter was immediately recognized as an important work of political theory (making Grotius a kind of pan-European celebrity) and eventually came to be regarded as a foundational work in international law.
While in France, Maria undertook several missions (and opened a number of lawsuits) in the United Provinces aimed at clearing her husband’s good name (and, incidentally, recovering their property and fortune which had been confiscated by the authorities) with some limited success, though his return remained impossible.  The possibility for them to move back home finally came in 1631. Prince Maurice had died and was succeeded as Statholder by his brother Frederick William, who was known to be personally sympathetic to Grotius.  This led him to return to the United Provinces (under an assumed name) to see if it might be safe for him and his family to resettle there.  The political climate was such, however, that the Statholder was unable to issue a pardon, and Grotius left the country after six months, in April 1632.  He subsequently traveled through war-torn Germany until 1635 where he came to the attention of the Swedish crown, which offered him the job of ambassador to France.  He eagerly accepted the prestigious position, not least because it enabled his family to live in luxury and relative security after their long ordeal as exiles.  As Sweden’s ambassador to France, he participated in the complex diplomatic maneuvering surrounding France’s entry into the Thirty Years War (in which Sweden was already a belligerent).  
Although by all accounts Grotius acquitted himself adequately as ambassador his position with the Swedish court was always tenuous.  In 1645 he was summoned back to Sweden (in the course of which he passed through the United Provinces for the last time in his life) and, despite his protests, was dismissed from his position.  Seeking to return to France by ship, he was caught in a storm in the Baltic and shipwrecked off Rostock.  He was rescued from the sea but died shortly thereafter, on August 28, 1645.  His body was returned to his hometown of Delft, where he was buried with honors, though he had been in exile for 24 years. His last words, “By attempting many things, I have accomplished nothing,” certainly do not reflect the awesome contributions he made to the field of political philosophy and the causes of personal freedom.