Vattel, Leibniz, and the American System
By Nancy Spannaus
Jan. 4, 2020—Many authors of American history have acknowledged the role of Swiss lawyer-philosopher Emer de Vattel (1714-1767) in the deliberations surrounding the establishment of the U.S. Constitutional system. Vattel’s Law of Nations, published in French in 1758, arrived in English translation in the American colonies during the 1760s, and is known to have played a major role in the deliberations around U.S. independence and the U.S. Constitution. His work continued to be cited in U.S. legal practice more than virtually any other legal authority during the early 19th century.
Less well known is the influence of Vattel on the thinking of the young republic’s chief economic thinker, Alexander Hamilton. This is cited by the late Hamilton biographer Forrest MacDonald, one of the most cogent modern writers about Hamilton’s economic thought, and is a critical element in understanding Hamilton’s approach to political economy.
But who was Emer de Vattel, and what was his philosophy? That is the question which this post will seek to answer.
As I present the thought of Vattel and his intellectual mentor Gottfried Leibniz, a critical distinction between two concepts of freedom should become clear. One conception – that associated with Thomas Jefferson and the anti-Federalists – is primarily a negative one, that of escape from oppressive government, and the right to “do your own thing.” The other – associated with Leibnizian thought and Hamilton – is a concept of freedom as the right and power to carry out your obligation as a moral human being to society. The latter requires the kind of republican government and economy which Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Washington, and many other Founders sought to establish, and which needs to be revived today.
Leibniz and Natural Law
Emer de Vattel’s importance lies in the fact that he was a devotee of one of the greatest philosopher scientists of the post-Renaissance era, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). Leibniz propounded a theory of natural law based on the concept that all human beings have been created in the image of God, with the purpose of serving society and their posterity through a process of pursuing a perpetual increase in knowledge, both scientific and moral. Such is the pathway to happiness, he asserted, which is the goal of all human souls.
If you think that such a devotion by Leibniz defined him as merely a pious, erudite academic, you would be wrong. During his long career as an advisor to various courts in Germany and France, Leibniz was intimately involved in developing steam engine technology, advising on economic policy, establishing scientific academies, and advancing diplomatic relations among nations, to name only a few of his endeavors. All this, while he continued to work on, and engage in debate about, the most advanced physical science of his day.
Of particular interest to our discussion is a pair of economic treatises which Leibniz wrote in the early 1670s during his period at the French Court under Jean Baptiste Colbert. While both papers specifically outline the principles for establishing certain societies or academies, their recommendations are equally applicable to national economies, and in fact, were picked up by economic thinkers of many nations as the road to prosperity.
The shortest of the two memoranda, which are both dated 1671, was entitled “Society and Economy.” Leibniz himself indicates that it is incomplete. It begins with a call for manufactured goods to be produced locally. It then argues strongly against what we would today call income inequality, which Leibniz calls “harmful to the republic.” His argumentation sounds remarkably modern:
And why, indeed, should so many people be poor and miserable for the benefit of such a handful? After all, is not the entire purpose of Society to release the artisan from his misery?…
Through establishment of such a Society, we eliminate a deep-seated drawback within many republics, which consists in allowing each and all to sustain themselves as they please, allowing one individual to become rich at the expense of a hundred others, or allowing him to collapse, dragging down with him the hundreds who have put themselves under his care. …
As to manufacturing, Leibniz argues that “each country shall … supply itself with those necessary commodities and manufactured goods which previously came from abroad, so that it will not have to procure from others what it can have for itself….”
He continues with arguments in favor of adequate provision for the “artisans,” whom we could also call the working population, and counters the standard argument of predator capitalism thus:
One might object that artisans today work out of necessity; if all their needs were satisfied, then they would do no work at all. I, however, maintain the contrary, that they would be glad to do more than they do now out of necessity. For, first of all, if a man is unsure of his sustenance, he has neither the heart nor the spirit for anything; will only produce as much as he expects to sell…; concerns himself with trivialities; and does not have the heart to undertake anything new and important. He thus earns little, must often drink to excess merely in order to dull his own sense of desperation and drown his sorrows, and is tormented by the malice of his journeymen.
Leibniz argues that a society organized on his principles will not have this problem. People will work together joyously. “… [T]he Society’s highest rule shall be to foster true love and trustfulness among its members.”
The second economic memorandum is entitled “Outline of a Memorandum: On the Establishment of a Society in Germany for the Promotion of the Arts and Sciences.” The reasons for establishing such a society are threefold, Leibniz writes: “1) the good conscience and 2) the immortal glory of the founders: and also 3) for the common good.” There follows a long discussion of the theological basis for this motivation, whereby Leibniz equates “the love of the public good and of universal harmony” with man’s religious duty. To carry this out, man needs both reason and power. His exercise of both in statecraft is the highest profession.
Over the course of the rest of the essay, Leibniz describes the means of exercising those characteristics, with examples that are perhaps surprisingly concrete. He cites the need for science to produce the improvement of “mechanics”; “the material of labor,” manufacturing, the “nourishment of the poor,” medical cures, and “iron and steel works;” “establish a school of inventors and, as it were, an official laboratory;” and provide a general education for the broad population, among other things. Such measures of support for the population will cost far less than the economic benefits they will create, he argues. There will be continuous, unending growth.
From this short summary, it should be clear that Leibniz’s ideas on political economy (which could also be called statecraft) are based on a valuation of human productive powers (starting with the mind), government intervention to improve technology and advance science, and protection from dog-eat-dog economic activity. Totally modern and resonant with the American System —although tragically absent from today’s dominant economic theory and practice.
Emer de Vattel, a Swiss citizen who worked primarily for German princes, began his writing career with a 1741 piece called “A Defense of the Leibnizian System.” His magnum opus, The Law of Nations, involves the application of Leibniz’s concepts of human and societal obligation to both the conduct of sovereign nation states internally, and relations between nations.
There is a tendency to emphasize Vattel’s contributions in the area of law per se – where he elaborated the attributes inherent to sovereignty, and the conduct of international relations — and those contributions are substantial. Yet these ideas are themselves based on certain principles about political and social life that apply directly to political economy.
Vattel bases his prescriptions on the premise that every man has an obligation to care for his fellow man:
The end or aim of civil society is to procure for its citizens the necessities, the comforts, and the pleasures of life, and, in general, their happiness. … The Nation or its ruler will therefore give its first attention to providing for the needs of the people, to creating on all sides a happy abundance of necessities of life, and even of the comforts and innocent and laudable pleasures. Apart from the fact that a comfortable – I do not mean luxurious – life adds to men’s happiness, it enables them to work with greater care and success for their own advancement, which is their chief and most important duty… [emphasis added]
He writes in the Preliminaries section:
The general law of that society [natural society-ed.] is, that each individual should do for the others everything which their necessities require, and which he can perform without neglecting the duty he owes to himself: a law which all men must observe in order to live n a manner consonant to their nature…
It is easy to conceive what exalted felicity the world would enjoy, were all men willing to observe the rule that we have just laid down. On the contrary, if each man wholly and immediately directs all his thoughts to his own interest, if he does nothing for the sake of other men, the whole human race together will be immersed in the deepest wretchedness. Let us therefore endeavor to promote the general happiness of mankind: all mankind, in return, will endeavor to promote ours, and thus we shall establish our felicity on the most solid foundations.
There are three key objects of good government, Vattel argues: providing for the necessities of the population; providing the basis for true happiness; and providing for the nation’s defense against external threats. As to the first, he lays out a series of measures for promoting industry, sufficient skilled workers, and the prerequisites for peaceful commerce among nations, including “the care of public roads, the safety of travelers, the establishment of ports, markets, and well-conducted fairs…”
The second objective resonates most strongly with Leibniz’s own emphasis on the nature of and requirements for human happiness. The following extraordinary passage from Vattel’s chapter on the “Second Object of a Good Government,” to my mind, foreshadows the best thinking of the United States’ own American System of Political Economy. Of course, Vattel was writing for a monarchical system (cf., the Prince), which we reject, but the prescriptions should equally apply to elected political leaders in a republic, and the citizenry at large.
Let us continue to lay open the principal objects of a good government. What we have said in the five preceding chapters relates to the care of providing for the necessities of the people, and procuring plenty in the state: this is a point of necessity; but it is not sufficient for the happiness of a nation. Experience shows that a people may be unhappy in the midst of all earthly enjoyments, and in the possession of the greatest riches. Whatever may enable mankind to enjoy a true and solid felicity, is a second object that deserve the most serious attention of the government.
The desire of happiness is the powerful spring that puts man in motion: felicity is the end they all have in view, and it ought to be the grand object of the public will. It is then the duty of those who form this public will, or of those who represent it – the rulers of the nation—to labor for the happiness of the people, to watch continually over it, and to promote it to the utmost of their power.
To succeed in this, it is necessary to instruct the people to seek felicity where it is to be found; that is, in their own perfection, — and to teach them the means of obtaining it. The Sovereign cannot, then, take too much pains in instructing and enlightening his people, and in forming them to useful knowledge and wise discipline. Let us leave a hatred of the sciences to the despotic tyrants of the east: they are afraid of having their people instructed, because they choose to rule over slaves. But though they are obeyed with the most abject submission, they frequently experience the effects of disobedience and revolt.
A just and wise prince feels no apprehension from the light of knowledge: he knows that it is ever advantageous to a good government. If men of learning know that liberty is the natural inheritance of mankind, on the other hand they are more fully sensible than their neighbors, how necessary it is, for their own advantage, that this liberty should be subject to a lawful authority: –incapable of being slaves, they are faithful subjects.
The first impressions made on the mind are of the utmost importance for the remainder of life. In the tender years of infancy and youth, the human mind and heart easily receive the seeds of good or evil. Hence the education of the youth is one of the most important affairs that deserve the attention of government. It ought not to be entirely left to fathers. The most certain way of forming good citizens is to found good establishments for public education to provide them with able masters—direct them with prudence—and pursue such mild and suitable measures, that the citizens will not neglect to take advantage of them.
Who can doubt that the sovereign — the whole nation — ought to encourage the arts and science? To say nothing of the many useful inventions that strike the eye of every beholder, — literature and the polite arts enlighten the mind and soften the manners: and if study does not always inspire the love of virtue, it is because it sometimes, and even too often, unhappily meets with an incorrigibly vicious heart. The nation and its conducts ought then to protect men of learning and great artists, and to call forth talents by honors and rewards.
Vattel and Hamilton
Can Vattel’s thoughts be found in shaping of the government and economy of the United States? I believe they can.
I agree with Forrest McDonald that they played a crucial part in Alexander Hamilton’s thinking. McDonald says that Hamilton first read Vattel in 1782 (both John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, among others, had begun to read The Law of Nations in the 1750s), and that it fundamentally shifted his thinking away from the pragmatic, empiricist concepts of British philosophers such as David Hume and John Locke on government.
McDonald points first to Vattel’s distinction between natural rights and natural law. Vattel asserts that rights are “nothing more than the power of doing what is morally possible, that is to say, what is proper and consistent with duty, — it is evident that right is derived from duty, or passive obligation.” Such a concept was uniquely appropriate to the post-revolutionary chaos in which the victorious American republic found itself, and Hamilton embraced it with his fight for a Federal government with the powers to act for the general welfare. Much to the chagrin of the Jeffersonians, he took responsibility for establishing a national government capable of fulfilling the “right to happiness” which the Declaration had enshrined.
Vattel’s elaboration of the functions of government can also be seen in Hamilton’s economic policies and priorities. Hamilton rejected the idea that government only existed to preserve natural rights to life, liberty, and property—as Locke would put it. Instead, government had to take active measures to promote desirable enterprises, provide them with credit, provide instruction in good citizenship and the arts and sciences, and curb excesses of those whose avarice would destroy the common good. Here we see Hamilton’s activist government, which proceeds from a concept of pursuing the common good, not bending to the “democratic” sentiments of the moment, and of providing the prerequisites for economic progress.
McDonald also sees Vattel’s influence in Hamilton’s policy for national defense, and in the policy of judicial review of the constitutionality of government actions. Like the Swiss jurist, Hamilton believed that even the sovereign and the nation itself were subject to natural law. There was a higher moral law to be obeyed.
In sum, like Vattel, Hamilton conceives of the nation’s political economy as having a higher purpose that simple economic survival. The purpose is to create an economy that provides happiness for the population, and the means for continuous progress. That requires certain rules governing matters such as trade, the labor market, and the financial markets as well. The productive powers of labor must be protected and enhanced, for the nation to have a harmonious, prosperous future. Hamilton provided his most elaborated, if still embryonic, vision of such an economy in his Report on Manufactures/.
Vattel was not the only channel by which Leibnizian ideas helped shape the American Revolution; John Winthrop of Massachusetts and James Logan of Pennsylvania are two other known conduits. But Vattel’s role was a crucial one—and now you should have some idea of what it was.
 McDonald, Forrest, Alexander Hamilton, A Biography, WW Norton & Company, New York, 1979.
 Translations of both these memoranda can be found in translation in The Political Economy of the American Revolution, edited by Nancy Spannaus and Christopher White, EIR News Service, Washington, D.C., 1996.