Bleg: Did Lincoln Read Grotius, Gentili, or Vitoria on Neutrality?

by Kenneth Anderson

In connection with some work I am doing on Lincoln and the ethics of war in the Second Inaugural, I have been interested in Lincoln’s famous phrases in the Address that the “prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully,” and others that bind north and south in the causes, and responsibility for slavery and the war.  

Part of Lincoln’s thought seems to have an oblique parallel with the gradual shift from medieval just war thought (in which war is understood as a criminal activity and one is obligated, even from outside the conflict, to support God’s side, the just side) to the early modern conception that finds cautious expression in Grotius, Gentili, and Vitoria (from the standpoint of fallible humans, a war could be perceived as just as seen from both sides).  As Stephen Neff puts it in his marvelous history of the law of neutrality, The Rights and Duties of Neutrals (Manchester UP 2000), in what Vitoria called “cases of ‘provable ignorance’ as to which side was right … the two sides in a conflict could now be regarded asbeing on the same legal and moral plane.”  

God knew, but humans might not know and had to act from within their ignorance and fallibility.  This sentiment is very close to parts of the Second Inaugural – “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,” particularly.  

Does anyone know if there is any evidence that Lincoln might have read Grotius, Gentili, or Vitoria in his common law studies, or any summaries of them that might have made reference to these early modern law of nations doctrines?  If any of our learned readers had any references to this, I would be grateful to find out.  Thanks.

One Response

  1. I am taking the liberty of re-posting something that Nick Troester, a Duke University grad student in political theory, posted up to his blog, Anti-Climacus, responding to this bleg.  Very helpful, thanks!:

    Kenneth Anderson asks about the influence of Grotius, Gentili or Vitoria on Abraham Lincoln. I am inclined to doubt there is any direct influence. The library copy of Bibliographie des ecrits imprimes de Hugo Grotius, which I think lists every edition of any of Grotius’ works up through 1949, seems to suggest that De jure belli ac pacis is not printed in the U.S. until a 1900 edition out of Boston. This suggests to me that he’s not being widely read in the U.S. I also have no recollection of Grotius being mentioned in English common law writers, though the omission is a surprising one, given how thoroughly he dominates European intellectual life for several hundred years after his death. If he knew them at all, it would most likely be tangentially through perhaps Locke. Vitoria, I think, is not translated into English until the 20th century, and Gentili undergoes a rehabilitation in that period, as well: one of the difficulties in studying early modern/late medieval international legal theory is that our understanding is based on the canon established by the Classics of International Law series, which raises up some otherwise obscure figures. Vattel seems a more likely source for contemporary-to-Lincoln law of nations doctrine.

    One other thing to note: Lincoln may well be drawing from Grotius et al’s development of neutrality, along with the idea that both sides may believe themselves justified, that “ignorance and fallibility” may distort our decisions. However, one can also draw this idea from Hobbes: if moral language is frequently (perhaps always) a means to disguise partial motives, then ignorance and fallibility should be a feature of all our political judgments (and those judgments should always be partial to ourselves, whether or not that can be justified). In that case, Lincoln could be synthesizing a Hobbesian political understanding within a Christian framework.

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