Freedom of the Seas, Part 6

Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law
An exhibit marking the 400th anniversary of Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum
Part 6

William Welwood’s work eventually drew a response from a Dutch lawyer, Dirck Graswinckel, entitled Mare liberi vindiciae adversus Gulielmum Welwodum (1653), but its relative obscurity today owes more to the publication in 1635 of Mare clausum, by John Selden (1594-1654), an English jurist, scholar and polymath whose erudition rivaled that of Grotius himself. Selden had begun researching and writing a refutation of Mare liberum soon after its publication, even before Welwood’s two treatises appeared. He had completed it by around 1618, by which time, however, a coup d’etat had taken place in the Netherlands, Grotius had been imprisoned, and relations between England and the new government were unsettled. King James was reluctant anyway to provoke a dispute with Denmark, which had extensive claims of its own in the North Atlantic. Under the circumstances, the moment seemed inauspicious for a verbal assault on Grotius and the freedom of the seas – and James refused to publish Mare clausum.

Selden apparently abandoned the project for nearly seventeen years. By then, Grotius, having escaped from prison in 1621 and living in exile in France, had published his more mature and celebrated masterpiece, De jure belli ac pacis (1625), later translated into English as The Rights of Warre and Peace (1654), in which he toned down some of the extravagant positions he had taken in his youthful defense of the seizure of the Santa Catarina, constructing instead a more sophisticated basis for a law of nature and nations independent of empire or religious guardianship that was, not coincidentally, notably less lenient in justifying the resort to armed force.

By then, Selden’s personal status had changed, too. Having become embroiled in parliamentary politics, he himself had been imprisoned and was now ensconced in the Tower of London. James meanwhile had been succeeded by Charles I, whose maritime policy was more aggressive than that of either of his two predecessors. In returning to his attack on Mare liberum, therefore, Selden was faced not only with the task of exposing weaknesses in Mare liberum, as Welwood had done and as he himself presumably had already done in his 1618 draft, but also with the more demanding one of taking into account the comprehensive legal regime Grotius had subsequently presented in De jure belli ac pacis. And he had to do both in a way that ingratiated himself with Charles.

Selden’s treatise, like Grotius’s, is remarkable for its erudition, too much so for modern readers, who tend to see in both works an excess of pedantry, but decisively impressive to the two men’s own contemporaries. Selden conceded the innocence of harmless navigation and commerce, but maintained that restrictions on them do not necessarily violate the law of nature and the law of nations. He purported to show that the open sea is not everywhere common, is capable of appropriation, and in fact from time to time had been appropriated and occupied. As to the Spanish and Portuguese claims, whose legitimacy England continued to deny, Selden said that, while on general principles they could be valid, in actual practice neither of the two countries ever acquired valid title or command to the areas they claimed.

– Notes by Edward Gordon

Selden, John (1584-1654). Mare clausum (London, 1635).
The first edition of Selden’s Mare clausum is also famous as the first use of Arabic type in England. The map depicts what ancient geographers called “the British sea.”
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

Selden, John (1584-1654). Mare clausum: the right and dominion of the sea (London, 1663).
The second edition of the English translation of Mare clausum.
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

Grotius, Hugo (1583-1645). Of the law of warre and peace (London, 1655).
The second English edition, appearing only a year after the first. The portrait bears Grotius’s motto, “Ruit Hora” (“Time flies”), reflecting his busy and productive career as a jurist, diplomat, and author.
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

“Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law,” curated by Edward Gordon and Michael Widener, is on display October 2009 through January 2010 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

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