Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Perpetual peace

In the fall of 1697, the great powers of Europe signed a series of peace treaties at Rijswijk [Ryswick], near The Hague, which ended the Nine Years’ War (1688–1697), in which France was opposed by a great coalition of the Holy Roman Emperor, Britain, the Dutch Republic, and Spain. In its first article, the peace treaty between Britain and France, signed on 20 September 1697 (21 CTS 409), stated that, henceforth, there would be ‘universal and perpetual peace’ (‘pax … universalis perpetua’). The peace between the two powers held for less than five years. On 4 May 1702, the British formally declared war on France. Britain and its partners in the Grand Alliance (Treaty of The Hague, 7 September 1701, 24 CTS 11), the emperor and the Dutch Republic, did this in reaction to the acceptance of the Spanish succession for his grandson Philip of Anjou, by then Philip V of Spain (1683–1746), by Louis XIV (1638–1715) and to his subsequent actions to gain control over the Spanish Netherlands and to acquire trade privileges from Spain in its American colonies. After more than a decade of war, a new peace was made between France, its ally Spain, and the members of the Grand Alliance. Britain and some other states of the alliance made their peace with France at Utrecht on 11 April 1713. The peace treaty between Britain and France of that date, in its first article, reiterated the very same words ‘pax universalis perpetua’ from the Treaty of Rijswijk. (See 27 CTS 475 for the French-language version of this treaty, which contains the equivalent wording.)

It was standard practice for European powers in early modern peace treaties to designate the peace as definite, using this word ‘perpetual’ or a word to the same effect (‘duratura’, ‘eterna’, ‘à toujours’). This indicated that the peace treaty, and the state of peace which followed from it, would endure without limitation. In view of the fact that the peace often broke down after a few years, as in the case of the Peace of Rijswijk, it seems strange, even to be point of being naive or cynical, that the promise of perpetual peace was constantly rehearsed. But apart from publicly expressing an intention, which could be genuine or not but was generally popular, the indication that the peace was to be eternal had specific legal implications.

“Treaty of Nijmegen between Sweden and the Holy Roman Empire” byGustav Nilsonne. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The perpetual character of peace was what separated it most from truces. Since the Late Middle Ages, scholars as well as diplomats conceptually distinguished between three categories of treaties to suspend or end war: short-term armistices (indutiae), long-term truces (treugae), and peace. Both the civilians and canonists of the Late Middle Ages and the early writers on the law of nations from the 16th and 17th centuries debated the differences between truces, which would sometimes be made for many years, even decades, and peace. This was a complicated matter because long-term truces, such as the ones made between the kings of England and France from the late 15th century or the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609–1621) between the Dutch Republic and Spain, would assume almost all the characteristics of peace treaties, but for their duration. Long-term truces might include stipulations which completely suspended the state of war by lifting and undoing wartime measures and completely restoring peaceful relations between the belligerents as they had existed before the war. Although there was much debate about the different legal implications of truce and peace, there was agreement that a peace ended the state of war, while a truce only suspended it. Whereas scholars did not agree on the question whether a new declaration of war was needed at the end of a truce before hostilities were resumed, there was consensus that the former belligerents had a right to resume the war after the truce without defaulting on their treaty obligations.

It is here where the real legal meaning of perpetual peace comes to the fore. Peace treaties ended the state of war between belligerents for all time. This meant, as Baldus de Ubaldis (1327–1400) had already indicated, that the conflicts which had caused the war and over which the war had been fought had found a final settlement in the treaty. This accorded more or less with peace treaty practice from the 15th to the 18th century. In peace treaties, outstanding conflicts between the parties were either settled through legally binding compromises, or a commitment was made by the signatories not to resort to force again about certain disputes which were left unsettled.

The final character of the settlement, or the perpetuity of the commitment not to resort to force over them, implied that treaty parties agreed that the peace treaty exhausted their right to resort to force or war in the future and for perpetuity for the conflicts that were covered by the peace treaty. It would take Samuel Pufendorf (1632–1694) to state this directly, but it could already be inferred e contrario from Baldus’s statement that the outbreak of a new war did not violate a peace treaty if it was fought for a cause, a conflict, which was not covered by that peace treaty. It was also standard practice. All over the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Ages, princes and republics were careful to argue, when they went to war with a power with which they had signed a peace treaty, either that the opponent had violated the peace treaty or that they were resorting to war for a new cause. When they declared war on France on 8 May 1702, the Estates General of the Dutch Republic explained in what manners France had broken its obligations under the Peace of Rijswijk, whereas Britain in its declaration focused on the direct causes of the war that had arisen from events occurring after 1697. In this, both of them were following standard practice.

Featured Image Credit: “Allegorie op de Vrede van Rijswijk, 1697 Rijksmuseum” by Johannes Voorhout. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *