In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early 19th Century, 1789-1870

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

International Law Early 19th Century, 1789-1870
Raymond Kubben
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0006


This article provides a bibliography with reading suggestions for anyone interested in international law in thought and practice throughout the early 19th century, which is stretched slightly to cover the period from the escalation of political events in Paris in 1789 to the unification of Germany in 1870. These were the decades during which European public law was transformed into international law with a global potential, in which rationalism was challenged by historicism, and in which natural law was pushed aside by positivism. It opens with the decades during which the French Revolution disrupted the 18th-century order, eventually resulting in the settlement reached at Vienna under which the five great powers strove to maintain a Europe-wide order in concert. It continues with the decades during which liberalism and nationalism confronted that Vienna order, when industrialization and democracy produced a drastic transformation of societies, when Britain struggled to suppress the slave trade, and when the great powers intervened regularly either to uphold legitimate government or to protect the Christian populations of the Ottoman Empire. Finally, it concerns the decades during which Bentham introduced the term international law into the English language and the phrase began to replace droit des gens or droit public de l’Europe. At this time, the law of nations gradually evolved into a distinct academic discipline with textbooks on that law being published all over Europe and across the Atlantic, and, while Austin denied its law-like character, Kant and Hegel redefined its philosophical background. This period also witnessed the emergence of various independent states in the Americas and their gradual integration into the diplomatic system. And it is the age of imperialism in which the British Empire reached its zenith, China and Japan were forced to engage with modern international law, and Africa was divided among Western powers following the rise of the New Imperialism. However, since imperialism and colonialism and their relationship with international law are covered by other articles, this article adheres to a traditional, Europe-centered approach. As with any historical research, a study of the19th-century law of nations should start with acquiring a familiarity with the wider historical context to gain a true understanding of contemporary law. Therefore, this article begins with some suggestions for readings in 19th-century history and with references to 19th-century sources, such as treaty collections and diplomatic archives. The best way to begin to approach the study of developments in the international legal order in the 19th century is to consult general textbooks of international legal history. This article contains references to more specific works. It consists of three parts. The first part treats state practice in addressing historical events such as the Wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the Vienna conference, and the Crimean War. This is the story of the law of nations in practice and, especially, of the structure and culture of the international order and the historical context in which the early-19th-century law of nations operated and evolved. The section on international legal scholarship contains references to the most significant 19th-century textbooks, arranged by country or geographical region, and 19th-century works on international legal theory as well as later studies on 19th-century authors and international legal scholarship. The third part deals with subjects of the law of nations, more specifically nationalism, the 19th-century notion of the state, and the concept of civilization. In this article, the “law of nations” is used to refer to the wider phenomenon of normativity, or law, in relations among autonomous political entities, whereas “international law” is employed to refer to the modern, 19th-century manifestation of this phenomenon.

General Overviews

The period covered by this article is one of the most dynamic ones in European history. Whether in respect to politics or economics, culture, technology, or social relations, it witnessed drastic changes, which are often joined together in being termed the process of modernization. The era is epitomized by the French Revolution for political and social changes and the Industrial Revolution for economic, social, and technological ones. The direct living environment and the world at large of 1870 would probably have been unrecognizable to any man or woman living in 1780. This is the background of an age that might best be characterized as the struggle between the conservative forces of the Restoration that had redrawn the map of Europe, on the one hand, and the forces of liberalism and nationalism on the other. While the former managed to control European affairs until about the mid-century, the Crimean War (1853–1856) launched a period of conflicts from which Germany and Italy would arise as unified nation-states in 1870. The 19th-century law of nations and international relations cannot be understood without some knowledge of this historical context. Hobsbawm 1962, Hobsbawm 1975, Ford 1989, Hearder 1966, Sperber 2000, Burleigh 2005, and Jones and Claeys 2011 provide excellent general surveys to grasp the spirit of the age.

  • Burleigh, Michael. Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

    In this book, Michael Burleigh provides an image of 19th-century politics in Europe from the French Revolution to World War I from the perspective of the clash, or interaction, of politics and religion. It addresses ideas of Enlightenment philosophers, and church-state relations as well as the rise of the great political ideologies and the welfare state.

  • Ford, Franklin L. Europe, 1780–1830. London: Longman, 1989.

    This book is one of the most often quoted books on European history of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. American historian and expert on ancien régime France Franklin Ford provides a narrative of the social, cultural, and political transition from the ancien régime to the Vienna order both within and between countries.

  • Hearder, Harry. Europe in the Nineteenth Century, 1830–1880. London: Longman, 1966.

    One of the best general overviews of European history in the mid-19th century that addresses social, economic, and political events, developments, and changes in Europe. Hearder discusses the clashes between parties and classes within countries and the interactions between countries against the background of the institutional structure of society.

  • Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Revolution: Europe, 1789–1848. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962.

    In this book—the first volume in a trilogy on the “long 19th century”—renowned Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm discusses the modernization of Europe as a result of the Industrial Revolution, on the one hand, and the French Revolution, on the other. It centers on the developments that were part of this twin revolution that ended with the revolutions of 1848 and how it transformed Europe and, through colonialism and imperialism, the rest of the world.

  • Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Capital, 1848–1875. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.

    In the second volume of his trilogy on the “long 19th century,” Hobsbawm focuses on the years after the 1848 revolutions and, specifically, on the dominance of capitalism.

  • Jones, Gareth Stedman, and Gregory Claeys, eds. The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Political Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521430562

    This volume consists of contributions by various esteemed scholars that together offer a comprehensive overview of 19th-century political thought. The volume includes both thematic chapters on the major ideologies or general themes, such as political economy or religion, and chapters on the leading political philosophers of the period. The volume also includes an extensive bibliography.

  • Sperber, Jonathan. Revolutionary Europe, 1780–1850. London: Longman, 2000.

    This book by American historian Jonathan Sperber addresses the major political events of the seven decades of revolution in European history. Sperber focuses on social and economic developments, such as the consequences of swift population growth, the transition from ancien régime society to bourgeois civil society, the growth of state power, and the struggle for participation in politics.

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