Schröder on Barducci, 'Hugo Grotius and the Century of Revolution, 1613 -1718: Transnational Reception in English Political Thought'

Marco Barducci
Peter Schröder

Marco Barducci. Hugo Grotius and the Century of Revolution, 1613 -1718: Transnational Reception in English Political Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 224 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-875458-9.

Reviewed by Peter Schröder (Department of History, University College London) Published on H-Albion (June, 2018) Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)

Printable Version:

This is a valid and important study. Marco Barducci scrutinizes the multifarious and not always straightforward reception of Hugo Grotius’s ideas and arguments in the context of the English “century of revolution.” The book is organized in a systematic way and divided into three parts: 1) “State, Resistance and Government,” 2) “State, Church and Religion,” and 3) “Property and Empire.” This approach has the main advantage of arranging the study according to the principal Grotian ideas various English authors derived from his texts. It allows enough flexibility to discuss the competing and even contradictory arguments which were drawn from Grotius. A certain tension runs through this analysis, because the time span of a hundred years means that Barducci has to engage with the considerably different political and hence argumentative contexts that influenced the reception and use of Grotius’s thought. But this almost inevitable shortcoming is more than compensated by Barducci’s insightful investigation of the various “processes of re-adaptation of [Grotius’s] ideas beyond the original context” (p. 10). Many of the concepts drawn from Grotius recur throughout the period. The difficulty of not following a chronological structure is, therefore, met to a certain extent by drawing out the underlying development of these concepts, which different English authors with very different agendas derived from Grotius. The ongoing debate about de facto sovereignty is perhaps the prime example of how ideas derived from Grotius “recurred during the crisis of 1649-50, 1678-83, and 1688-9” (p. 51).

This study convincingly unearths the multiple interpretative operations of Grotius’s arguments by English authors during the seventeenth century. Crucial for the success of this study is Barducci’s emphasis that analyzing the reception of Grotius “incorporates different forms of engagement with Grotius that comprise influence, rhetoric, use, and criticism that were often intertwined and therefore could not be disentangled” (p. 16). There is not just one straightforward reception of his thought, but only complex and more often than not competing and deliberately selective uses of Grotius. One should therefore not expect a discussion of the reception of Grotius to be very helpful in understanding Grotius’s own theory. Many authors who drew on him were not interested in doing justice to his thought; instead, they used his arguments as welcome intellectual quarry to support their own political causes.

Barducci stresses some of the inconsistencies of Grotius’s argument. In particular his defense of absolute monarchy and advocacy of resistance remain to this day puzzling aspects of his theory. No wonder these aspects were taken up by English writers in very different ways. However, Barducci implicitly also cautions us, quite rightly, not to interpret these competing interpretations per se as a sign of argumentative inconsistency in Grotius’s own argument. The complexity of the dissemination and reception of his ideas is reflected in these competing adaptations. A telling example of this can be seen in the use Edmund Bohun made of Grotius in the context of the Exclusion Crisis and after the Glorious Revolution, when he blended “contract theory with Filmer’s patriarchal doctrine of absolutism” (p. 39). This eclectic use of contradicting concepts and authors—Barducci rightly reminds us that Filmer had been a staunch critic of Grotius!—highlights how much any author’s text can gain a new life and meaning in a very different context, which is entirely beyond the control of the original context and intention in which it was written. Did the English authors engage with these contradictory interpretations? This aspect could have been pursued further regarding the reception and dissemination of Grotius’s ideas.

But in any case, Barducci’s careful analysis of these aspects adds a new dimension to the existing scholarship of English political thought and thus sheds important new light from a very different angle on the interpretation of English political thinkers of the seventeenth century. It is this meticulous approach which justifies the slightly surprising and successfully provocative first sentence of Barducci’s study: “Hugo Grotius was one of the most, if not the most authoritative English scholar of the ‘century of revolution’” (p. 1). Admittedly, Barducci is also somewhat overstating his case when he claims “that the reception of Grotius in England was unparalleled in Europe” (p. 12). The uptake and development of Grotius’s natural law theory by Huguenot French, German, Dutch, and Scottish writers—mostly within the academic discipline of jurisprudence—is at least equally impressive. What might indeed support the preeminence of the English reception of Grotius, is the fact that it was mostly motivated by concrete political conflict and the use Grotius provided within these debates (see p. 192). However, such an assessment seems to downplay too easily the political implications of the study of natural law within the academic landscape. Doubtless the reception and development of Grotius’s natural law by, say, Samuel Pufendorf or Christian Thomasius—to name but two preeminent scholars in Europe who closely engaged with Grotius—pursued at the same time a manifest political agenda and strategy.

Overall, however, Barducci’s assessment of Grotius’s influence is thoughtful and balanced. And he is certainly right in drawing attention to the fact that it was not only Grotius’s natural law theory that was taken up in England, but also his religious writings. Barducci shows that “Grotius’ unparalleled success in England ... depended on his renowned praise for the English Church and its relations with the monarchy” (p. 135). Equally important in Barducci’s study is the careful analysis in which he delineates the limits of the impact of Grotius’s work. This becomes most visible regarding the debates about republicanism in England. Barducci shows that the term republican was originally used pejoratively in the 1640s. More importantly, he challenges the view that Grotius’s major works should be seen as advocating republicanism (for example, p. 71). Where Grotius did defend the republican settlement of the Netherlands, as he did notably in his historical account of the Annales, “its use as a source of Dutch republican theory and constitution was in fact insignificant” (p. 77).

This study is particularly interesting, because it asks a range of original questions which have so far eluded previous interpretations. Barducci builds successfully on the scholarship (such as the works by Jonathan Scott, William Fitzmaurice, Martin van Gelderen, or David Armitage) on English and Dutch political thought, where the importance of Grotius had for some time been recognized and discussed. Particularly the Whig writings during the Exclusion Crisis and after the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent controversy between Nonjuros and Whigs are interpreted in a new light. The various ways in which Algernon Sidney, James Tyrrell, or John Locke took up and developed Grotius’s ideas of resistance help us to understand their different positions in their effort to provide arguments for the rights of the Parliament. Perhaps one of the most telling examples of Grotius’s influence on the political debate during this period can be seen in The Proceedings of the Present Parliament Justified by the Opinion of the Most Judicious and Learned Hugo Grotius, which was published in 1689. It is somewhat surprising that Barducci does not engage more with this source. 

The significance of Grotius’s theory of property is well known. This is the best-studied aspect of the reception of Grotius in English political thought. Barducci is less ambitious in this last part of his analysis and contents himself mainly with “a critical outline of existing scholarly interpretations” (p. 142). He buttresses the reading that Grotius’s theories of natural law and the law of nations can be seen as part of the theoretical components that justified Dutch and English overseas expansion. Barducci’s claim that the “neo-Scholastic theologians of the ‘School of Salamanca’, [like] Vitoria and Suárez ... permitted ... the dispossession of the natives’ lands in consequence of just war made for economic, political, or confessional reasons” (p. 157) is, however, contested within the existing scholarship. Grotius developed his natural law theory, and in particular his argument of property and punishment, in a way that made it much more far-reaching. Thus, Grotius’s theory of the “right of punishment ... had significant repercussions on the practice of imperialism” (p. 160).

This study is not restricted to an analysis of Grotius’s thought. The discussion of his assimilation and incorporation into English political thought successfully pursues the ambitious aim to reevaluate the political discourse in England during the “century of revolution.” The story of Grotius’s reception in English political thought entails a remarkable irony, because at the turn of the seventeenth century “the English redeployed against the Dutch many of the arguments originally elaborated by Grotius to justify the VOC’s right of navigation and commerce in the East Indies” (p. 171). The reception and dissemination of Grotius’s thought was a multilayered process of appropriation, which more often than not led to very different and even contradictory interpretations of his writings. Barducci has done an excellent job of analyzing these different strands of thought, and in doing so demonstrating at the same time the different uses to which Grotius’s writings were put in the English context. 

Citation: Peter Schröder. Review of Barducci, Marco, Hugo Grotius and the Century of Revolution, 1613 -1718: Transnational Reception in English Political Thought. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.