The United States and the Law of Nations, 1776–1789
The Declaration of Independence in 1776 marked the birth of the United States as a nation and as a subject of the law of nations. As Chief Justice John Jay later wrote, “[T]he United States had, by taking a place among the nations of the earth, become amenable to the laws of nations; and it was their interest as well as their duty to provide, that those laws should be respected and obeyed.” Complying with the law of nations was important for a small, weak country trying to avoid trouble, but the law of nations was also a tool that the United States would use to protect its trade and commercial interests. National honor was at stake as well, an idea the Revolutionary generation took quite seriously. Interest and duty – as Jay put it – compelled the Founders to pay close attention to the law of nations.
Eighteenth-Century Sources of International Obligations
For eighteenth-century Americans, international legal obligations fell broadly into two categories: treaties and the unwritten law of nations. Formal written treaties formed an important part of European international relations at the time, as a way European nations arranged alliances, settled disputes, and established economic relations. American independence itself rested heavily on treaties. Two 1778 treaties with France cemented an alliance that led to French assistance against Britain.