Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CONQUEST is a fact which has its place and its marked significance in the growth of humanity, and which, among civilized nations, is subject to certain rules. It has its philosophy as well as its rights, and should therefore be examined as well in its historical manifestations as from the point of view of international law.


—I. Historically, conquest has demonstrated its raison d'être in all the grand phases through which humanity has passed. Whether it be a fatality inherent in the nature of man, or merely a transitory fact, as the disciples of the abbé St. Pierre hope, it is unfortunately not to be denied that it is through blood and ruin that great political and social changes are effected. Every nation forms its own code of laws by which it is governed as long as it endures; but above this code, formal and transient as the society which it serves as a rule, towers the great law of endless human progress. Nations are sometimes delayed in the performance of the mission with which they are charged. They finally accomplish it, but are unable in time to see that their task is over. Their regeneration is then effected by the intervention of another race or of a rival nation, which comes to occupy the vacant place, and to employ the ruins of the old in the building of the new, until such time as it itself disappears in one of the ceaseless evolutions of growing humanity. It is undoubtedly sad to be forced to admit that peace does not always attend the march of progress, and that a moment comes when the internal vital principle of nations no longer suffices for their development, and when conflict becomes a necessity in order to preserve the creative power of thought; but, on the other hand, there is a philosophic consolation in acknowledging that these violent struggles of one people with another, of one race with another, are almost never fruitless, and are beneficent in their final consequences. The wars of the Greeks against the Persians were among the most powerful agents of civilization in antiquity; and it is enough to recall the magnificent chapter of Montesquieu on Alexander the Great (Spirit of Laws, book x., chapter 14) in order to see how narrow is the view of those who find in the expedition of the Macedonian hero the mere caprice of a young man thirsty for praise and glory. Alexander was the apostle of Hellenism; but, at the same time, he initiated the west into the mysterious teachings of the east. He was the founder of that mixed society in which Greek, Egyptian, Jew, Phœnician and Persian, by blending their sacred mysteries, their philosophic and religious doctrines, prepared the world for the advent of Christianity. Alexander's empire brought men to see their moral unity and their common ties; and for this reason there are no more fruitful events in history than the triumphs of this man. But there was in his work, as in general there was in all the work of Greece, more genius than persistent force. With her sovereign grace and her youthful generosity, Greece sowed everywhere along her passage germs of marvelous fecundity, but she left their free development to the future; she created worlds, but she did nothing to reduce them to order. Organizing genius fell to the lot of Rome. From conquest to conquest, Rome forced the ancient world into the orbis Romanus, and stamped upon the nations so profound an imprint of her power that it is visible to the present day. The Greeks had brought together, and to a certain extent had blended, the east and the west: the Romans, although heirs of Greece, had as their special mission the founding of the western world. Their gift of command, their vocation to conquer and absorb, had so absolute a character, that, in spite of the numerous and indelible traces of their action, it is still debated whether their mission was a benefit to humanity or not. Rome assimilated the conquered nations to herself, but she did so only after she had crushed them to the earth.


—She had received rich and populous countries under her administrative yoke, and depopulation extended by degrees over the provinces of the empire. But, notwithstanding her enervation, Rome did not dream of changing the motive principle of her policy, which consisted in absorbing the world into herself, and in consuming wealth without producing it. In the midst of her agony she went on further and further regulating and exhausting the provinces, but she did not cease to reign till after she had established the unity of Europe. It is during this period of exhaustion which marks the end of ancient society, that the third conquerors of the civilized world appeared. The Germans entered the deserted lands of the last of the Cæsars, as much in the character of colonists as of conquerors. With little of civilization about them, they allowed themselves easily to be guided by that portion of Roman society which still stood erect, but they changed it none the less, by inoculating it with a principle unknown to Greeks and Romans, that of individual liberty. Although it appeared under the form of a privilege, this fruitful principle held within its bosom the whole future. It breathed life into Christianity, which had lost in the ancient world its regenerating virtue, because it had none to speak to but souls debased and trained in slavery. Charlemagne, by compromising between the genius of Rome and that of the German race, extended by his conquests the reign of Christian civilization over countries and peoples unknown to the ancient rulers of the earth, and laid the foundations of modern society. The middle ages lived on Carlovingian ideas, vibrating unceasingly between the instincts of liberty placed in their hearts by the infusion of German blood and the principles of authority represented by Rome, as well in imperial legislation as in the spiritual domain.


—After having shaken off the spiritual yoke of Rome, in the sixteenth century, Germany remained subject to the yoke of servitudes created by the middle ages, or, in the course of time, by the doctors of Roman law. It was reserved for a nation whose universal mission was not yet known to do away with the antiquated forms of the middle ages, and to show what were the logical conclusions from premises laid down by preceding centuries. Uniting the dash and spiritualism of the Gauls to the organizing genius of Rome and the pride of the Germans, France, by her prolonged struggles in the sixteenth century, had saved the principle of intellectual freedom. Preserved in this way from the spiritual death of Italy and Spain, she presented to the world the new and astonishing spectacle of a society beginning its own regeneration by virtue only of its internal power. Until then, nations had perished rather than change. France inaugurated a new era by showing that the modern epoch possesses in itself the power of a second birth. This lesson, the first and greatest taught by the French revolution, did not prevent that revolution from passing beyond the borders of France, thanks to foreign aggression. During a war which lasted 20 years, all Europe was in convulsion, and the name of Napoleon was added to the names of Alexander, Cæsar and Charlemagne. In pushing the conquests of France beyond the limits traced by her in her most ambitious dreams, Napoleon became an instrument to spread the principles of the revolution. It matters little that his immense and numerous enterprises attracted the hatred of subjugated peoples as much as they did their admiration. The same measure can not be applied to grand and terrible characters like him as to other men. It remains true, in spite of every adverse denial, that the Napoleonic conquests were triumphs of modern civilization over an effete society; that everywhere they gave the death blow to the middle ages, shook up everything in Europe; and that the impulse they gave Europe continues yet.


—This brief sketch shows that there are civilizing wars and conquests; but, unfortunately, there are others which bring no compensation. It is possible to find an historical significance in the conquests of Attila. In his wanderings he drew all the north in his train, and was at least an incident in the great invasion of the empire. But the mind is bewildered at the sight of the conquests of oriental despots, of Gengis Khan, Tamerlane or Bajazet. Why did these men cross a part of the habitable globe like a lightning flash, piling up ruins and heaping up victims, and yet do nothing, as Montesquieu expresses it, "toward paying the immense debt they had contracted toward humanity"? When Bajazet was brought, a prisoner, into the presence of Tamerlane, the latter, after looking at him for a moment, began to laugh. Bajazet, having reminded him of the instability of fortune, reproached him for not pitying his distress. "I know what you wish to say," said the conqueror, "and I have no desire to insult you in your defeat; but I say that all the kingdoms of the earth must have little value in the eyes of God or in themselves that they should be given up to a wretched one-eyed man like you or to a wretched cripple like me." The contempt of humanity which these words breathe, the absence of an ideal which they denote, enable us to measure the distance which separates the barbarian from the civilized hero. The Turkish and Tartar conquerors, descended from the highlands of Asia, have exercised no influence on the history of humanity. By taking possession of China, India, Asia Minor, and even of a part of Europe, Gengis Khan, Othman and their successors simply drew near to civilizations relatively superior, which, at most, they assimilated only partially. When they did not destroy them, they added nothing to them. The only Asiatic conquerors whom it is proper to place on a higher level than this, and who during a certain period represented a special civilization, are the ancient Persians, after the time of Zoroaster, and the Arabs, after that of Mohammed. But, saving these two exceptions, Asia presents only the sad spectacle of a few nations that were arrested in their growth after they had attained at an early period a stage of culture in some respects advanced, and which did not receive from those who forced the way into their midst any new or fruitful germ. We must come back to Europe to discover for events any reason but a purely external one, and to see them developed with that logical sequence and power of combination which marks the statesman.


—Even wars of a secondary order come to have, on this account, some significance. When the German people settled in the provinces of the Roman empire, they did not settle at once within the limits in which they have been since confined. Not only did the several states not have their present frontiers, but, owing to the scattering of their forces brought about by feudal organization, the distribution of their respective forces was in nothing analogous to what it is to-day. After the European states were consolidated internally, and had concentrated their resources, sovereigns began to look beyond their frontiers, to measure their forces and calculate their relative strength. From this originated the wars intended to bring about an equilibrium of power (see BALANCE OF POWER), and the conquest of provinces, with the view of increasing the defensive power of states and giving them better frontiers. Each state drew up for itself a series of diplomatic and strategic rules, endowed by tradition with the force of precedent, and their precedents controlled for a long time the policy of cabinets. The system of equilibrium is evidently right to a certain point; for it concerns the liberty of all Europe to prevent the predominance of any single power. Which of us has not been forcibly impressed by the first chapter of Gibbon, in which he pictures the Roman empire as a vast prison, opening throughout its vast extent not a single door to the victim of tyranny, and leaving him no other refuge than death, the last asylum of the free? A multitude of sovereignties is therefore a guarantee of human liberty, and the disproportionate increase of one power is a menace to all. But the system of equilibrium soon became a pretext for the most iniquitous conquests; and, although it found its origin in the interests of the liberty of Europe, there is no political theory which has led to such deeds of tyranny and arbitrariness, Francis I. and Henry IV., struggling against the house of Austria, and William III. against Louis XIV., acted in accordance with this salutary principle, but one which was caricatured at a later time; for it was in the name of the equilibrium of Europe that three spoliating powers effected the partition of Poland. The eighteenth century has been, moreover, a witness of the most glaring abuses of conquest, open or disguised. At no time have princes been seen to trade for or seize provinces with such eagerness, without troubling themselves in the least whether they obtained the consent of the people, and consulting only their own convenience. Frederick the Great is the best example of this; and he would have been surpassed by Joseph II. if the latter had had as much genius and the same opportunity as his rival and model. It is strange that, just on the eve of the French revolution, and during an age of generous philosophy, people should have been most treated like a herd of cattle.


—It remains for us to speak of a third species of conquest, the conquest of barbarian nations by civilized peoples. Many authors have raised the question whether the same rules should be applied to them as to conquests made in Europe. This question is settled by the facts in the case. One of the historic phenomena of our century is the subjection of the globe to three great European powers. The aggrandizements of Russia, England and France in India, the extreme east and Africa, are not otherwise regarded than as the conquests by civilization of barbarism; and these heathen lands are considered the common property of Christianity and the white race, which is called to universal dominion. The reproach of ambition directed against England in India, Russia on the borders of China and in central Asia, France in Algeria, come to naught in presence of the imperative law which confers on great nations the mission of drawing humanity nearer its goal. The right of civilization over barbarism is not limited to no-mad peoples, and hunters, which make no use of the soil which they are supposed to occupy, but it extends to every nation which pretends to ward off the influence of Europe or civilization by factitious barriers. People do not think that China, Japan, Madagascar, were founded to continue their existence apart; and public opinion has not blamed the efforts which have succeeded, at least in part, in making these countries a common patrimony of the nations. The right of civilization goes as far as to dispossess or put under guardianship peoples who do not accomplish their mission. The Ottoman empire and Mexico, situated at the connecting points of two worlds, which, instead of making their natural advantages of any value, to the benefit of all, live in a state of continual inertia, are destined to pass from the weak hands which hold them back, into those of some civilizing race. But this right of extension of civilization, as against barbarism or incapacity, is attended by duties to the conquered. It is to this kind of conquest that we may apply the words of Montesquieu: "I define the right of conquest in this way: A necessary, legitimate and unfortunate right, which always leaves an immense debt to be paid to humanity." The past offers us examples in which the evils of conquest have been more than balanced by the benefits which followed them, and others, in which the subsequent benefits have not compensated for the injury inflicted. Leaving Europe out of consideration, we may take the case of the English colonies in New England, and the French colonies in Canada and Louisiana, as illustrative of the first; and, of the second case, the Spanish colonies of the new world. Was the civilization of the Incas and the Aztecs of less value than that brought them by their conquerors? To avoid misunderstanding, therefore, let us say that we are far from approving conquest except as an evil sometimes necessary, and which is justified only by the good it produces.


—II. Let us now pass to the right of conquest as admitted in civilized states. This right has been modified by the refinement of the customs of war, and it has in nothing preserved the absolute and stern character of ancient times. The ruling principle is, that conquest alone does not confer definitive and incontestable rights, and that the loss of possession by the fortune of war does not extinguish the proprietary right of the sovereign against whom the war has gone. The conqueror would therefore be considered as abusing his power and de facto sovereignty which has devolved on him provisionally, if he should dispose, by gift or otherwise, of a conquered or usurped domain. Nevertheless, a distinction is made as to the property of the dispossessed sovereign. If it be a question of his private property, the principle which guards the property of subjects guards his also: but, if the conqueror take possession of the domain of the state, even temporarily, he may dispose of it without being accused of abuse of force, leaving it to the proprietor, in case of his return, to take advantage of the right of postliminium. But the same license does not extend to the authorization of the alienation of private estates or other real property, thus devouring the substance of the conquered country. The alienation of a conquered province in favor of a third party would expose the new possessor to a demand for restoration from the original owner, who might claim his property from all possessors of it without even the strict obligation of paying them anything more for it than the value of their improvements. It is clear, from what precedes, that military occupation is not sufficient to take away proprietary rights. But the privileges of the conqueror are not less important on this account. He exercises the rights of sovereignty; he uses the public revenue; he may perform every act resting on the persistence of the social tie, and of government as well as of private law. If the conquered country is a constitutional state, in which the sovereignty is divided between the prince and the people, the conqueror is not bound to respect this division: he has conquered not only the prince's part of the sovereignty, but also that belonging to the people. The conqueror, therefore, is free to govern according to the constitution established, or according to another régime of his own choice; and this latter takes place most frequently, considering that the character of the new authority is essentially military. The acts of the conqueror or conquering power become final if the treaty of peace which ends the war confirms him in the possession of the conquered country, and confers the proprietorship of it on him. The treaty of peace determines the conditions of this transfer. If, on the contrary, the conqueror does not retain the province occupied, either because he loses it during the war, or because he restores it when peace is restored, the original proprietor, on entering into possession anew, exercises the right of postliminium. In virtue of this right, property taken by the enemy is restored to its former status when returned to its former owner. It is then that the consequences and complications of the provisional condition which weighed on the country during the conquest, become evident. (See POSTLIMINIUM.)


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