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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PARLEY. Two hostile armies often have need, even in the very midst of hostilities, of holding some correspondence with each other; for example, concerning the burial of the dead or the exchange of prisoners, or to propose a capitulation, to arrange for a suspension of arms, etc. This correspondence is effected by means of persons charged with the parley. In antiquity, at least in Greece and Rome, as well as in the middle ages, the persons sent to conduct the parley were always heralds, that is to say, men who held that office, not only for a special mission, but, in a way, permanently. Heralds fill a large place in Homer's poems, and many passages bear witness to the profound respect which was paid them in those remote times. For example, Talthybius and Eurybates, sent by Agamemnon to demand Briseis from Achilles, stopped overcome with terror at the door of the hero's tent; but the latter saluted them with these words: "Welcome, sacred heralds, ministers of gods and of men, you are innocent of the insult which I receive." For a long time the custom has been simply to send as parlementaires, officers accompanied by a drummer or a fifer, bearing a white flag.


—The inviolability of the parlementaire (person of truce), which appears to have been founded in antiquity upon the sacred and almost priestly character of the herald, rests to day upon international law. It is one of the oldest, most elementary and most essential regulations of this law. "Nomen legati," says Cicero, "ejusmodi esse debet, quod non modo inter speiorum jura, sed etiam inter hostium tela incolume versetur." Whoever attacks this principle, not only injures his adversary of the moment, but, to use Vattel's expression, "he injures the common security and safety of nations; he renders himself guilty of an atrocious crime against all peoples." It would not do to allow any departure from this sacred rule, even in civil war and toward the envoy of a party which is considered, rightly or wrongly, as rebellious; but there is always the right to refuse to admit a parlementaire, or person of truce, or to make his admission subject to such conditions as may seem proper; for example, that he shall be introduced into the lines with his eyes bandaged. Once admitted, the parlementaire should be protected, not only against all bad treatment, but against all insult.*19 The parlementaire is not obliged spontaneously to close his eyes and ears during the course of his mission, and he has a perfect right to observe what he is allowed to see, sometimes with design, and to let his side take advantage of his observations. But if he should abuse his character to act as a spy and to concoct plots, he would expose himself to be ignominiously expelled; he might even, in certain cases, be deprived of his immunities, be detained as a prisoner, or even be put to death. The rigor of the law can even go to this extremity; but it is almost always not only more humane, but even more politic, not to have recourse to it, and to respect the character of the parlementaire, even in those who have abused it.


Notes for this chapter

The institution of parley is useful to the strong as well as to the weak; not to respect it is not only a crime, but also, for each, a very grave fault against his own interest. It sometimes happens in war that a parlementaire is killed; we believe this is always by mistake. The flag has not, perhaps, been seen, or, if the envoy presents himself during a battle, which is generally a very inopportune moment, he may be accidentally wounded.—M. B.


End of Notes

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