Book Review of Declaring War in Early Modern Europe

Frederic J. Baumgartner. Declaring War in Early Modern Europe. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. ISBN 978-0-230-11412-8. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. vii, 206. $80.00.

Is it necessary for one state to formally declare war against another state?  This is one of the questions that Dr Frederic J. Baumgartner, Professor of History at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, examines in this interesting study.  His purpose is to understand the historical background concerning the theory and practice in the declaration of wars in Early Modern Europe, and its influence on the development and practice of war-making powers in the United States.  The author is well-known for his studies Change and Continuity in the French Episcopate: The Bishops and the Wars of Religion, 1547-1610 (1986),  Henry II: King of France, 1547-1559 (1988), From Spear to Flintlock: A History of War in Europe and the Middle East to the French Revolution (1991),  Louis XII (1994), France in the Sixteenth Century (1995), and Behind Locked Doors: A History of the Papal Elections (2003).

To set up his discussion, Baumgartner begins by examining Greek, Roman, and medieval precedents concerning the declaration of war in Early Modern Europe.  The author discusses the concept of the just war, who could declare war, as well as how wars were declared.  He shows the evolution of the practice that led to the employment of heralds being the standard procedure of declaring war in western Europe during the fifteenth century (p.29).

Baumgartner devotes two chapters to the practice and theory of declaring war in the sixteenth century.  The author sees the sixteenth century as the key period of transformation in both the practice and theory of the act of declaring war.  He believes that the question of who had the authority to declare war was mostly settled.  The use of resident ambassadors had largely replaced the use of heralds in the declaration of war.  A written declaration of war was handed over by the resident ambassador to the enemy court.  As for theory, humanists wrote about and advocated the return of Roman practices dealing with just wars and the declaration of war.  Baumgartner shows in his discussion of theory that “there was a serious disconnect between what the humanists wrote and what the rulers did” (p.55).

The ideas and procedures involving the declaration of war were further refined during the seventeenth century.  Writers began to pay closer attention to the actual practices of the rulers of the age.  Baumgartner, himself, examines exactly how (if at all) wars — from the conflicts of the Thirty Years War to the Wars of Louis XIV — were declared during this century.  The author argues that it was agreed that only true sovereigns could declare war but there was no agreement on what format was needed for a declaration of war during this period.

In the eighteenth century, theorists began to regulate a new set of rules — the so-called law of nations — that outlined a more civilized way of declaring and conducting war.  However, as the author points out, rulers “were less convinced of its necessity, and a broadening gap developed during the century between what theory dictated and what monarchs actually did” (p.115).  The century began with a large number of formal declarations of war in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and the Great Northern War (1700-1721).  But, Frederick II of Prussia began of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) without a formal declaration of war.  The French and Indian War (1754-1763) broke out without a declaration of war between Britain and France.  Even so, the American War of Independence (1775-1783) saw formal declarations of war between Britain and France in 1778.

In his chapter on the Age of Revolutions, Baumgartner depicts historical and contemporary practices and theory that influenced the making of the United States’ constitution and the granting of power for formal declarations of war to the United States Congress in the late 1780s.  The writers of the constitution sought to limit the war-making power of the President.  The author also discusses how the National Assembly of France ordered King Louis XVI to formally declare war against Austria, beginning the War of the First Coalition (1792-1797).  Another example of the formal declaration of war was the United States Congress declaring war against Britain in the War of 1812 (1812-1815).  The author stresses that the Declaration of 1812 established the formal procedure for the United States’ declarations of war against Mexico in 1846, Spain in 1898, Germany in 1917, as well as Japan, Germany, and Italy in 1941.

Baumgartner provides a valuable overview of the theory and practice of declaring war, especially in western Europe, during the Early Modern era.  Theory and practice did not always coincide.  This valuable study contributes to the increasing number of studies that explore diplomatic issues in Early Modern and Modern Europe.  Other recent studies include M.S. Anderson, The Rise of Modern Diplomacy, 1450-1919 (1993), Keith Hamilton and Richard Langhorne, The Practice of Diplomacy: Its Evolution, Theory, and Administration (1995), Linda S. Frey and Marsha L. Frey, The History of Diplomatic Immunity (1999), and Jeremy Black, A History of Diplomacy (2010).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota


About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Diplomacy, Europe in the 16th Century (1494-1598), Europe in the 17th Century (1598-1715), Europe in the 18th Century (1713-1789), International Theory and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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