Chapter 4

The Rights of Ambassadors

by Adam Smith Icon

When nations came to have a lot of business one with another, it became necessary to send messengers between them. They were the first ambassadors.

Anciently, there was little commerce between nations and ambassadors were only sent on particular occasions.

  • They were what we now call ‘ambassadors extraordinary’.
  • They returned home after their business was transacted.
  • There were no resident ambassadors in Rome or Greece.
  • Their duty was just to conclude peace, make alliances, etc.

Resident ambassadors were first employed in the beginning of the 17th century, by Ferdinand, King of Spain. Even the word ‘ambassador’ comes from the Spanish verb, ambassare, to send.

From the earliest times, the Pope had residents or legates in all European courts. He had business in all the European countries and collected revenue from them. Those countries were continually attempting to infringe his right. He had a person constantly residing at their courts to preserve his privileges. The Pope derived several advantages from this custom.

When commerce was introduced into Europe, the privileges regarding the duties payable on imports from every country were settled. This led to constant claims from the merchants of one country on the merchants of another country. They themselves were strangers in those countries and would be very readily be injured. It became necessary to have one of their countrymen constantly residing at the foreign courts to protect the rights of the Pope’s fellow-subjects.

Anciently, there was little intercourse with different nations and there was no need for resident ambassadors. But now, there is something to adjust between dealers almost everyday. Some person of weight and authority should be there and should have access to the court, to prevent any quarrel.

Ferdinand of Spain established this practice. It initially gave great jealousy to the neighbouring nations to keep ambassadors residing at their courts.

  • He pretended to have no right to do this.
  • He found means of keeping his ambassador there, by=
    • sending an ambassador on a certain occasion, and
    • starting different questions.

This practice was soon copied and became the universal custom of the European princes. It was thought a great affront not to send one. Grotius’ was against resident ambassadors because he thought them as resident spies.

But if he lived today, he would have found that extensive commerce makes it impossible to preserve peace in a month, unless grievances are redressed by a man of authority, who:

  • knows the country’s customs and
  • can explain what injuries are really done.

The custom of sending ambassadors preserves peace. By giving intelligence, it prevents one country from being invaded by another without notice. When any kind of dispute happens and the ambassador is recalled, you can have intelligence by your communication with other courts. Your ambassador there will be informed, because ambassadors generally are acquainted with all the business in Europe. One country might attain some kind of preeminence by its ambassador’s influence and assiduity. For a long time, no attention was given to ambassadors.

The balance of power has been recently so much talked of. It was never heard of before as very sovereign had already much to do within his own dominions and has little attention on foreign powers. But ever since the beginning of the 16th century, the European nations were divided into two great alliances=

  1. On the one hand were England, Holland, Hungary, Moscow etc.
  2. On the other, were France, Spain, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, etc.

Sometimes, one nation switched sides. For example, Prussia is currently allied with England, and Hungary on the other side. This kind of system was established around the 15th century among the great families in Italy. The resident ambassadors of these nations=

  • hinder any one country from domineering over another by sea or land, and
  • are formed into a kind of council similar to that of the Amphictyons in ancient Greece.

They can advise and consult on matters, but not to decide any. By combining, they can threaten any one country which=

  • pretends to superiority, or
  • makes an unreasonable demand.

Post offices are important in getting intelligence because communication is open through all these countries, both in peace and war. It makes commerce easy and gives notice of every movement. An ambassador’s person must:

  • be sacred, and
  • not subject to any of the courts of justice in the country where he resides.

If he contract debts or does any injury, a complaint must be made to his country. When the Dutch arrested the Russian ambassador in 1718, it was complained of as a violation of the laws of nations. The ambassador buys imports duty-free since he represents his sovereign which would be exempted from taxes. When an ambassador tries to disturb the peace by entering into conspiracies, he may be imprisoned. His house is considered as an asylum for offenders=

  • by way of compliment, and
  • to keep up an ambassador’s dignity.

However, he must=

  • be cautious of this privilege, and
  • extend his authority only to the protection of debtors and small delinquents

Because the right will be broken through if he harbours those guilty of capital crimes. The ambassador’s servants are also entitled to some considerable privileges. If they have contracted debts, they may be arrested. But this is never done voluntarily. All the words that signify those persons employed by one court at another are derived from the Spanish language.

The Spanish court was then the most ceremonious in the world.

  • Spanish dress was everywhere.
  • Ambassadors were obliged to keep up much ceremony and were hindered in doing their business.

A man that has to negotiate important matters could not spend much time in the endless ceremony of paying and returning visits. Envoys were therefore sent, to:

  • whom less ceremony was due, and
  • those that could be addressed on any occasion.

Their dignity advanced and incapacitated them to transact business.

  • They were called “resident ambassadors ordinary”.
  • They were inferior to the ambassadors extraordinary.
  • Below this rank is the minister.

He resides in the country on account of his own business. He can transact any little business of his country. A consul is a particular magistrate who is a judge of all matters relating to the merchants of his own country.

He takes care to do them justice in those places where it may not be very accurately administered. These are the names and offices of the persons employed in the nation’s foreign affairs created by the introduction of commerce.

It has now become absolutely necessary. Thus we have considered both the laws of nature and the laws of nations.

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