Sovereignty, International Law, and the French Revolution

Edward James Kolla. Cambridge University Press, October 2017. Available via Cambridge University Press and Amazon.

The advent of the principle of popular sovereignty during the French Revolution inspired an unintended but momentous change in international law. Edward James Kolla explains that between 1789 and 1799, the idea that peoples ought to determine their fates in international affairs, just as they were taking power domestically in France, inspired a series of new and interconnected claims to territory. Drawing on case studies from Avignon, Belgium, the Rhineland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy, Kolla traces how French revolutionary diplomats and leaders gradually applied principles derived from new domestic political philosophy and law to the international stage. Instead of obtaining land via dynastic inheritance or conquest in war, the will of the people would now determine the title and status of territory. However, the principle of popular sovereignty also opened up new justifications for aggressive conquest, and this history foreshadowed some of the most controversial questions in international relations today.


“When the right of peoples to self-determination creates an international law immediately to the advantage of the French Revolution and ultimately for our present world, a brilliant paradoxical book explaining how French Revolution was a key experiment for our modernity.”

-Jean-Clément Martin, Université Paris 1 Sorbonne

“Kolla’s bold and thought-provoking study transforms our view of the French Revolution’s importance for international law. Kolla persuasively argues for positive advances, rooted in the doctrine of popularity sovereignty, and for an indirect “ripple” effect which provided an important foundation for the decisive nineteenth-century advance in international law.”
-Professor Hamish Scott, Oxford University

“Kolla makes a major contribution towards the development of modern international law. By combining political narratives with legal analysis he sheds new light on the impact of revolutionary ideas, in particular with relation to popular sovereignty, on international relations and their legal organization.”
-Randall C. H. Lessafer, Tilburg Law School

“In this brilliant and thoughtful study of international law during the French Revolution, Kolla presents a fascinating history of the principle of national self-determination, as it developed over a century before Woodrow Wilson brought this idea to Versailles. Kolla’s book will be of great interest to historians of modern Europe, political theorists, and legal scholars.”
-Dan Edelstein, Stanford University


Joshua Meeks reviewed Kolla’s book for H-Net in February 2018.
Richard Harding reviewed Sovereignty, International Law, and the French Revolution in H-France Review v. 18 (May 2018) no. 116.

About the Author:

Edward J. Kolla is an Associate Professor at Georgetown University Qatar. His areas of expertise are European international relations, political cultural, and intellectual history–and especially the history of international law. Professor Kolla has previously held major fellowships from the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, the Camargo Foundation, and the French government. His first book, Sovereignty, International Law, and the French Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2017) examines the impact and effect of the French Revolution on international law, specifically tracing the emergence of popular sovereignty as a justification for claims to territory. He is currently working on a project that looks at the history of the passport.

You can watch Professor Kolla discuss his book and upcoming project as part of the SLH video series here.

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