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The Works of John Selden

The First Definitive Work on the Dominion of the Sea

John Selden. Mare clausum: seu de dominio maris, libri duo. London: excudebat Will. Stanesbeius, pro Richardo Meighen, 1635. First Edition.

Evill Speaking: “Speake not ill of A great enemy; but rather give him good words, that he may use you the better, if you happen to fall into his hands.” Table-Talk.

Mare clausum was probably the most widely read of all Selden’s treatises. The work considered the question of dominion of the seas. The title literally translated from Latin Title Page Mare calusum, 1635means “enclosed sea,” in pointed opposition to the work Mare liberum, or “free sea,” published by Hugo Grotius in 1609. While Grotius, a prominent Dutch legal scholar, argued that the sea was openly navigable by all countries for trade, Selden countered that the sea was as subject to a country’s private dominion as land. Ultimately, the inexorable growth of global trade favored the cause of Grotius. Nonetheless, Mare clausum provided the basis of England’s official position on the seas for over 100 years. Although in time Selden's argument failed, his participation in the debate helped launch the field of modern international law. Mare clausum has a secure place in the canon of classic legal texts. Thomas Jefferson owned two copies, which, when he sold his book collection, formed part of the cornerstone of the fledgling Library of Congress. Shown below is a post-Restoration edition of the same work in English. The publication of Mare clausum was itself dramatic. Selden first drafted a version in 1618, but James I withdrew permission to publish it for fear of antagonizing the king of Denmark. Selden eventually published an updated draft in 1635, perhaps as a peace offering to Charles I. The book’s preface contains the dedication Pontus quousque serviet illi, “The sea will also submit to him,” a sentiment that also alludes obliquely to Selden’s own acquiescence. With this go-round, Selden’s views definitely appealed to Charles I—the king ordered a copy to be kept in the Council chest, another in the Court of Exchequer, and a third in the Court of Admiralty. Title page mare clausum in English

The history of the printing of Mare clausum paralells the era’s political reversals. Selden chose to write in Latin for its initial publication in 1635, the learned language of the time. However, with the rise of the Commonwealth and its more populist sentiment, an English translation was commissioned. The translator also replaced the dedication to Charles I with an epistle to the commonwealth. When Charles II was restored to the monarchy, a new printing in 1663 restored the original preface. For those owning the original translation, the Restoration made for an awkward dilemma. This was exactly the situation facing Samuel Pepys, the now famous diarist and then aspiring clerk in the Admiralty, which he rectified by installing the new title page for his copy. As he recounts in his entry for Friday, April 17, 1663: walked “to Paul’s Church Yard, to cause the title of my English Mare clausum to be changed, and the new title, dedicated to the King, to be put to it, because I am ashamed to have the other seen dedicated to the Commonwealth.”

Entry in Pepys Diary.

Mare clausum: the Right and Dominion of the Sea in Two Books, Written at First in Latin by That Late Famous and Learned Antiquary John Selden, Esquire; formerly translated into English, and now perfected and restored by J.H. Gent. London: Printed for Andrew Kembe and Edward Thomas, 1663.

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