Henry Wheaton, 1785-1848, persevered, despite Rhode Island’s disapproval of the War of 1812, to be one of Rhode Island’s most persuasive legal defenders during that time. He stands alongside the foremost naval hero of the War of 1812, Oliver Hazard Perry, and Rhode Island’s most successful privateer, James D’Wolf.
This jurist, diplomat, and expounder of international law graduated from Brown in 1802, studied civil law in France in 1805-06, and practiced law in Providence until 1812, when his legal defense of the policies of Jefferson and Madison prompted Democratic Republicans in New York City to offer him the editorship of the National Advocate, their local party newspaper. Writing forcefully and with learning on the questions of international law growing out of the War of 1812, Wheaton was considered the mouthpiece of the Madison administration during his three-year wartime tenure with the paper. He was rewarded with the post of first U. S. Supreme Court reporter in 1816 and performed that job with ability and with praise, from jurists and lawyers alike, until 1827, when he embarked upon a long and successful diplomatic career. In 1847 Harvard offered him a distinguished lectureship in civil and international law, but he died before he could assume this new position.
Wheaton’s most enduring achievement was his work as an expounder and historian of international law. His classic study Elements of International Law (1836) went through numerous editions and translations. Its excellence has prompted historians to rank Wheaton with Marshall Kent, and Story as major architects of the American legal system.
In addition to his landmark study of international law, Wheaton also translated the Code Napoléon into English and wrote a notable essay on the African slave trade in 1842 after the Amistad incident.