American & French Revolutions – A Study in Contrast
Posted by Orrin Woodward on March 28, 2012
America’s Revolution, cemented with the 1787 Constitution, differed radically from the 1789 French Revolution in its political philosophies. Two 16th-century political writers stamped their ideas upon the respective revolutions. On one side, Johanne Althusius’s community-centered associations led the intellectual charge in America; while on the other side, Jean Bodin’s absolute sovereignty led the intellectual tumult in France. In fact, I believe, without exaggeration, that Johannes Althusius and Jean Bodin are the intellectual fathers of the American and French Revolutions respectively, even though many of the revolutionary leaders had not studied them. For the American Revolution was founded upon the divided sovereignty federalist principles first articulated by Althusius, while the French Revolution was based upon the absolute sovereignty principles of the Rousseau’s “General Will” that tracks its intellectual lineage back to Jean Bodin. In other words, two revolutions only two years apart are separated by a philosophical chasm that continues to widen to this day. The first, Federalism (divided sovereignty), binds the rulers, ensuring the people’s freedoms; while the second, Statism (undivided sovereignty), frees the rulers, ensuring the people’s bondage. Althusius and Bodin’s contrasting views waged an intellectual war through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries; however, at the turn of the 20th century, the war became a rout as Bodin’s undivided sovereignty, in either its democratic or dictatorial scheme, reigned supreme.
The twentieth century birthed the absolute rulers of Bodin’s and Rousseau’s dreams, with the will of the sovereign becoming the law of the land. The rule of law was subdued by the will of the dictator or democratic majority. In essence, sovereignty passed from the community to the rulers who placed themselves above the community. Alain de Benoist, a historical scholar elaborates:
At the same time, the monarch found himself “divorced from the people.” For Bodin, the sovereign is no longer part of the people. He is totally separate and rules society as God rules the cosmos. This division is not an existential condition, required by power, but an essential quality, which is part and parcel of the right to govern: the very essence of power resides in the sovereign’s persona. As Jacques Maritain put it: his independence and his power are not only supreme with respect to any other part of the political, as one among others; they are absolutely supreme, as if above all in question. Whereas, in medieval times, law was thought to stem from the very core of society, expressing the juridical reality of social roots in accord with a historical and ontological plan, for Bodin, law originates exclusively from the state. The latter becomes a monad, which finds within itself the reason for its existence, its liberty, and its ability to organize the social body. The state is a particular reality, which knows only a particular order, valid for all the inhabitants of a particular territory. Instead of issuing from the social order, the state constitutes it. It is an exclusive representation of the totality of the common life of a centralized and reified state, which is identified with the prince’s persona: as Louis XIV would say, the French nation resides “entirely in the persona of the king.”
As a “total” concept, Bodin’s sovereignty not only provided the foundation for absolute monarchy: its essential traits were rediscovered in Jacobin nationalism, and modernity could not make it less abstract or impersonal. With Jacobinism, sovereignty was severed from natural law, and no longer was embodied in the king. Rather, it was transferred to the nation, i.e., a new embodiment of the “state persona.” According to the 1791 constitution: “Since the nation exists, it is naturally sovereign.” It is the same unlimited sovereignty, conferring the same despotic right to the power holders. As Tocqueville put it, the French Revolution created a multitude of secondary entities, but did not develop the main things that existed before it.” In this respect, the way the modern nation-state has preserved Bodin’s definition of sovereignty, while merely changing its bearer, is particularly revealing. As François Alexandrou notes: “Far from opposing the 1789 revolutionaries, the administrative centralization and standardization needed to create a large unitary state with higher power expressed their egalitarian ambitions and proved to be the state’s theoretical expression.” Antoine Winckler adds: “The stage was set for centuries to come: monopoly of law, transparency of the social space to political power, total centralization of the exercise of power. . . . The sovereign sun suffers neither from local power, nor from sharing law with neighboring territorial regimes, nor from autonomous and spontaneous social organizations; and whether this sun becomes an absolute monarchy or a democratic republic changes nothing of this monistic concept of sovereignty and its central place in political theory.” One absolutism succeeded another.
Later this week, we will evaluate Althusius’s thoughts on divided sovereignty and why they are so important for freedom in the West. As a preview, can you guess which philosophy ended with Napoleon and which led to over one hundred years of freedom and prosperity? Finally, we will evaluate why Bodin’s views defeated Althusius’s in the West’s war of ideas and what we can do to reverse the outcome.