Orrin Woodward LIFE Leadership Team

Winner of the 2011 Independent Association of Business Top Leader Award; Orrin Woodward shares his leadership secrets.

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.

Orrin Woodward

13 Responses to “American & French Revolutions – A Study in Contrast”

  1. james pyka said

    Orrin, I am always amazed with the level of thinking you convey. Proud to follow such an amazing leader.
    James Pyka

  2. Kevin Hamm said


    More great stuff. In regard to the democratic majority and sovereignty, do they not ultimately pass their sovereignty on to a figurehead who actually holds the sovereignty “for the people”? Hitler was elected by the majority, but there came a time when sovereignty became his alone. Historically, is this how democracy always ends? Thanks for a great education.

    Kevin Hamm

    • Kevin, Good question. The reason the Founders hated Democracy so much, to the point that none would call themselves a democrat for nearly a hundred years later, was because democracies easily fall into tyranny. Since wealth can buy votes and majority rules are fateful to protection of property, historically speaking, democracies tend to be more despotic than rule of law monarchies. England was a monarch in the 18th and 19th centuries, but had freedom thanks to the three separate sections of government (parliament, lords, and king). Democracies eventually fall into general will tyranny. thanks, Orrin

      • Ken Hendon said

        Orrin, not that you need back up, but, Haiti is a democracy. Their 23 political parties have led to a tyranny of the semi-majority. Several parties join forces and with under 30% of the vote an individual can be elected since the vote is so split. The results have devastated a beautiful people.
        A republic under Godly inspired law is a beautiful thing. Democracy not so much.

  3. Kirk Birtles said

    Orrin… Thanks for the great history lesson! Divided sovereignty equals checks and balances. Its kind of like ‘small group’ thinking at the National level.

    God bless,


    • Kirk, Well said! Lord Acton, in my opinion the great mind on the subject of freedom, said (my paraphrase) – “Freedom is in the gaps between sovereignty.” In an absolute sovereignty, with no smaller sovereign units, there are no gaps, thus no freedoms are ensure. It’s the conflict between sovereignties that ensure the citizens freedoms.

      A cursory review of English freedoms from the Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, and the Bill of Rights all came to fruition because of battles between the Lords, Parliament, and Monarch. In other words, three sovereign groups led to increase freedoms for people. One sovereign group leads to the sovereigns will and the people at the whim of the sovereign’s character. Not a solid ground for a people’s freedoms. thanks, Orrin

  4. Larry Auman said

    Thanks for the great lesson Orrin. It seams as though the more I learn from history, the more I realize how little I truly understand. This is very humbling, and I look forward to your next blog covering Althusius’s thoughts. I too am proud to be part of such a learning organization. Thanks again for stretching my understanding.
    Regards, Larry Auman

  5. Ken Hendon said

    “The difference between God and man is that God doesn’t spend time thinking He is man.”
    Washington and “the colonials” wasted no time thinking that they were “God” and humbly sought God’s help, knowing that without Him their cause was not only helpless, but of no real value.
    Your reading shows us the differing roads of these revolutions and points us toward the long term consequences of these philosiphies.
    We look forward to the next history lesson and its application to current events.
    Thanks, Ken

  6. Thanks so much for sharing with Mr. Woodward…

    The truth most not only be known but constantly fight for. It is interesting to note that, in France back, in the 16th century the Huguenots (French Calvinists) formulated pre-Lockean idea of natural law and popular sovereignty. Prominent French Calvinist such as Philippe Du Plessis Mornay (1549 – 1623) , Francois Hotman ( 1524 – 1590) are mentioned by  Murray N. Rothbard  in his monumental work An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (Volume I ,Ch.5.9).  As quoted below the 16th century French Calvinist understood the need for constant vigilance of the people(by the mean of divided sovereignty)  against the permanent and inevitable encroachment of established power  on  their natural and God given rights.
    “…Hotman warned that a people’s transference of their right to rule to the king can in no way be permanent or irrevocable. On the contrary, the people and their representative bodies have the right of continual surveillance of the king, as well as of taking away his power at any time.”
    “…As usual Philippe Du Plessis Mornay summed up the position with trenchant clarity. ‘No one’, he observed, ‘is a king by nature’, and, furthermore, and with particular point, ‘a king cannot rule without a people, while a people can rule itself without a king’. Hence, it is evident that the people must have preceded the existence of kings or positive laws, and then later submitted themselves to their dominion. Hence, man’s natural condition must be liberty, and we must possess freedom as a natural right, a right that can never be justifiably removed.”

    Can not wait for the next post….

    God bless

    Olivier Jean-Baptiste

  7. I have learned more about history just in your last six posts than I ever did in all my years of conveyor belt education, Thank you for your continued studies and your passion to pay it forward to all of us. Keep ’em coming! I look forward to my next lesson 🙂

  8. André DeGrâce said

    It’s interesting to compare governmental systems in different countries, and especially between the French unitary system and the American Federation (at foundation), whom, as you said, were founded within a couple years of each other.

    I’m wondering how they both got to be different. I completely agree with you and Althusius, that a federal state is the best between both. Did France adopt a unitary system because of a tradition of strong monarchy? Did the founding of America reflect the more disparate colonies (a sort of identity that belonged to different colonies), yet were able to find common ground for the betterment of all (Consent) – most likely protection from foreign sovereigns?

    Orrin, I’d also like to hear your thoughts on the concept of Confederation, which is similar to a federation, but having even less decision making power concentrated to the central government. I believe Switzerland is the most thought of example. Being from Canada, many believe we have a Confederation, but in its true form it is a federation (How Canadians Govern Themselves, Eugene A. Forsey).

  9. Andre, You are a true student. Confederations like Switzerland’s have proved themselves over the test of time. I will explain further on Statism and Federalism on further post and why English veered from the European model. thanks, Orrin

  10. rumspeakeasy said

    Great! Thanks for the reply Orrin. I appreciate your kind words. It’s thanks to your leadership that many of us find interest in these freedom concepts.

    I can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts because they cause great questioning on my part… I belive that’s the goal!

    Thanks again!

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