Friday, July 19, 2013


AM | @HDI1780

"... secresy and dispatch... — George Washington

Time to drastically downgrade my claims about the precedence of Histoire des deux Indes as the source of the phrase secrecy and dispatch, widely used in America in the context of the executive power. I had forgotten to include John Adams's wonderful pamphlet "Thoughts on Government" (April 1776): "A representative assembly, although extremely well qualified, and absolutely necessary, as a branch of the legislative, is unfit to exercise the executive power, for want of two essential properties, secrecy and despatch."

Sorry about that! (Still, it's two steps forward, one step back).

* * *

Yet I remain confident about another claim: it was Diderot who first used these magic words in the context of the executive power [see]. Adams, a keen reader of Polybius, Encyclopédie and De Lolme, might have taken them from the English translation of The Constitution of England, and transmitted the idea back to Raynal in 1779. If this was indeed the case, then Raynal (and not Diderot) is the likely author of the changes introduced in the 1780 edition of HDI with respect to the government of England. (These passages do not feature in Laurent Versini's edition of Œuvres, Tome III).

Confusing? Sure. But the confusion only underlines the validity of another of my claims: ideas and rhetorical expressions circulated widely and ...very quickly! Anyway, here are more examples of the phrase secrecy and dispatch:

. Burke. "A detachment was sent to destroy a Magazine which the Americans were forming at a Village they call Concord. It proceeded with secrecy and dispatch." To Charles O'Hara, circa May 1775 [see].

. Raynal. "The expeditions are by these means carried on with greater secrecy and dispatch". This is interesting, because it comes from the 1776 translation of HDI published by J. Justamond in Dublin. This may be the edition so eagerly read by George Washington, and recommended to him by La Fayette. Note that the corresponding passage, by Alexandre Deleyre, does not refer to secret et célérité, but to "plus secretes & plus promptes" [see]. A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans on the Continent of North America, Vol. 4. Dublin: 1776, p. 464 [see].

. Raynal. "Il résulte d'un ordre de choses si compliqué que les résolutions qui exigeroient le plus de secret & de célérité, sont nécessairement lentes & publiques" (xix.2, p. 91). This is the second instance in HDI 1780 where the words are explicitely used in the context of the executive power — in the Netherlands in this case.

. Grimm. "...le salut d'une puissance dépend souvent de la célérité de ses mesures ... l'éxécution des projets ... il lui faut du secret" (1757) [see]. See also Allan Ramsay's letter about Beccaria, translated by Diderot in 1766: "... la force et la célérité de la puissance éxécutrice" (p. 549).


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