Monday, July 15, 2013


AM | @HDI1780

"...resolution, secrecy, and dispatch... — David Hume

When it comes to constitutional principles, one of the most spectacular differences between the American and the French revolutions relates to the nature of the executive power. While most American writers favored a strong and unitary executive power —especially after the semi-anarchy of 1783-1787—, the vast majority of French writers called for a subordinated and plural executive. To the extent that its authors embraced the "English" view as described by Jean-Louis De Lolme, Histoire des deux Indes is something of an exception. In May 1791, Raynal himself, at the age of 78, courageously defended this position in Assemblée nationale, to the dismay of ... Maximilien Robespierre.

* * *

After spending an entire hour with Google Books' search functions and the words "secrecy, secresy, dispatch, despatch, célérité, secret", I have come to the (preliminary) conclusion that Histoire des deux Indes is indeed a key source of ... American constitutionalism! (I have already mentioned the striking similarities between Diderot and Madison: see). Ever since the constitutional debates of 1787-1788, the phrase secrecy and dispatch has played a major role in shaping the debates about the nature of the executive power. The phrase shows up in translations of Polybius, and was widely used by eigthteenth-century historians (*).

But it's HDI 1780 (xix.2, paragraph 82, p. 78) that provides the clearest modern definition of the broad features of a strong, unitary executive:

Toutes les histoires attestent que par-tout où le pouvoir exécutif a été partagé, des jalousies, des haînes interminables ont agité les esprits, & qu’une lutte sanglante a toujours abouti à la ruine des loix, à l’établissement du plus fort. Cette considération détermina les Anglois à conférer au roi seul cette espèce de puissance, qui n’est rien lorsqu’elle est divisée; parce qu’il n’y a plus alors, ni cet accord, ni ce secret, ni cette célérité, qui peuvent seuls lui donner de l’énergie.

American constitutionalism:

Alexander Hamilton. "That unity is conducive to energy will not be disputed. Decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch will generally characterise the proceedings of one man, in a much more eminent degree, than the proceedings of any greater number; and in proportion as the number is increased, these qualities will be diminished." (Federalist No. 70, 1788). See also footnote 6 here: "...with all possible secrecy and dispatch".

. John Jay. "...perfect secrecy and immediate despatch are sometimes requisite [....] we heretofore suffered from the want of secrecy and despatch [...] those matters which in negotiations usually require the most secrecy and the most despatch". (Federalist No. 64, 1788).

. George Mason. Altough opposed to a one-man executive, Mason acknowledged that executive unity furthered "the Secrecy, the Dispatch, the Vigour and the Energy" of the government" [see].

. James Wilson. "The advantages of monarchy are strength, dispatch, secrecy, unity of counsel [...] Secrecy may be as equally necessary as dispatch. But can either secrecy or dispatch be expected, when, to every enterprise, mutual communication, mutual consultation are indispensably necessary?" See his "Speech in the Pennsylvania Convention", 24 November 1787 [see].

. George Washington. "I hope the business will be essayed in a full Convention—After which, if more powers, and more decision is not found in the existing form—If it still wants energy and that secresy and dispatch (either from the non-attendance, or the local views of its members) which is characteristick of good Government". George Washington to James Madison, 31 March 1787 [see].

. James Iredell. "One of the great advantages attending a single Executive power is, the degree of secrecy and dispatch with which, on critical occasions, such a power can act [...] From the nature of the thing, the command of armies ought to be delegated to one person only. The secrecy, despatch, and decision, which are necessary in military operations, can only be expected from one person", 1787 [see]

British writers:

. Richard Price. "Liberty, though the most essential requisite in government, is not the only one; wisdom, union, dispatch, secrecy, and vigour are likewise requisite; and that is the best form of government which best unites all these qualities [...] One of the best plans of this kind has been, with much ability, described by Mr. De Lolme, in his account of the Constitution of England" [see].

. Adam Ferguson. "Occasions on which the executive must be exerted, are either continual or casual; and in case of danger from abroad, require secrecy and dispatch [...] The resolutions of the executive require more secrecy and dispatch that can be had in any numerous or popular assemblies", Institutes of Moral Philosophy, 1786, pp. 202-203. 

. Adam Ferguson. "Of the functions of executive power, some are in continual exertion; others, wether casual or periodical, are only occasional. Some require great secrecy and dispatch; other admit of being publicly known, and may be the better directed for having been publicly discussed", Principles of Moral and Political Science, Vol. II. London: A. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1792, p. 485.

(*) "...par le secret & la célérité d'une marche inopinée & bien concertée", Histoire de Polybe. Amsterdam: 1751, p. 124 [see]; "...and Polybius, the historian, who was at Rome, was one of those who pressed him with the utmost warmth to put it in execution with secrecy and dispatch", The Antient History, Vol. VII. London: 1806, p. 341; "Mahomet étoit pénétré de cette maxime, que le secret et la célérité sont deux grands moyens pour réussir dans les grandes entreprises, et surtout dans celles de la guerre", Histoire du Bas-Empire. Paris: 1768. And much more to come...

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