Wednesday, January 8, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"Checks and Ballances are our only Salvation" — John Adams

One of the key legacies of the Enlightenment is, without a doubt, the notion of political checks and balances. David Wootton has written a remarkable piece on the origins and evolution of that incredibly influential idea (*). Time permitting, I will devote more posts to authors who wrote about "checks and controuls", "contre-forces", "contrepoids" and similar expressions. Diderot's article CONTRE-POIDS in Volume 4 of Encyclopédie only deals with the mechanical acception of the term, completely omitting any reference to politics.

Here's the general definition: "CONTRE-POIDS, s. m. se dit en général de toute force qui sert à diminuer l’effort d’une force contraire. Le contre-poids a lieu dans une infinité de machines différentes ; tantôt il est égal au moment qui lui est opposé, tantôt il est plus grand ou plus petit." Thus we have short entries on Contre-poids (les) du métier des Rubanniers, Contre-poids (le), chez l’Epinglier, Contre-poids (le) des métiers des étoffes de soie; Contre-poids (le) des Balanciers est Contre-poids; Contre-poids (le) des danseurs de corde; Contre-poids (le) des machines d’opéra, and Contre-poids, (Manege.)

* * *

When did French authors (apart from Montesquieu) start to systematically apply that notion to the realm of internal politics? There is no easy answer to that question. I suspect that Maupeou's reforms in 1770-1771, which so deeply affected Diderot, played an important role in that regard. But Mably had already sparred in 1768 with Mercier de la Rivière about the importance of "contre-forces" in a fascinating duel, to which I shall come back. Raynal took note of the debates and incorporated the expression in the 1780 edition of Histoire des deux Indes. On the other side of the pond, James Madison would soon pay a lot of attention to these writers [see].

In the meantime, the Correspondance littéraire made an effort to sort out more precisely the meaning of "contre-poids" (1775):

Dans un état purement despotique, l'autorité souveraine n'a point d'autre contre-poids que la force. Dans un état républicain, elle le trouve dans les lois mêmes dont elle tient sa puissance. Dans une monarchie comme la France, ce contre-poids n'existe réellement que dans l'opinion et dans la confiance particulière que peuvent mériter les tribunaux qui en ont été quelque fois les interprètes.

This reference to "les tribunaux" seems to place a heavy burden on the judiciary as the key contre-poids, a point that Diderot made in his fantastic letter to Princess Dashkoff [see]. Be that as it may, it is interesting to note that in the first volume of Économie politique et diplomatique, edited by Démeunier for the Encyclopédie Méthodique (1784), the notion of contrepoids is explicitely applied to politics (pp. 649-651). The article, penned by Guillaume Grivel, is thouroughly disappointing. Only the general definition has withstood the test of time:

CONTREPOIDS. Dans le langage de la philosophie moderne, qui a voulu raisonner le gouvernement, on a appelé contrepoids politiques les diverses barrières que les circonstances & la nécessité posèrent en un certain temps & en certains lieux contre le pouvoir arbitraire [see].

(*) David Wootton: "Liberty, Metaphor, and Mechanism: “Checks and Balances” and the Origins of Modern Constitutionalism", in David Womersely (ed.) Liberty and American Experience in the Eighteenth Century. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006. See also Gary Wills. Explaining America: The Federalist. London: The Athlone Press, 1981, especially Part III.

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