Sunday, September 21, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"Le grand moment de l'idée" — Marcel Gauchet

I am an avowed fan of political checks and balances and the related notions of mixed government, balanced government and the separation of powers. In 1787, just as the political temperature was rising to dangerous levels in North America, the Netherlands and France, John Adams famously described the English constitution as...

...the most stupendious fabric of human invention. And that the Americans ought to be applauded instead of censured, for imitating it as far as they have done. Not the formation of languages, not the whole art of navigation and ship-building does more honour to the human understanding than this system of government [1].

In La Révolution des pouvoirs, Marcel Gauchet devotes an entire chapter to the stunning comeback of the idea of political équilibre after Thermidor [2]. But students of the period are handicapped by the lack of digitized material. For example, Google Books does not have a digitized version of the book published in the spring of 1795 by Pierre-Bernard Lamare (or La Mare) under the imposing title L'Équipondérateur, ou une seule manière d'organiser un gouvernement libre (Paris: An III). I can't find it in Gallica either. Until we get that version, many of us will have to rely on Mr. Gauchet's extremely useful remarks and quotes.

* * *

There is some debate about the role of Lamare as the translator of Adams's Defence, published by Buisson in 1792 in two volumes as Défense des constitutions américaines ou De la nécessité d'une balance dans les pouvoirs d'un gouvernement libre (1, 2). According to Dictionnaire historique, critique et bibliographique (1810), L'Équipondérateur "fut envoyé dans tous les départements par ordre du gouvernement" [see]. The book contains a sharp critique of the French constitutions of 1791 and 1793:

Aucun de ces plans ne représente une sage combinaison des principaux pouvoirs de gouvernement ; je n'y vois aucune de ces balances, limitations ou oppositions connues et admirées dans d'autres constitutions et dont l'effet est de préserver une nation de toutes dispositions arbitraires de la part de ceux qui la gouvernent, de toute violation de ses droits tant individuels que politiques et de lui assurer, quoi qu'il puisse arriver, qu'il ne sera fait pour elle que des lois justes et que ces lois seront exécutées impartialement. En un mot, aucune de ces constitutions n'est équilibrée, et voilà pourquoi je les blâme toutes.

In his discussion of the relevance or irrelevance of mixed government in the age of revolutions, Mr. Gauchet quotes Gordon Wood's critique of John Adams. That critique was effectively answered by C. Bradley Thompson in his book John Adams & the Spirit of Liberty (University Press of Kansas, 1998). But here's the point I want to make about L'Équipondérateur. Lamare understood the importance of a single executive (l'unité du magistrat); but because public opinion was so strongly opposed to this idea, he settled for an executive made up of two consuls, "titre éclatant, imposant et républicain."

Even writers who were courageous enough to defend the notion of political balance, like Pierre-Bernard Lamare, bumped against the wall of a strong and unified executive power. That would prove to be the fatal weakness of the Constitution of 1795. Two conclusions come to mind. On the one hand, we need to know more about Lamare and his fellow supporters of équilibre, a group that has been excluded from the canons of historical scholarship. On the other hand, we would do well to reconsider the meaning of Raynal's intervention at Assemblée Nationale in May 1791; far from representing a despicable surrender of the principles defended by philosophes (the consensus view), it was a noble and courageous affirmation of ... good government.

[1] John Adams. A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States, Vol. 1, letter xx: "England".

[2] Marcel Gauchet. La Révolution des pouvoirs. La souveraineté, le peuple et la représentation 1789-1799. Paris: Gallimard, 1995.

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