Saturday, July 13, 2013


AM | @HDI1780

"L'esprit de philosophie qui distingue ce siècle" — De Lolme

More ruminations on the dramatic changes introduced in the 1780 edition of Histoire des deux Indes with respect to the notion of mixed government and the English constitution. In the 1774 edition, in a separate volume originally published as Tableau de l'Europe, Alexandre Deleyre makes an oblique reference to David Hume: "Un écrivain philosophe & politique, qui connoît la constitution de son pays, dit que la corruption est nécessaire, pour arrêter la pente du Gouvernement vers la démocratie ; & que le Peuple deviendroit trop puissant, si le Roi n'achetoit les Communes" (p. 23).

This is the well-known Humean idea of corruption as a counterpoise to the prerogatives of Parliament ("Of the independency of Parliament", 1741). Hume's influence is also felt in the choice of words: "L'ouvrage [...] du raisonnement & de l'expérience" (p. 23). But look at what happens in 1780. Gone are the implicit references to David Hume; his place has been taken by the (undeservedly) forgotten Swiss writer —and Rousseau's intellectual foe— Jean-Louis De Lolme [see] (*). Raynal introduced these changes with a sense of urgency. Indeed, De Lolme states that "chacun semble aujourd'hui tourner les yeux" towards the English Constitution.

* * * 

I can think of three main reasons to explain the choice of La Constitution de l'Angleterre as a better guide to the British political system:

(1) Influence. The book was tremendously successful and, by the time Raynal was preparing his own revision of HDI, a new edition had been published, as well as an influential English translation [see]. John Adams, who in 1779 discussed politics with Raynal on a regular basis while in Paris, called De Lolme's book "the best defence of the political balance of three powers that ever was written".

(2) Method. Almost thirty years had passed since the publication of Hume's essay. De Lolme's account was seen as more up-to-date; crucially, the Swiss author railed against any account of the British political system that was "purely speculative", a reference to the writings of the beau génie of Montesquieu and, one would think, of Hume himself (who is only quoted as the author of the History of England). The authors of HDI shared similar concerns with the excesses of esprit systématique.

(3) Language. In line with the overall progress of the "republican spirit" in the second half of the century, De Lolme avoids any mention of the mixed constitution. There is talk of équilibre and contrepoids, but old Greek categories such as aristocracy and oligarchy are barely mentioned at all. In fact, he was credited with the creation of a new terminology — which was bound to seduce the authors of HDI. [see].

(*) See David Wootton (ed.) The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003, p. xxxiii.

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