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“Popular Sovereignty that I Deny”: Benjamin Constant on Public Opinion, Political Legitimacy and Constitution Making

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 September 2020

Arthur Ghins*
Affiliation:
The Political Theory Project, Brown University
*
*Corresponding author. E-mail: arthur_ghins@brown.edu

Abstract

According to a dominant narrative, the concept of popular sovereignty was joined to the notion of public opinion during the French Revolution to form the blueprint of a liberal constitutional state. This article shows how, after the Revolution, Benjamin Constant, who is now recognized as a founding figure of “liberalism,” used public opinion as a substitute for popular sovereignty to theorize political legitimacy and constitution making. I show why and when Constant discussed popular sovereignty, namely to dismiss it as an unhelpful and dangerous fiction in answer to factions invoking the concept to revolutionize the political order, or rulers such as Napoleon using it to claim absolute power. In parallel, I explain how Constant designed his alternative, opinion-based theory of legitimacy in the 1790s, before pragmatically adapting it over the course of his career as political regimes changed in France. Constant's substitution of public opinion for popular sovereignty, I contend, reveals distinct views on what makes a political regime legitimate and the meaning of constitutional changes. I conclude with a discussion of how Constant's views, thus interpreted, throw light on debates about sovereignty and public opinion in modern political thought.

Type
Articles
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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References

1 E.g. Ackerman, Bruce, We the People (Cambridge, MA, 1991)Google Scholar; Espejo, Paulina Ochoa, The Time of Popular Sovereignty: Process and the Democratic State (University Park, 2011)Google Scholar.

2 E.g. Morgan, Edmund, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (New York, 1988)Google Scholar; Rosanvallon, Pierre, La démocratie inachevée: Histoire de la souveraineté du peuple en France (Paris, 2000)Google Scholar; Grimm, Dieter, Sovereignty: The Origin and Future of a Political and Legal Concept (New York, 2015)Google Scholar; Bourke, Richard and Skinner, Quentin, eds., Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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9 To ease these tensions, some argue that Constant was committed to “popular sovereignty” or “democratic legitimacy” throughout: his defence of hereditary monarchy was a superficial concession to changing political circumstances. Holmes, Benjamin Constant, 233–40; and Fontana, Benjamin Constant, 65–7. Others analyse Constant's intellectual itinerary in a teleological way, as a quest to reconcile “republican,” “liberal” and “conservative” principles of legitimacy, namely popular sovereignty, limited authority and heredity. Kalyvas, Andreas and Katznelson, Ira, Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns (Cambridge, 2008), 146–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 On the distinction between extraordinary and ordinary lawmaking see Tuck, Sleeping Sovereign. Constant, I believe, also used public opinion as a substitute for popular sovereignty in ordinary lawmaking—the day-to-day treatment of policy questions by the government outside founding moments. On Constant's views on the role of public opinion in a settled constitutional apparatus see Selinger, William, Parliamentarism: from Burke to Weber (Cambridge, 2019), 115–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This article is concerned with Constant's views on extraordinary lawmaking.

11 Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA, 1989), 99Google Scholar.

12 Habermas, Jürgen, “Popular Sovereignty as Procedure,” in Habermas, Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge, MA), 463–90Google Scholar. The two notions are also paired, albeit differently, in Keith Baker's narrative, for whom mid-eighteenth-century uses of public opinion around 1750 made possible the assertion of the people's sovereignty in 1789, while the terms in which public opinion was described—unitary, universal and impersonal—prefigured later characterizations of the general will. See Baker, Keith, “Public Opinion as Political Invention,” in Baker, Inventing the French Revolution (Cambridge, 1990), 167–99, at 198–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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14 The distinction between popular sovereignty and sovereignty tout court is well known in French constitutional history. Olivier Beaud distinguishes between a “souveraineté–puissance publique” (sovereignty in the narrow “legal” sense) and “souveraineté–principe de légitimité” (popular sovereignty). See his La puissance de l’État (Paris, 1994), 25–6. Similarly, Rosanvallon distinguishes between sovereignty in the narrow “judicial sense” (last-resort decision) and in the “political” sense (popular sovereignty as a norm of justification of the constitutional apparatus). See Rosanvallon, La démocratie inachevée, 50.

15 On Constant's attitude vis-à-vis competing political groups during the Directory see Grange, Henri, Benjamin Constant amoureux et républicain, 1795–1799 (Paris, 2004)Google Scholar.

16 Benjamin Constant, “De la force du gouvernement actuel et de la nécessité de s'y rallier (1796),” in Oeuvres complètes de Benjamin Constant, 30 vols. to date (Berlin, 1998–) 1: 340–41. Hereafter FGA. I use OCBC as an abbreviation for Constant's oeuvres complètes, edited by De Gruyter in Berlin. All translations are my own.

17 Rosenblatt, Liberal Values, 15–16.

18 Hume, David, “Of the First Principles of Government,” in Hume, Political Writings, ed. Haakonssen, Knud (Cambridge, 1994), 16–19, at 16Google Scholar. References to the Essays (1772) are to this edition.

19 Ibid., 16–17.

20 David Hume, “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,” in Hume, Political Writings, 221–33, at 221.

21 I here build on Knud Haakonssen's “Introduction” to Hume's Political Writings, xxv–xxx.

22 Hume, “Of the First Principles of Government,” 19.

23 FGA, 338.

24 Ibid., 353–4.

25 Ibid., 338.

26 Ibid., 346–8.

27 Ibid., 375.

28 Ibid., 367.

29 See Necker's reworking of Hume's idea that all governments rest on opinion in Necker, Jacques, Du pouvoir exécutif dans les grands Etats, vol. 1 (Paris, 1792), 21–2Google Scholar.

30 Ibid., 369. See also Necker, Jacques, “Réflexions philosophiques sur l’égalité,” in Necker, De la révolution française, vol. 4 (Paris, 1797), 127–356, at 136–9Google Scholar.

31 FGA, 372–4.

32 Ibid., 374.

33 Ibid., 372.

34 Benjamin Constant, “Des réactions politiques (1797),” in OCBC, 1: 457–506, at 457. Hereafter DRP.

35 Ibid., 472.

36 FGA, 358; DRP, 484–5.

37 Necker, “Réflexions philosophiques,” 225.

38 FGA, 341.

39 Ibid. On Constant's endorsement of restrictions to press freedom during the Directory to reach that goal see Ghins, Arthur, “Benjamin Constant and Public Opinion in Post-Revolutionary France,” History of Political Thought 40/3 (2019), 484–514, at 490–94Google Scholar.

40 DRP, 479.

41 Ibid., 497. A version of this argument already features in FGA, 377–9.

42 Ibid., 489–92.

43 Ibid., 502.

44 Ibid., 497.

45 Benjamin Constant, “Des suites de la contre-révolution de 1660 en Angleterre (1799),” in OCBC, 1: 654–79, at 675.

46 Ibid., 677.

47 Benjamin Constant, De la possibilité d'une constitution républicaine dans un grand pays: Fragments d'un ouvrage abandonné (1800–1803), in OCBC, 4: 353–680, hereafter CR; Constant, Principes de politique applicables à tous les gouvernements (1806–1810), in OCBC, 5. Hereafter PdP 1806.

48 Durand, Charles, “Le pouvoir napoléonien et ses légitimités,” Annales de la faculté de droit et de science politique d'Aix-Marseille 58 (1972), 733Google Scholar; Bluche, Fréderic, Le bonapartisme: Aux origines de la droite autoritaire (1800–1850) (Paris, 1980), 2633Google Scholar.

49 Quoted in Durand, “Le pouvoir napoléonien,” 15. The Constitution of year VIII was ratified by plebiscite in February 1800. In May 1802, a second plebiscite endorsed Napoleon's consulate for life. In May 1804, another plebiscite confirmed Bonaparte's nomination as emperor and the principle of hereditary succession. In November 1804 a fourth plebiscite approved the Constitution of Year XII.

50 Jaume, L'individu effacé, 72–3.

51 See the opening paragraph of the Sénatus-consulte organique of 28 floréal year XII (18 May 1804).

52 Bluche, Le bonapartisme, 27–8.

53 Haeley, Francis, Rousseau et Napoléon (Geneva, 1957), 7680Google Scholar.

54 PdP 1806, 118.

55 Ibid., 131–52, 109 n. a, 121–2.

56 Constant, Benjamin, “De l'intervention de l'autorité dans ce qui a rapport à la religion,” in Constant, Deux chapitres inédits de l'Esprit des religions (1803–1804), ed. Thompson, Patrice (Geneva, 1970), 135Google Scholar.

57 PdP (1806), 129.

58 Ibid., 106–22.

59 Benjamin Constant, “De la perfectibilité de l'espèce humaine (1799–1805),” in OCBC, 3: Part I, 439–55.

60 Ibid., 472. Like Constant's other works, the Fragments hinged on the idea that governments rested on a masse d'opinions that constantly evolved due to mankind's progressive faculty. Ibid., 649. Popular sovereignty was only dismissed once as a pretext to exercise absolute power. Ibid., 550.

61 Constant, “De la perfectibilité,” 467–9; PdP (1806), 113.

62 Constant, “De la perfectibilité,” 474–5; PdP (1806), 144.

63 Constant, “De la perfectibilité,” 469–70.

64 PdP (1806), 144.

65 Ibid., 113.

66 Constant, “De la perfectibilité,” 473

67 PdP (1806), 102.

69 Paulet-Grandguillot, Libéralisme, 405 n. 193.

70 Necker, “Réflexions philosophiques,” 299, 316.

71 For Constant's critique of the Concordat see Constant, “De l'intervention de l'autorité,” 135.

72 Constant conceded about the general will the “difficulty of recognizing and expressing it.” PdP (1806), 103.

73 PdP (1806), 102, 161.

74 Paulet-Grandguillot, Libéralisme, 366 n. 1.

75 In Book I, written at an early stage of production, Constant predicted that the “principle” of elections would soon supplant the “prejudice” of heredity in France.

76 CR, 451–2 and Book IV, “On Hereditary Monarchy,” esp. chapter 1.

77 Ibid., 422–4.

78 PdP (1806),103.

79 Ibid., 133.

80 Ibid., 129.

81 Ibid., 133.

83 Ibid., 146.

84 Ibid., 144.

85 E.g. Ibid., 112–13.

86 This explains the single attempt Constant made in the text to redefine “the dogma of popular sovereignty” as a “guarantee.” Ibid., 108. This was a rhetorical effort to reinvest with a new meaning a notion the French were familiar with. As the uses of “dogma” reveal, Constant believed that this widespread notion remained intrinsically flawed, and was not part of his own normative vocabulary. This rhetorical aim is also perceptible in Constant's reproduction, elsewhere in the Principles, of sections of articles on popular sovereignty taken from the Constitution of 1795 which stipulated that no faction could ever exercise sovereignty on its own. Compare PdP (1806), 133, with Godechot, Jacques, ed., Les constitutions de la France depuis 1789 (Paris, 1995), 102–3Google Scholar. This mash-up of familiar phrases Constant intended as an illustration of his argument that “sovereignty” in the judicial sense needed to be limited. It should be noted that the Principles only contain five mentions of “popular sovereignty” (108, 377, 575, 644, 645), all of which are pejorative.

87 PdP (1806), 103–5.

88 Tuck, Sleeping Sovereign, 143–60.

89 CR, 655–6.

90 PdP (1806), 702–3.

91 Ibid., 705, n. a.

92 Ibid., 688.

93 Ibid., 706.

94 Ibid., 143, 220.

95 See Baker, “Public Opinion”; and Chartier, Cultural Origins.

96 For Constant's views on property as a token to political rights see PdP (1806), Book X.

97 Constant—like Germaine de Staël—used the French term homme to designate human beings in general. See his remarks about the “devoir des hommes éclairés” to form public opinion in PdP (1806), 684–709. On women and the public sphere see, in priority, Baker, Keith, “Defining the Public Sphere in Eighteenth Century France: Variations on a Theme by Habermas,” in Calhoun, C., ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA, 1996), 181–211, at 198–208Google Scholar; and Mary P. Ryan, “Gender and Public Access: Women's Politics in Nineteenth-Century America,” in ibid., 259–88.

98 Staël, Germaine de, “Des circonstances actuelles qui peuvent terminer la Révolution et des principes qui doivent fonder la République en France,” in de Staël, Oeuvres complètes, série III: Oeuvres historiques I, ed. Omacini, L. (Paris, 2009), 287–552, at 436–7, 447–9Google Scholar. Constant edited—perhaps co-authored—this manuscript, and made a personal copy of some of its key passages. See “[Copie partielle de Des circonstances actuelles de Madame de Staël (1799–1806)],” in OCBC, 4: 797–901.

99 PdP (1806), 111–12, 144. See Ghins, Arthur, “Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Reason,” History of European Ideas 44/2 (2018), 224–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

100 Constant restated this argument unambiguously in the foreword of his Principles of Politics of 1815.

101 Rubinelli, Constituent Power, 33–74. On the French revolutionaries’ conception of popular sovereignty as the people's right to change the constitution see Rosanvallon, La démocratie inachevée, 19–20.

102 PdP (1806), 118.

103 CR, 654.

104 On Constant's critique of political voluntarism see Ghins, “Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Reason.”

105 See Constant's laudatory comments about the gradual changes made to the “English Constitution” since 1688 in CR, 652–3.

106 CR, 651–2; PdP (1806), 224–5.

107 Benjamin Constant, “Additions Constitution républicaine,” in OCBC, 4: 683–765, at 702.

108 PdP (1806), 681. For Constant's opinion-based views on revolution, partly inspired by Hume, see PdP (1806), 678–83. On this see McDaniel, Iain, “Representative Democracy and the ‘Spirit of Resistance’ from Constant to Tocqueville,” History of European Ideas 44/4 (2018), 433–48, at 438–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

109 CR, 654.

110 Rials, Stéphane, “La question constitutionnelle en 1814–1815: Dispersion des légitimités et convergence des techniques,” Annales d'histoire des facultés de droit et de la science juridique 3 (1968), 167–97, at 167–70Google Scholar.

111 Benjamin Constant, De l'esprit de conquête et de l'usurpation dans leurs rapports avec la civilisation européenne, 1st edn (Hanover, 1814), in OCBC, 8: 551–683, at 555. Hereafter ECU (1st).

112 See the preface to the third edition in Benjamin Constant, De l'esprit de conquête et de l'usurpation dans leurs rapports avec la civilisation européenne, 4th edn (Aug. 1814), in OCBC, 8: 689–822, at 691–2. Hereafter ECU (4th).

113 ECU (1st), 673.

114 Ibid., 601.

115 Ibid., 602–3. Constant's belief in “civilization” as the benchmark of legitimacy allowed him to condemn Napoleon's Reconquista of civilized France in 1814 as anachronistic, while justifying the conquest of less advanced countries by civilized countries. See Constant's later article on Algeria, in which he invited the French to “applaud the ruin of a nest of pirates, if we have the courage to carry it off, rather than respecting the character of sovereignty in a barbarian.” Constant, Benjamin, “Alger et les élections,” in Constant, Recueil d'articles: 1829–1830, ed. Harpaz, E. (Paris, 1992), 191Google Scholar. On Constant's views on empire see Pitts, Jennifer, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperialism in Britain and France (Princeton, 2005), 173–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

116 ECU (1st), 605.

117 Ibid., 606.

118 Ibid., 612.

119 Ibid., 809.

120 Ibid., 623.

121 Ibid., 624.

122 Ibid., 608.

123 Benjamin Constant, Réflexions sur les constitutions, la distribution des pouvoirs et les garanties, dans une monarchie constitutionnelle, 1st edn (May 1814), in OCBC, 8: 951–1064. Hereafter RsC (1814).

124 Rials, “La question constitutionnelle,” 169.

125 RsC (1814), 959.

126 Rials, Stéphane, “Essai sur le concept de monarchie limitée (autour de la charte de 1814),” Revue de la recherche juridique 2 (1982), 331–57Google Scholar.

127 ECU (4th), 816.

128 Ibid., 817.

129 Ibid., 818.

130 Ibid., 817.

131 Rials, “La question constitutionnelle,” 171.

132 ECU (4th), 816.

133 Benjamin Constant, “Observations sur une déclaration du congrès de Vienne. 31 mars–4 avril 1815,” in OCBC, 9: 549–52, at 549.

134 Ibid., 552.

135 Yvert, Benoit and de Waresquiel, Emmanuel, Histoire de la restauration (1814–1830) (Paris, 2002), 67101Google Scholar.

136 Laquièze, Alain, “Benjamin Constant et l'Acte additionnel aux Constitutions de l'Empire du 22 avril 1815,” Historia Constitucional 197 (2003), 197234, at 202–4Google Scholar.

137 Constant, “Observations,” 552–3.

138 Kurt Kloocke, “Introduction” to Benjamin Constant, “Acte additionnel aux constitutions de l'Empire 14–22 avril 1815,” in OCBC, 9: 561–624.

139 Rials, “La question constitutionnelle,” 182–6; Laquièze, “Constant et l'Acte additionnel,” 199–200.

140 “Acte additionnel,” in Godechot, Les constitutions de la France, 232, 238–9.

141 Bluche, Le bonapartisme, 119–21.

142 Benjamin Constant, Principes de politiques applicables à tous les gouvernements représentatifs et particulièrement à la Constitution actuelle de la France, in OCBC, 9: 653–858, at 679, hereafter PdP (1815).

143 Ibid., 680.

144 E.g. compare PdP (1806), 121, added emphasis, “l'erreur de Rousseau et des écrivains les plus amis de la liberté, lorsqu'ils accordent à la société un pouvoir sans bornes, vient de la manière dont se sont formées leurs idées en politique,” with PdP (1815), 681, added emphasis, “l'erreur de ceux qui, de bonne foi dans leur amour de la liberté, ont accordé à la souveraineté du peuple un pouvoir sans bornes, vient de la manière dont se sont formées leurs idées en politique.”

145 E.g. compare PdP (1806), 133, and PdP (1815), 687.

146 PdP (1815), 683.

147 Ibid., 688.

148 Ibid., 691.

149 On the king's role in preventing governmental usurpation see Garsten, “Representative Government”; and Selinger, Parliamentarism, 120–33

150 Benjamin Constant, Réflexions sur les constitutions et les garanties; publiées le 24 mai 1814, avec une esquisse de constitution, 2nd edn (Paris, 1817–18), OCBC, 8: 951–1161, at 1160, hereafter RsC (1818).

151 Ibid., 1170.

152 Ibid., 956.

153 E.g. “Sur la même loi d'exception (10 mars 1820),” in Benjamin Constant, Discours de M. Benjamin Constant à la Chambre des députés, vol. 1 (Paris, 1828), 211.

154 See Constant's attempt to rally public opinion around his interpretation of the Charter after the downfall of the ultras in 1816 in the several editions of “De la doctrine politique qui peut réunir les partis en France,” in OCBC, 10.

155 See Alexander, Robert, “Benjamin Constant as a Restoration Politician,” in Rosenblatt, H., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Constant (Cambridge, 2009), 147–72Google Scholar.

156 Benjamin Constant, “Lectures à l'Athénée royal sur la Constitution anglaise (Dec. 1818—June 1819),” in OCBC, 11: 227–361, at 327.

157 Ibid.

158 Ibid., 332.

159 Ibid., 333.

160 Ibid., 330.

161 Ibid., 331–2.

162 Constant, Recueil d'articles: 1829–1830, 99–103, 109–31, 121–8.

163 On the republicans’ uses of popular sovereignty see Weill, George, “Les républicains français en 1830,” Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine 1/4 (1899), 321–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the ultras’ attempt to rekindle the absolute sovereignty of the king see de Sauvigny, Guillaume Bertier, Au soir de la monarchie: La restauration (Paris, 1955), 424–31Google Scholar.

164 Benjamin Constant, “De la souveraineté. Le Temps. 12 février 1830,” in Constant, Recueil d'articles: 1829–1830, 99–100.

165 Ibid., 99, 101–2.

166 Ibid., 102–3.

167 Ibid., 102; Benjamin Constant, “De la compétence du gouvernement. Le Temps. 12 février 1830,” in Constant, Recueil d'articles: 1829–1830, 109–31, at 109. On Constant's later uses of “usurpation” see Englert, Gianna, “Usurpation and ‘the Social’ in Benjamin Constant's Commentaire,” Modern Intellectual History 17/1 (2020), 5584CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

168 Benjamin Constant, “De la monarchie et de la république. Le Temps. 26 mars 1830,” in Constant, Recueil d'articles: 1829–1830, 121–8.

169 See Benjamin Constant, Mémoires sur les Cent-Jours, in OCBC, 14: 57–314, at 116–18, where Constant explains his course of conduct, from the Directory to the restoration, as a continuous attempt to rally the “sentiment national” to tolerable regimes, always starting from the premise that “en fait de gouvernement, il faut partir du point où l'on est.”

170 Harris, “From Hobbes to Smith,” 761.

171 Sagar, Opinion of Mankind, 130, 138.

172 On the limits of an exclusively “realist” approach to legitimacy see Clifton Mark's review of Sagar's book for Political Theory 47/3 (2019), 409–13.

173 “The established practice of the age” is an expression Hume used in The History of England. Quoted in Sagar, Opinion of Mankind, 134 n. 122.

174 Rubinelli, Constituent Power, 33–74.

175 Rubinelli, Lucia, “Taming Sovereignty: Constituent Power in Nineteenth-Century French Political Thought,” History of European Ideas 44/1 (2018), 60–74, at 74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

176 Constant described Sieyès as the first to defend “the limitation of sovereignty” tout court. Constant, Benjamin, “Souvenirs historiques” (1830), in Benjamin Constant publiciste, 1825–1830, ed. Harpaz, E. (Geneva, 1987), 169–209, at 175Google Scholar.

177 Necker, De l'administration des finances de la France, vol. 1 (n.p., 1784), vii–xiii.

178 Necker, “Réflexions philosophiques sur l’égalité,” 221–7.

179 Baker, “Public Opinion,” 196, 198–9; Ozouf, “Public Opinion,” 19–21. On the “narrative of rational modernity” that underpins Baker and Ozouf's treatment of public opinion see Mah, Harold, “Phantasies of the Public Sphere: Rethinking the Habermas of Historians,” Journal of Modern History 72 (2000), 153–82, esp. 169–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar.