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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2018

Department of Political Science, Southern Methodist University E-mail:


As part of Benjamin Constant's academic “revival,” scholars have revisited the political and religious elements of his thought, but conclude that he remained uninterested in the nineteenth century's major social and economic questions. This article examines Constant's response to what would later become known as “the social question” in his Commentary on Filangieri's Work, and argues that his claims about poverty and its alleviation highlight central elements of his political liberalism, especially on the practice of citizenship in the modern age. By interpreting social issues through his original political lens of “usurpation,” Constant encouraged skepticism of social legislation and identified the political implications of a “disinherited” poor class. The lens of usurpation ultimately limited the scope of Constant's solutions to poverty. But his attention to social and economic issues prompts us to reexamine the category of “the social” and its uses in the history of liberal thought, particularly the place of class concerns in the French liberal tradition.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018

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A version of this paper was presented at the 2017 PPE Society Meeting in New Orleans, and I thank the participants for their feedback. Thank you also to David Golemboski, who offered comments on an earlier draft, and to the coeditors and anonymous referees at Modern Intellectual History.


1 Rosenblatt, Helena, “Why Constant? A Critical Overview of the Constant Revival,” Modern Intellectual History 1/3 (2004), 439–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Rosenblatt, Helena, “Eclipses and Revivals: Constant's Reception in France and America, 1830–2007,” in Rosenblatt, , ed., The Cambridge Companion to Constant (Cambridge, 2009), 351–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 353. On individualist liberalism see Jaume, Lucien, L'individu effacé, ou le paradoxe du libéralisme français (Paris, 1997)Google Scholar.

3 Rosenblatt, “Eclipses and Revivals,” 354–55.

4 For political explanations see Audier, Serge, Tocqueville retrouvé: Genèse et enjeux du renouveau tocquevillien français (Paris, 2004)Google Scholar; Judt, Tony, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–1956 (New York, 2011)Google Scholar; Jaume, Lucien, Échec au libéralisme, les Jacobins et l’état (Paris, 1991)Google Scholar. On Constant's character see Faguet, Émile, Politiques et moralistes du dix-neuvième siècle (Paris, 1923)Google Scholar.

5 On religion see Rosenblatt, Helena, Liberal Values: Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Religion (Cambridge, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Garsten, Bryan, “Religion and the Case against Ancient Liberty: Benjamin Constant's Other Lectures,” Political Theory 38/1 (2010), 433CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On Constant and the sentiments see Steven Vincent, K., “Benjamin Constant, the French Revolution, and the Origins of French Romantic Liberalism,” French Historical Studies 23/4 (2000), 607–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Vincent, , Benjamin Constant and the Birth of French Liberalism (New York, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Todorov, Tzvetan, A Passion for Democracy: Benjamin Constant (New York, 1999)Google Scholar.

6 Fontana, Biancamaria, “The Shaping of Modern Liberty: Commerce and Civilisation in the Writings of Benjamin Constant,” Annales Benjamin Constant 5 (1985), 315Google Scholar; Rosenblatt, Helena, “Commerce et religion dans le libéralisme de Benjamin Constant,” Commentaire 102/2 (2015), 415–26Google Scholar. See also George Armstrong Kelly, who cites Constant's “long-range blindness” on issues including industrialization and working-class social movements. Kelly, George Armstrong, “Constant Commotion: Avatars of a Pure Liberal,” Journal of Modern History 54/3 (1982), 497518CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 517.

7 There is some debate over when Constant developed his consistent political theory. In their respective studies, both Hofmann and Gauchet claim that Constant was fully liberal by 1806. Hofmann, Étienne, Les “Principes de politique” de Benjamin Constant: La genèse d'une oeuvre et l’évolution de la pensée de leur auteur, 1789–1806 (Geneva, 1980)Google Scholar; Gauchet, Marcel, “Constant,” in Furet, Francois and Ozouf, Mona, eds., Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution francaise (Paris, 1988), 924–33Google Scholar. Vincent claims that his most formative period was the Revolution. Vincent, “Benjamin Constant, the French Revolution, and the Origins of French Romantic Liberalism.”

8 Pinkney, David H., Decisive Years in France, 1840–1847 (Princeton, 2016)Google Scholar.

9 For an overview of the term see Case, Holly, “The ‘Social Question,’ 1820–1920,” Modern Intellectual History 13/3 (2016), 747–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Holmes, Stephen, Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism (New Haven, 1984)Google Scholar, 22 n. 89; Kloocke, Kurt, Benjamin Constant: Une biographie intellectuelle (Geneva, 1984), 361; Vincent, , Benjamin Constant and the Birth of French Liberalism, 201Google Scholar.

11 Constant, Benjamin, Commentary on Filangieri's Work (1822–4), trans. Kahan, Alan (Indianapolis, 2015)Google Scholar.

12 Jeremy Jennings, “Constant's Idea of Modern Liberty,” in Rosenblatt, The Cambridge Companion to Constant, 69–91; Jennifer Pitts, “Constant's Thought on Slavery and Empire,” in ibid., 115–45. This collection also contains a translated and abridged version of Gauchet, Marcel, “Benjamin Constant: l'illusion lucide du libéralisme” (1980), in Benjamin Constant, Écrits politiques, ed. Marcel Gauchet (Paris, 1997), 12110Google Scholar. The importance that Gauchet attached to the Commentary makes its subsequent neglect even more surprising.

13 Recent exceptions include Ferrone, Vincenzo, The Politics of the Enlightenment: Constitutionalism, Republicanism, and the Rights of Man in Gaetano Filangieri, trans. Reinert, Sophus A. (London, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Levy, Jacob, “Pluralism without Privilege? Corps Intermédiaires, Civil Society, and the Art of Association,” in Lamoreaux, Naomi and Wallis, John J., eds., Organizations, Civil Society, and the Roots of Development (Chicago, 2017), 83108Google Scholar.

14 Filangieri, Gaetano, The Science of Legislation: From the Italian of Gaetano Filangieri (1780–88), trans. Clayton, Sir Richard (London, 1806), 11Google Scholar.

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17 Quoted in Donato, Clorinda, “Benjamin Constant and the Italian Enlightenment in the Commentaire sur l'ouvrage de Filangieri: Notes for an Intercultural Reading,” Historical Reflections 28/3 (2002), 439453, at 446Google Scholar.

18 Alan Kahan, “Introduction,” in Constant, Commentary, x.

19 Filangieri, The Science of Legislation, 12.

20 Ibid., 15.

21 Ibid., 12.

22 Ibid., 221.

23 Salfi, Francesco, Éloge de Filangieri (Paris, 1822)Google Scholar.

24 Constant, Commentary, 3.

25 Ibid., 6.

26 Scholars have also cited the use of eighteenth-century Italy as a contrast with Restoration France. See Kloocke, Kurt and Trampus, Antonio, “Introduction to Commentaire sur l'ouvrage de Filangieri,” in Benjamin Constant, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Kloocke, Kurt and Trampus, Antonio, vol. 26 (Tübingen, 2012), 23102Google Scholar.

27 Constant, Commentary, 6.

28 Constant, Benjamin, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns” (1819), in Constant: Political Writings, ed. Fontana, Biancamaria (Cambridge, 1988), 309–28Google Scholar.

29 Constant, Commentary, 5.

30 Franco Venturi, for example, exclaimed, “How poorly Constant knew the world of eighteenth-century Naples!” Venturi, Franco, “Gaetano Filangieri: Nota introduttiva,” in Venturi, Illuministi Italiani, vol. 5. (Milan and Naples, 1962), 601782, at 647Google Scholar. See also Cordey, Pierre, “Benjamin Constant, Gaetano Filangieri et la ‘Science de la législation’,” Revue européenne des sciences sociales 18/50 (1980), 5579Google Scholar; Donato, “Benjamin Constant and the Italian Enlightenment.”

31 In his introduction to the 1822 edition, Salfi urged the French to “follow the method that Filangieri proposed to make light rebound in the midst of darkness.” Quoted in Ferrone, The Politics of the Enlightenment, 181.

32 On the 1822 edition see Cordey, “Benjamin Constant, Gaetano Filangieri et La ‘Science de la législation’,” 63–5.

33 For more on how Constant was implicated see Wood, Dennis, Benjamin Constant: A Biography (New York, 2011), 245Google Scholar; Alexander, Robert, Re-writing the French Revolutionary Tradition: Liberal Opposition and the Fall of the Bourbon Monarchy (Cambridge, 2004), 135–68Google Scholar. On liberalism under the Restoration see de Dijn, Annelien, French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville: Liberty in a Levelled Society? (Cambridge, 2008), 89110CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Constant, Benjamin, “De M. Dunoyer, et de quelques-uns de ses ouvrages,” in Constant, Mélanges de littérature et de politique (Paris, 1829), 128–62Google Scholar; Rosenblatt, Helena, “Re-evaluating Benjamin Constant's Liberalism: Industrialism, Saint-Simonianism and the Restoration Years,” History of European Ideas 30/1 (2004), 2337CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pickering, Mary, Auguste Comte, vol. 1, An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge, 2006)Google Scholar; Welch, Cheryl, Liberty and Utility: The French Idéologues and the Transformation of Liberalism (New York, 1984)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Kloocke and Trampus, “Introduction,” 58.

36 Holmes, Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism, 22, summarizes the relationship similarly: “Filangieri was less the subject of his analysis than an occasion for it.” Ferrone, The Politics of the Enlightenment, 183, goes further, claiming that Constant was “inventing . . . an enemy to annihilate from start to finish.”

37 Kahan, “Introduction,” xii.

38 Constant, Commentary, 71.

39 Simonde de Sismondi, J. C. L., Nouveaux principes d’économie politique, ou de la richesse dans ses rapports avec la population, 2 vols. (Paris, 1819), 1: 368Google Scholar; Sismondi, , “Analysis of a Refutation of New Principles of Political Economy Published in the Edinburgh Review by a Follower of Mr. Ricardo,” in Sismondi, New Principles of Political Economy, ed. and trans. Hyse, Richard (New Brunswick, 1990), 599616, at 612Google Scholar.

40 Say, J.-B., Cours complèt d’économie politique pratique, vol. 2 (Paris, 1829), 361 n.1Google Scholar.

41 Constant, Commentary, 88.

42 Sismondi, Nouveaux principes, 2: 303. Constant did not approve of either Malthus's or Sismondi's arguments against marriage and procreation for the poor. Constant, Commentary, 92, 96, 100.

43 Constant, Commentary, 54. This was an extension of Constant's broader preoccupation with the “prerogative of crime prevention” and the use of arbitrary measures to prevent alleged criminality. See Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments (1810), trans. Dennis O'Keeffe and ed. Etienne Hoffman (Indianapolis, 2003), 74–80.

44 Constant, Principles of Politics, 529. For a brief summary of the Settlement Act and the right to relief see Jones, Gareth Stedman, An End To Poverty? A Historical Debate (New York, 2004), 74–9Google Scholar.

45 Constant, Principles of Politics, 529.

46 Constant, Commentary, 55.

47 On apprenticeships and trade associations see ibid., 144–5.

48 Ibid., 57.

49 Filangieri, The Science of Legislation, 20–21.

50 Constant, Commentary, 54, emphasis mine.

51 For descriptions of commerce and trade legislation under the Restoration see Levasseur, Ernest, Histoire du commerce de la France, vol. 2 (Paris, 1912)Google Scholar. On Bourbon arguments for mercantile protectionist policies see Todd, David, “Remembering and Restoring the Economic Ancien Régime: France and Its Colonies, 1815–1830,” in Forrest, Alan, Haggeman, Karen, and Rowe, Michael, eds., War, Demobilization, and Memory: The Legacy of War in the Era of Atlantic Revolutions (London, 2016), 203–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Todd, , Free Trade and Its Enemies in France, 1814–1851 (Cambridge, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Archives parlementaires de 1787 à 1860, vol. 31 (27 April 1821), 202–3.

53 Ibid., 203.

54 Archives parlementaires, vol. 31 (4 May 1821), 253.

55 Ibid., 252.

56 Ibid. Jennifer Pitts notes that Constant's parliamentary speeches on the slave trade were part of a broader attack on the “desire for profit” that motivated Restoration politics. Pitts, “Constant's Thought on Slavery and Empire,” 132.

57 Constant, Commentary, 55.

58 Constant, Benjamin, The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation and Their Relation to European Civilization (1814), in Constant: Political Writings, ed. Fontana, Biancamaria (Cambridge, 1988), 44169, at 85, 88Google Scholar.

59 Ibid., 97.

60 The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation was authored prior to Constant's volte-face and willingness to serve under Napoleon during the Hundred Days. Constant reflected on this shift in Mémoires sur les Cent-Jours, in Constant, Oeuvres complètes, vol. 14 (Tübingen, 1993).

61 Constant, Commentary, 57.

62 Archives parlementaires, vol. 31 (4 Mai 1821), 252. Richard Cobden would later explicitly denounce “monopolists” in his discussion of the English Corn Laws, “that parent of all other monopolies.” Richard Cobden, “Free Trade. Speech VIII” (London, 8 February 1844), in Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, ed. James E. Thorold Rogers, vol. 1 (London, 1908), 58–68.

63 Constant, The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation, 95, 97.

64 Constant, Commentary, 57. Constant also described the Poor Law's restriction on physical mobility as an instance of usurpation. By denying the individual the right to mobility and thus the control over his “most basic property” (his physical body) the law represented a “flagrant usurpation” of liberty. See ibid., 144 n. 3.

65 Ibid., 4.

66 Richard Whatmore argues that Constant saw Britain as a “model modern republic.” Though he praised its constitution, a look at Constant's assessment of English commercial law in the Commentary and during his political career complicates this claim. Whatmore, , “The Politics of Political Economy in France from Rousseau to Constant,” in Bevir, Mark and Trentmann, Frank, eds., Markets in Historical Contexts: Ideas and Politics in the Modern World (Cambridge, 2004), 4669, at 68CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Constant, Commentary, 4–5.

68 Ibid., 55

69 Say, J.-B., England and the English People, trans. Richter, J. (London, 1816)Google Scholar.

70 Sismondi, “Foreword to the Second Edition” (1826), in Sismondi, New Principles of Political Economy, 10. On Sismondi compared with Say see Helmut Pappe, “Sismondi and His French Contemporaries,” unpublished essay, University of St. Andrews, at

71 For a good typology of French assessments of England (that nonetheless omits Constant) see Romani, Robert, “Political Economy and Other Idioms: French Views on English Development, 1815–48,” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 9/3 (2002), 359–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

72 Constant, Commentary, 57.

73 Ibid., 44.

74 See the 1815 edition of Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Representative Governments, in Constant: Political Writings (Cambridge, 1988), 183–93.

75 Constant, Commentary, 57.

76 For more on Constant's admiration of the English constitution see Jennings, Jeremy R., “Conceptions of England and Its Constitution in Nineteenth-Century French Political Thought,” Historical Journal 29/1 (1986), 6585CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gunn, J. A. W., When the French Tried to Be British: Party, Opposition, and the Quest for Civil Disagreement, 1814–1848 (Montreal, 2009)Google Scholar.

77 Constant, Benjamin, Des effets de la Terreur (Paris, 1797), 94Google Scholar.

78 On the development of Constant's constitutionalism see Jennings, Jeremy, “Constitutional Liberalism in France: From Benjamin Constant to Alexis de Tocqueville,” in Gareth Stedman Jones and Gregory Claeys, eds., The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Political Thought (Cambridge, 2011), 349–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

79 Constant, Commentary, 57. Advocates of industrie were Constant's targets when he noted “the folly of those writers who simultaneously propose to borrow the people's prohibitive laws while inviting us to preserve ourselves from its constitutional system.”

80 Ibid., 94.

81 Ibid., 64.

82 Ibid., 60–61.

83 Ibid., 61.

84 Ibid., 63.

85 Sismondi, “Foreword to the Second Edition,” 10.

86 Sismondi, Nouveaux principes, 1: 45, 2: 335–6.

87 Say, England and the English People, 14, 21.

88 Constant, Commentary, 60: “The masses do not consent that there should be classes that dominate them, unless they believe they see in the supremacy of these classes utility for themselves.”

89 Ibid., 109. Note that Constant appropriated the term “proletarians” from Sismondi.

90 Filangieri, The Science of Legislation, 254–66.

91 Constant, Commentary, 117. This is one point where we should question the accuracy of Constant's interpretation of Filangieri. Though Filangieri mentioned the possibility of resurrecting Agrarian laws, he mentioned an important caveat to this suggestion. Though the laws were well suited to other times and regimes, “circumstances are changed, and the mode of operation must be also changed.” Filangieri was not quite such an advocate of Agrarian laws as Constant claimed. Filangieri, Science of Legislation, 266.

92 Constant, Principles of Politics, 167.

93 Constant, Commentary, 248. Recall that even some of Constant's fellow liberals in the Chamber supported trade restrictions.

94 Villèle introduced the bill to reestablish primogeniture in 1826, but it had been in preparation since at least 1824, and the issue itself had been a matter of discussion since the beginning of the ministry in 1821. On the bill see Nettement, Alfred, Histoire de la Restauration (Paris, 1869), 284308Google Scholar; for part of the debate see Archives parlementaires, vol. 46 (28 March 1826), 444–51.

95 Constant, Commentary, 119.

96 Ibid., 111.

98 Gauchet, “Benjamin Constant,” 40–41.

99 See Dunoyer, Charles, “Esquisse historique des doctrines auxquelles on a donné le nom d'Industrialisme c'est-à-dire, des doctrines qui fondent la société sur l'Industrie,” Revue encyclopédique (Paris, 1827), 371–8Google Scholar. Left-leaning liberal advocates of industrie, a commitment to work, production, and labor as the cure of France's ills, regularly claimed Constant as one of the founders of their own ideology, citing his discussion of the “age of commerce” in The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation. Dunoyer is representative of this view.

100 Constant, Principles of Politics, 175.

101 Constant, Commentary, 112.

102 Ibid., 175.

103 Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns,” 326.

104 Constant, Commentary, 22.

105 Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns,” 327.

106 Ibid. See also Holmes, Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism, 31–52.

107 Constant mentioned constitutional monarchy as a constraint on majorities in Commentary, 49.

108 For a summary of these debates see Jennings, Jeremy, Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France since the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2013), 6688Google Scholar.

109 Constant, Commentary, 44.

110 Holmes, Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism, 43.

111 Constant, Commentary, 116, emphasis mine.

112 Constant, Principles of Politics, 166.

113 Constant, Commentary, 44 and 46.

114 Constant, Principles of Politics, 166.

115 Ibid., 166, 171.

116 See Rosanvallon, Pierre, Le sacre du citoyen: Histoire du suffrage universel en France (Paris, 2001), 271–85Google Scholar.

117 Constant, Commentary, 112.

118 Constant, Principles of Politics, 183.

119 Ibid., 179.

120 Ibid.

121 Ibid., 183.

122 Donzelot, Jacques, L'invention du social: Essai sur le déclin des passions politiques (Paris, 1984)Google Scholar.

123 Siedentop, Larry, “Two Liberal Traditions” (1979), in Geenens, Raf and Rosenblatt, , eds., French Liberalism from Montesquieu to the Present Day (Cambridge, 2012), 1535, at 18Google Scholar.

124 Welch, Cheryl B., “Tocqueville's Resistance to the Social,” History of European Ideas 30/1 (2004), 83107, at 84CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

125 Craiutu, Aurelian, Liberalism under Siege: The Political Thought of the French Doctrinaires (Lanham, 2003)Google Scholar; Rosanvallon, Pierre, Le moment Guizot (Paris, 1985)Google Scholar.

126 Welch, Cheryl B., Liberty and Utility: The French Ideologues and the Transformation of Liberalism (New York, 1984)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

127 Drolet, Michael, “Tocqueville's Interest in the Social: Or How Statistics Informed His New Science of Politics,” History of European Ideas 31/4 (2005), 451–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

128 Vincent, Benjamin Constant and the Birth of French Liberalism, 3. See also Kahan, Alan S., Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville (New York, 1992), 5457Google Scholar; Jaume, L'individu effacé. Jaume does not identify Constant himself with the “elitist liberalism” of the Doctrinaires, but argues that this elitism or “liberalism of the state” emerged as the dominant liberalism in France.

129 See Keslassy, Eric, Le libéralisme de Tocqueville à l’épreuve du paupérisme (Paris, 2000)Google Scholar; Drolet, Michael, Tocqueville, Democracy and Social Reform (New York, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Englert, Gianna, “‘The Idea of Rights’: Tocqueville on the Social Question,” Review of Politics 79/4 (2017), 649–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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