Victor Nuovo: Condorcet: A Tale of Two Revolutions
Editor’s note: This is the tenth in a series of essays about political liberalism and conservatism and the two-party system.
Condorcet, a leading philosopher in the French Revolution, believed that he was living in a revolutionary age — the “rights of man,” of life, liberty, equality and property had so caught fire in the minds of people that they could no longer ignore or endure the oppressive wrongs of their governments.
He viewed the American and French revolutions in this light and saw a causal connection between them. He celebrated the heroic victory of the American colonies against the great imperial power of Great Britain, and he was certain that it would embolden other peoples to do the same.
In France, the conditions were ripe for revolution. It was, he thought, a country that was at once the most enlightened and the most enslaved, whose philosophers “had reached the highest level of intellectual achievement,” but whose government “was sunk in the deepest and most intolerable ignorance.”
The American Revolution had let loose the irresistible force of revolution; it was inevitable that it would move next to France. He was not mistaken.
In fairness to the government of France, Louis XVI was not a tyrant, nor was he or his ministers ignorant of the needs of reform and of strategies to achieve it. The king was aware of the increasing social unrest, and he was persuaded that he must act to relieve it. It was his right and duty.
Therefore, he convened a national assembly, the Estates General. An estate is a social class. This assembly was made up of delegates from three classes: the nobility, the clergy and the middle class — the poor and the peasantry were excluded; their time had not yet come.
The assembly’s task was to propose a new constitution for the nation. There was an expectation among the moderate members of the assembly that this would lead to the formation of a constitutional monarchy and a mixed constitution, like the one established in Great Britain after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The king was agreeable to this, but neither he, nor his supporters in the assembly, nor his ministers were able to achieve it.
The assembly remade itself into a constitutional convention and revised its membership; the number of delegates of the third estate (the middle class) was doubled, so that it equaled the combined membership of the clergy and nobility, and a decision was made to vote not by estate but by individual delegate; moreover, the lower clergy, parish priests, sided with the third estate. Thus the means were in place for a more popular and hopefully peaceful revolution.
But the situation became unstable, society had become unsettled, and the king was unsure how to respond to it. He vacillated between conciliation and intimidation and failed at both, and, when all seemed lost, he attempted to flee the country, was captured and returned under arrest to Paris. He was deposed, tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and, on January 21, 1792, he was guillotined.
There followed a series of coups and counter-coups, assorted power plays, popular uprisings, mob violence, and an official reign of terror, whose victims included Condorcet, and not long after him, his accuser, Robespierre. This unhappy sequence of events ended in November 1799 in a coup.
A new constitution was adopted or imposed, and Napoleon assumed leadership as “first Consul” of France. The title of consul was of Roman ancestry, signifying the head of government, with supreme executive power. So it could be said that the French Revolution began with a rebirth of freedom and ended in a military coup d’état.
In spite of the continuity that Condorcet supposed existed between the two revolutions, he was also aware of differences between them, and he was too honest an intellectual to ignore them. The American Revolution was not all sweetness and light. Nevertheless, from the Battle of Lexington to the British surrender at Yorktown, or from the Declaration of Independence to the U.S. Constitution, the founders of the nation were able to maintain a relatively steady course. As Condorcet saw it, the colonies had only to win their independence to achieve their revolutionary purpose. They were already well practiced in governing themselves.
In contrast, he saw that the French had to remake their civil society from top to bottom. His summary of the situation says it best:
“The French Revolution was more complete, more entire than that of America, and of consequence was attended with greater convulsions in the interior of the nation, because the Americans, satisfied with the code of civil and criminal legislation which they had derived from England, having no corrupt system of finance to reform, no feudal tyrannies, no hereditary distinctions, no privileges of rich and powerful corporations, no system of religious intolerance to destroy, had only to direct their attention to the establishment of new powers to be substituted in the place of those hitherto exercised over them by the British government. In these innovations there was nothing that extended to the mass of the people, nothing that altered the subsisting relations formed between individuals: whereas the French revolution, for reasons exactly the reverse, had to embrace the whole economy of society, to change every social relation, to penetrate to the smallest link of the political chain, even to those individuals, who, living in peace upon their property, or by their industry, were equally unconnected with public commotions, whether by their opinions and their occupations, or by the interests of fortune, of ambition, or of glory.”
There was another difference that Condorcet observed between the two revolutions. The U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787 and ratified in 1788. Condorcet had read it along with several new state constitutions. He had serious misgivings with them because of their provision for the separation of powers, and here he meant not only the various powers of government, but of special interest groups, especially those with elite qualifications.
He clearly saw that this provision was founded on interest rather than principle; or as we might say in current terms: the revolutionary founders of the American republic favored pragmatic resolutions of differences over principled ones. Condorcet steadfastly stood on principle.
The American Constitution was designed to manage competing interests by combining them in a system that could become adversarial without becoming divisive. Condorcet worried that this balancing act of diverse interests was inimical to the achievement of full equality, for once the special interests of competing groups are balanced and secure, they could and probably would continue to enjoy them, while ignoring the universal rights of the people.
It is a point well taken. Condorcet still speaks to today’s divisiveness in America.
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