Legitimacy and Power Politics: The American and French Revolutions in International Political Culture

Legitimacy and Power Politics: The American and French Revolutions in International Political Culture

Legitimacy and Power Politics: The American and French Revolutions in International Political Culture

Legitimacy and Power Politics: The American and French Revolutions in International Political Culture

Synopsis

This book examines the causes and consequences of a major transformation in both domestic and international politics: the shift from dynastically legitimated monarchical sovereignty to popularly legitimated national sovereignty. It analyzes the impact of Enlightenment discourse on politics in eighteenth-century Europe and the United States, showing how that discourse facilitated new authority struggles in Old Regime Europe, shaped the American and French Revolutions, and influenced the relationships between the revolutionary regimes and the international system.

The interaction between traditional and democratic ideas of legitimacy transformed the international system by the early nineteenth century, when people began to take for granted the desirability of equality, individual rights, and restraint of power. Using an interpretive, historically sensitive approach to international relations, the author considers the complex interplay between elite discourses about political legitimacy and strategic power struggles within and among states. She shows how culture, power, and interests interacted to produce a crucial yet poorly understood case of international change.

The book not only shows the limits of liberal and realist theories of international relations, but also demonstrates how aspects of these theories can be integrated with insights derived from a constructivist perspective that takes culture and legitimacy seriously. The author finds that cultural contests over the terms of political legitimacy constitute one of the central mechanisms by which the character of sovereignty is transformed in the international system--a conclusion as true today as it was in the eighteenth century.

Excerpt

As if anyone could forget that the sovereign power resides in my
person only … that public order in its entirety emanates from me,
and that the rights and interests of the nation, which some dare to
regard as a separate body from the monarch, are necessarily united
with my rights and interests, and repose only in my hands.

It was not the respite of a reign that would satisfy France, enlight
ened as she was then become. a casual discontinuance of the practice
of despotism, is not a discontinuance of its principles; the former de
pends on the virtue of the individual who is in immediate possession
of the power; the latter, on the virtue and fortitude of the nation.

This book examines a major transformation in both domestic and interna-2 tional politics: the shift from dynastically legitimated monarchical sovereignty to popularly legitimated national sovereignty. in the 1770s, a loosely federated band of colonies succeeded in winning independence from one of the principal great powers in the European international system. in the 1790s, a new and inexperienced revolutionary regime in France was able to muster the resources for a major series of military campaigns—resources that had eluded the financially bankrupt “absolutist” monarch which that regime overthrew. a transformation of the terms of political legitimacy lay at the heart of both these events.

I seek to show how this transformation of political legitimacy came about and how it influenced the conduct of international politics. the best way to explain both the transformation and its consequences is to rigorously examine the complex interplay between elite discourses about political legitimacy and strategic struggles for power within and among

Speech by Louis xv to the Paris Parlement, known as the “Session of the Scourging,”
March 3,1766, in John Rothney, ed., The Brittany Affair and the Crisis of the Ancien Ré
gime
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 175–76.

Thomas Paine (1791), Rights of Man, Being an Answer to Mr. Burke's Attack on
the French Revolution
, in Paine, Collected Writings, ed. Eric Foner (New York: Library of
America, 1995), p. 444.

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