The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe

By James Van Horn Melton | Go to book overview

2
Opacity and transparency: French political
culture in the eighteenth century

Ever since the mid-seventeenth century, an influential variant of British constitutional theory had defined Britain as a mixed monarchy in which king, Lords, and Commons respectively embodied the principles of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.1 According to this view, which became a central presupposition of Country ideology, a proper balance among these three principles required the independence of each. Because each was obliged to resist encroachments by the others, contestation and conflict were implicit in this model. So after 1720, for example, as critics came to see the Commons as increasingly dominated or manipulated by the crown, Country politicians like Bolingbroke repeatedly invoked this model of mixed monarchy to legitimate their oppositional stance.

In France, the theories of divine-right absolutism that had held sway since the seventeenth century invested sovereignty in a single individualthe king-whose authority emanated from God. In contrast with British theories of mixed monarchy, royalist theory in France did not acknowledge any locus of public authority outside of the crown. The king was the sole public actor, and for that reason there could be no legitimate politics outside of the king and no legitimate effort to overturn his will.

Royalist theorists were nonetheless careful to emphasize that France was not a despotism. Indeed, French absolutism had developed within a social order that limited royal authority in principle as well as in practice. This order rested on older, medieval ideals that conceived of kingship in fundamentally passive and static terms. The king governed within a constitutional order instituted by God and therefore immutable. As God's earthly representative, the monarch was obligated to preserve this order in accordance with the principles of religion and justice. Louis XV expressed the idea of a fixed and immutable constitutional order when he declared in 1768 that the state he bequeathed to his successors should have the same constitution it possessed when he inherited it. Here the

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1
See J. G. A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1985), 77–79.

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