Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution

By Michael Sonenscher | Go to book overview

2
MONTESQUIEU AND THE IDEA OF MONARCHY

THE TROGLODYTES AND THE MORALITY OF MONARCHY

THE system of representative government that Sieyès envisaged was an ambitious attempt to graft a new moral and political hierarchy onto an established set of property arrangements. It was designed to avoid direct interference with the existing property regime and to rely instead upon the machinery of representation itself to generate an extra level of power and authority to neutralise property's potentially divisive effects. The individual whose thought best registered some of the dilemmas that this involved was Montesquieu, because it was Montesquieu who first showed how sovereignty could be limited without being divided, but it was Montesquieu, too, who indicated that the price to be paid for doing so would have to be an elaborate hierarchy of ranks. The combination was something of a theoretical novelty. Usually, hierarchies of wealth, birth, status, or privilege (as between different estates and orders, or patricians and plebeians, or nobles and commoners) went along with mixed or balanced systems of government. But neither Sieyes's conception of a republic nor Montesquieu's conception of monarchy was mixed or balanced in this older, composite sense. Both made clear provision for the existence of a unitary sovereign power that, somehow, was still limited. What was less clear, at least to his critics, was whether Sieyes's version of limiting power could be prevented from defaulting into Montesquieu's and, by doing so, finding itself exposed to something more seriously damaging. “Just as monarchy came to be formed out of the debris of feudalism,” warned Jacques-Henri Meister early in 1790, “so may we come to see the hydra of feudalism reborn out of the debris of monarchy.”1 “Montesquieu's idea of monarchy,” noted Antoine-Joseph Barnave, the most forceful critic of the system of gradual election during the constitutional debates of the winter of 1789, “points towards either military despotism or organised monarchy,” meaning by the latter something quite different from Sieyes's conception of a republic.2

Montesquieu's intellectual legacy came, accordingly, to cast something like a malign spell over the aura of novelty projected by its admirers upon

1 Jacques-Henri Meister, Des premiers du systeme social appliqués a la revolution pre-
sente
(Paris, 1790), p. 42.

2 Antoine-Joseph Barnave, “Introduction a la revolution françajse,” in his Oeuvres completes,
ed. Bérenger de la Drome, 4 vols. (Paris, 1843), 1:63.

-95-

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Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • For Elizabeth v
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgements ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1: Facing the Future 22
  • 2: Montesquieu and the Idea of Monarchy 95
  • 3: Morality and Politics in a Divided World 173
  • 4: Industry and Representative Government 254
  • Conclusion 349
  • Bibliography 373
  • Index 403
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