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  • French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville: Liberty in a Levelled Society?
  • Edward Ousselin
French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville: Liberty in a Levelled Society? By Annelien de Dijn. (Ideas in Context, 89). Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008. viii + 212 pp. Hb £50.00; $99.00.

This contribution to the history of French liberal thought focuses on what the author calls—but defines differently from Alan Kahan in his 1992 book—‘aristocratic liberalism’, a variant which she distinguishes from ‘classical laissez-faire liberalism, and the democratic, republican-influenced brand of liberalism’ (p. 5). Montesquieu, the originator of this variant, insisted on the necessity of preserving, in order to avert the risk of despotism, des corps intermédiaires (an aristocracy, local governments) between the central government and the people. The author argues that Montesquieu’s pluralistic theory of liberal government remained influential in France throughout the nineteenth century, and that Tocqueville was by no means [End Page 219] his only political heir. To buttress her argument, Annelien de Dijn examines an impressive number of writers, some of whom remain well known (Constant, Guizot, Staël), while most of the rest have been largely forgotten. They are evaluated in the context of the recurring constitutional transformations in France (from monarchy to republic to empire) and in terms of how they assessed the lasting social and political consequences of the 1789 Revolution. In an illustration of the proverb, nul n’est prophète en son propre pays, Montesquieu has traditionally been viewed as more influential in the United States (particularly in terms of his theory of the separation of powers) than in France. By highlighting the continuity of Montesquieu’s influence within French political thought, de Dijn convincingly asserts that aristocratic liberalism, which had originally been conceived as a reaction against royal absolutism, remained a valid conceptual framework for the critique of despotism under a revolutionary or imperial regime. The societal model of intermediary bodies or powers between the government and the general public took on many variations, which spread beyond the predictable constituent group of moderate (or constitutional) royalists. However, proponents of the model during the nineteenth century were faced with the obvious fact of the demise of the landed aristocracy as a functioning class and with the emergence of an ‘equalized, levelled society’ (p. 88) in post-revolutionary France. The goal of preserving liberty in the new and irreversible social order led some liberal journalists and pamphleteers to advocate the creation of ‘new intermediary bodies, a new elite’ (p. 127) that would serve as a buffer between an increasingly powerful central government and an atomized population. The author provides an insightful comparison of Benjamin Constant’s ‘neo-republican’ approach to the issue of liberty in a levelled society with Prosper de Barante’s reformulation of Montesquieu’s aristocratic liberalism, which posited the emergence of new local elites through a decentralized system of elected administrators (pp. 95–110). This book does include a surprising mistake: Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was elected as President of the Second Republic in 1848 to a four-year term, not in 1849 to a two-year term (p. 156). Also, the discussion of the royalists’ championing of primogeniture (pp. 49–57) in order to concentrate property could have been contrasted with Tocqueville’s views on succession laws (pp. 138–39). Overall, however, this meticulously documented study sheds light on an important and relatively neglected strain of French political theory.

Edward Ousselin
Western Washington University


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pp. 219-220
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