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Civics Education and
Home Schooling

Waiting for Guizot (With Apologies to Samuel Beckett)

(M. Guizot, History of the Origin of Representative Government in Europe, London: Henry G. Bohn, 1861, 538 pp.)


As written constitutions go, our federal version is remarkably short, yet it is packed with significance and, in particular, the principles of republican government. Many of its authors were familiar with the governments of, as Madison used the word, the Antients. From their research into earlier political systems, they distilled principles about self-government that they blended into our Constitution. Most of the Founders, therefore, would not have agreed that “history is useless” for drafting a blueprint for freedom and liberty.

One book they could not have read, but probably would have been eager to do so had it been published earlier, was M. Guizot’s History of the Origin of Representative Government in Europe. For home-school students and the parents and friends who support them in their quest for civic understanding, Guizot’s History is good background reading. Not only is it a book about history, but it also includes concepts of sociology, political theory, and the law in its pages. Whether many home-school pupils or their parents would heft a book of 538 pages is another matter. Guizot did not write for the slack-jawed.

Guizot’s book is a collection of lectures he delivered at a French educational institution in 1820, just a few years before James Madison died. The edition of Guizot’s book referred to here bears the date 1861 on its title page, but it was apparently republished two decades later. We do not know who printed the earlier edition, but our copy is part of the Bohn’s Libraries series. The Liberty Fund sells a modern edition, and it may also be available from other sources, such as old-book stores. One will also find used copies on the Internet.

Guizot uses the term, political science, occasionally in his book but not in the sense of contemporary usage. To him, the phrase seems to imply the use of facts in studying institutions. Throughout the book, he employs the word when he challenges a theory of another writer and when he advances his own convictions.

You will not find in this book one table of dates, expenditure amounts, or columns of facts about imported wheat, molasses, or “cloths.” These are not the kinds of facts Guizot offers. Dates abound, usually in connection with the reigns of monarchs, battles fought, or the deaths of notables. His object is to trace the development of representative government in Europe. Most of his attention is directed to England, though he also refers to France, Germany, and Spain.

Our purpose in this brief review is to encourage you to obtain a copy of this book and reflect on how it applies to modern times, in particular, the state of our nation today. Think, also, about the great themes of Guizot’s work and how these might be related to the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and other documents circulating just before and for some time after the American Revolution. You might find comfort in knowing that Guizot, in the opinions of some historians, trod a middle path between extremes in his writings. If, for example, at one point he extols the study of history, at another he cautions us against “undue veneration of antiquity.”

Guizot will disabuse citizens of the notion that our democracy, republic (or call it what you wish) will endure simply because our form of government enjoys exemption from decay, degradation, or destruction. Guizot’s accounts of political forms before the tenth century show a tendency for societies to alternate between monarchies, aristocracies (feudal society), and “freemen.” Some of these periods were in “a constant state of disorder and conflict.” Before the tenth century, Guizot asserts, “We pass from the independence of individuals, sometimes to the power of the king, sometimes to the predominance of the great landowners. But there is no political organization founded upon ideas of general law and public interest; all institutions have reference to private rights and interests.” As you read Guizot, think about which way the civic pendulum swings today.

Much of the second half of the History of the Origin of Representative Government is devoted to the origins of the English Parliament and its history. The book ends at the latter half of the fifteenth century when, as Guizot observes, a century and a half of decay in the development of the Parliament began. Until the civil wars of the fifteenth century,

… the three great forces in English society—the royal power, the aristocracy, and the Commons—had maintained intimate and continual relations amongst themselves, and had served each other by turns, either as an obstacle or as a means of success. It was by the aid of the great barons that the Commons had been enabled to win their liberties. The royal power, though strong in itself, had nevertheless been obliged sometimes to defer to the barons and sometimes to the Commons. From the political concurrence of these three great social forces, and from the vicissitudes of their alliances and fortunes, the progress of representative government had resulted. Liberty can be established only where there does not exist in the State any constituted power sufficiently preponderant to usurp absolute authority.

A little more than half-way through the book, Guizot steps back from his tour through history to offer a philosophical treatment of the meaning of representative government. This is necessary, he explains, because “We … have arrived at the point [in his book] when … representative government began to appear.” What follow are 16 pages into which are woven Rousseau, the notion of sovereignty, the right to power considered as a struggle between reason and will, and similar ideas. Guido’s dissection of Rousseau in this chapter will be of particular interest to those concerned about extreme individualism. This lecture concludes with the assertion that “no actual power ought to be absolute; and liberty is guaranteed only in so far as power is bound to prove its legitimacy.” Properly introduced, Chapter X would be an excellent reading assignment or the basis for a discussion among a group of home school students before they read the Federal Constitution, the constitution of their state, or both. The lecture is, in short, a good introduction to the concept of citizen sovereignty.

As Guizot escorts his readers through the origins of representative government, he illuminates some of its trappings; for example, the idea of charters, such as Magna Carta, the Charta de Foresta, and the charters of some of the early English settlements we now refer to as “cities.” These were essentially statements of who owes what to whom and who keeps his hands off what, meaning the power agreements between the monarch and any city large enough to threaten his regime. He also occasionally refers to various kinds of moderating bodies through the centuries—juries for example. These institutions are steps toward representative government.

Just as no one can say with confidence where the idea of representative government was born, Guizot does not claim to know when the first jury was assembled, a fool’s errand, at best. But the jury-like bodies he describes had a variety of proto-representative government functions in various countries, such as electing army and navy officers for military service, choosing kings in some countries, and examining allegations against the king’s peace committed elsewhere. It is interesting, by the way, how often, when the Antients created moderating or intervening bodies, they were local assemblies, for example, of 12 “principal men of each province.”

For Guizot, freedom’s problem is the natural tendency of power to consolidate; therefore, “We may … reduce to three conditions … fundamental … to the representative system.… These forms are “1st The division of powers; 2nd Election 3rd Publicity.” The first of these conditions we find in our Constitution. The second, “election,” he describes as “The true way to diffuse political life in all directions….” This feature also finds a place in the American Constitution. What, though, did Guizot mean by “publicity”? He says only that “… it connects power with society, [and] is the best guarantee against the usurpation of sovereignty as a right by the actual power.” In his other discussions, the concept resembles what we today call transparency or openness in government. Here, again, Guizot and the founders of our Constitution seem to be in accord. Indeed, one can imagine Guizot, had he the opportunity, arguing that freedom of expression deserves to be in the number-one position in the list of amendments to the federal constitution.

Perhaps these paraphrases and quotations from Guizot’s thinking might help readers see the relevance of his book for studying the Constitution and for contemplating the future of our country:

  • What we now call representative government seems to have started in Europe from about the tenth century when “the enfranchisement of the people made progress.”
  • The development of due process accompanied the transfer of power from the monarch to the parliament.
  • Liberty of speech, open deliberation, and the right of petition fostered Parliamentary development.
  • The “rational principle of representative government … is that no law is legitimate if it is not conformable to justice and to truth, that is to say, to the divine law.”
  • “It has happened thus in democracies, aristocracies, and monarchies; wherever actually sovereign power has been conferred upon a single man, or a single body of men, that man, or that body, has assumed to be rightfully sovereign; and more or less frequently, and with greater or less violence, it has exercised despotism.”
  • The struggle for freedom and sovereignty was often not between the upper and lower orders but between monarchs and those immediately below them; thus, Freedom “trickled down,” as we would say today, through social strata.
  • “The despotism of party spirit is no better than any other despotism and all good legislation should tend to preserve citizens from its sway.”
  • “The object of the representative system, in its original elements as well as in all the details of its organization, is, then, to collect and concentrate all the scattered elements of reason which exist in society, and to apply it to its government.”
  • “Political liberty has this in common with science generally; it is most dangerous when it is incomplete. The history of the British Parliament proves this at every step.”

Today, Guizot would undoubtedly give American citizens a failing grade for having forgotten this prime lesson of history: In the long haul, political systems haven’t irreversibly progressed upward from rule by brute force to representative government; they waxed and waned among monarchies, aristocracies, and “free institutions.”

March 25, 2009

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