Front Page Titles (by Subject) From Royal to National Treason - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1982, vol. 5, No. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
From Royal to National Treason - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1982, vol. 5, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
From Royal to National Treason
“From Lèse-Majesté to Lèse-Nation in Eighteenth-Century France.” Journal of the History of Ideas 42 (April—June 1981): 269–286.
The concept of treason (an offense against the state's summa potestas or sovereignty) underwent a sea-change in eighteenth-century France while still maintaining the authoritarian core of its earlier meaning. Until the Revolution in 1789, treason was lèse-majesté: any violation of the “majesty” of the king who personified public power (violations might include assaults, libels, counterfeiting, etc.). But with the Revolution the object of treason became transformed into lèse-nation: a violation of the majesty of the nation or people in general. With the Terror “majesty is revolutionized as well as nationalized. The nation is sovereign, but the exercise of sovereignty is aleatory and up for grabs.”
Western political and legal thought had prepared the way for the newer ‘nationalߣ version of treason by carrying in its traditions different notions of “majesty” derived from sources in Roman law and historical memories of ancient republics. Thus, subterranean republican legal tradition had founded sovereignty and majesty in the populus or citizens at large. This was contradictory to the royal ideology of the Bourbons who subscribed to Bishop Bossuet's maxim: “the state is in the person of the prince.” Gradually during the eighteenth century a subversive republican (and largely literary) tradition arose to contest these royalist claims. The concept of lèse-nation was also nurtured by a “philosophical” critique against many of the elements judged inseparable from royal majesty. Aiding this nationalizing development was the tendency to identify France rather than the monarchy as the focus of patriotic unity. Finally, during this period, we discern the evolution of a representative rather than an omnipotent notion of kingship, which sapped the vitality of absolute royal majesty.
The historical evolution from royal to republican or ‘national’ treason is traced by Kelly throughout the eighteenth century. Paradoxically, the Revolution brought about punishments for treason far more severe and widespread than those suffered under the monarchy. What remained uncontested was the belief that public power, however defined, must not be challenged or contradicted by dissenters.