Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter one: On the Limitation of Political Authority - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter one: On the Limitation of Political Authority - Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments 
Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
On the Limitation of Political Authority
A careful distinction must be made between Rousseau’s two principles. The first has to be accepted. All authority which does not issue from the general will is undoubtedly illegitimate. The second must be rejected. The authority which issues from the general will is not legitimate merely by virtue of this, whatever its extent may be and whatever objects it is exercised over. The first of these principles is the most salutary truth, the second the most dangerous of errors. The former is the basis of all freedom, the latter the justification of all despotism.
In a society whose members have equal rights, it is certain that no member can on his own make obligatory laws for the others. It is wrong, however, to say that society as a whole enjoys this faculty without restriction. The body of all citizens is sovereign. This is to say that no individual, no group, no faction, can assume sovereignty except by delegation from that body. It does not follow, however, that the citizen body or those in whom it has vested the exercise of its sovereignty, can use it to dispose sovereignly of individual lives. On the contrary, there is a part of human existence which necessarily remains individual and independent, and by right beyond all political jurisdiction. Sovereignty exists only in a limited and relative way. The jurisdiction of this sovereignty stops where independent, individual existence begins. If society crosses this boundary, it becomes as guilty of tyranny as the despot whose only claim to office is the murderous sword. The legitimacy of government  depends on its purpose as well as upon its source. When that government is extended to purposes outside its competence, it becomes illegitimate. Political society cannot exceed its jurisdiction without being usurpative, nor can the majority without becoming factious. The assent of the majority is not enough in all circumstances to render its actions lawful. There are acts which nothing can endow with that character. When a government of any sort puts a threatening hand on that part of individual life beyond its proper scope, it matters little on what such authority claims to be based, whether it calls itself individual or nation. Even if it were the whole nation, except for the man it is harassing, it would be no more legitimate for that. If anyone thinks these maxims dangerous, let him think about the other, contrary dispensation which authorized the horrors of Robespierre and the oppressions of Caligula alike.