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LECTURE 7 - François Guizot, The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe 
The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, trans. Andrew R. Scoble, Introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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Comparison of the principles of different governments with the true principle of representative government. ~ Aristocratic governments. ~ Origin and history of the word aristocracy. ~ Principle of this form of government; its consequences. ~ How the principle of representative government enters into aristocratic governments. ~ Democratic governments. ~ Origin and consequences of the principle of the sovereignty of the people. ~ This principle not identical with that of representative government. ~ In what sense representative government is the government of the majority.
I have, in my previous lecture, shown the error of those superficial classifications which only distinguish governments according to their exterior characteristics; I have recognised and separated with precision between the two opposite principles, which are, both of them, the basis of all government; I have identified representative government with one of these principles; I have proved that it could not be deduced from the other; I wish now to compare the principle of representative government with the contrary principle, and to show the opposite condition of governments which refer to it as their starting-point. I will begin by an examination of that form of government which is usually termed aristocratic.
There is a close connexion between the progressive changes that may be observed in language and those that belong to society. The word aristocracy originally signified the empire of the strong; Ἄρηϛ, ἀρείων, ἂριστον were, at first, terms applied to those who were physically the most powerful; then they were used to designate the most influential, the richest, and finally the best, those possessing the most ability or virtue. This is the history of the successive acceptations of the word in the language from which it is borrowed; the same terms which were first applied to force, the superiority of force, came at length to designate moral and intellectual superiority—virtue.
Nothing can better characterise than this the progress of society, which begins with the predominance of force, and tends to pass under the empire of moral and intellectual superiority. The desire and tendency of society are in fact towards being governed by the best, by those who most thoroughly know and most heartily respond to the teachings of truth and justice; in this sense, all good governments, and pre-eminently the representative form of government, have for their object to draw forth from the bosom of society that veritable and legitimate aristocracy, by which it has a right to be governed, and which has a right to govern it.
But such has not been the historical signification of the word aristocracy. If we take the word according as facts have interpreted it, we shall find its meaning to be, a government in which the sovereign power is placed at the disposal of a particular class of citizens, who are hereditarily invested with it, their only qualification being a certain descent, in a manner more or less exclusive, and sometimes almost completely exclusive.
I do not inquire whence this system of government has derived its origin; how, in the infancy of society, it has sprung almost invariably from the moral superiority of its first founders; how force, which was originally due to moral superiority, was afterwards perpetuated by itself, and became a usurper; these questions, which possess the highest interest, would carry me away from my main point. I am seeking for the fundamental principle of aristocratic government, and I believe it can be summed up in the following terms; the right of sovereignty, attributed in a manner if not entirely exclusive, yet especially and chiefly to a certain class of citizens, whose only claim is that of descent in a certain line.
This principle is no other than that of the sovereignty of the people confined to a small number of individuals,—to a minority. In both cases, the right to sovereignty is derived, not from any presumed capacity to fulfil certain conditions, nor from intellectual and moral superiority proved in any particular manner, but from the solitary fact of birth, without any condition. In the aristocratic system, an individual is born to a position of sovereignty merely because he has been born into a privileged class; according to the democratic system, an individual is born to a position of sovereignty by the circumstance that he is born into humanity. The participation in sovereignty is in each case the result of a purely material fact, independent of the worth of him who possesses it, and of the judgment of those over whom it is to be exercised. It follows evidently from this, that aristocratic governments are to be classed among those which rest on the idea that the right of sovereignty exists, full and entire, somewhere on the earth—an idea directly contrary, as we have seen, to the principle of representative government.
If we look at the consequences of this idea—such consequences as have actually manifested themselves in the history of governments of this kind—we shall see that they are not less contrary to the consequences, historical as well as natural, of a representative government.
In order to maintain the right of sovereignty in the class to which it is exclusively attributed, it must necessarily establish a great inequality in fact, as well as in opinion, between this class and the rest of the citizens. Hence arise all those institutions and laws which characterise aristocratic governments, and which have for their object to concentrate, into the hands of the sole possessors of the sovereignty, all wealth and enlightenment, and all the various instruments of power. It is necessary that the sovereign class should not descend, and that others should not be elevated; otherwise actual power ceasing to approximate to rightful power, the legitimacy of the latter would soon be questioned, and, after a short time, its continuance endangered.
In the system of those governments which attribute to no individual upon earth a right of sovereignty, and which impose on the existing government the necessity of seeking continually for truth, reason, and justice, as the rule and source of rightful power, all classes of society are perpetually invited and urged to elevate and perfect themselves. Legitimate forms of supremacy are produced, and assume their position; illegitimate forms are unmasked and deposed. Factitious and violent inequalities are resisted and exhibited in their true colours; social forces are, so to speak, brought into competition, and the forces which struggle to possess them are moral.
A second consequence of the principle of aristocratic governments is their avoidance of publicity. When each one of those who participate in the rightful sovereignty possesses it by the mere accident of birth, and exercises it on his own individual responsibility, he need not recognise any one as claiming a right to call him to account. No one has any right to inquire into the use which he makes of his power, for he acts in virtue of a right which no one can contest, because no one can deprive him of it. It is a right which needs not to justify itself, since it is connected with a fact that is palpable and permanent.
In the other system, on the contrary, publicity follows necessarily from the principle of government; for since the right to power is derived from superiority in the knowledge and practice of reason, truth, and justice, which no one is supposed to possess fully and at all times, it is imperative that this right should justify itself both before it is assumed and all the time that it is exercised.
It would be easy thus, proceeding continually within view of real facts, to compare the different consequences of the principle of purely aristocratic governments and those resulting from the principle of representative government, and to show that they are always opposed to one another. We should thereby demonstrate most completely the opposition of the principles themselves, and bring their true nature into clearer light; but I have already said enough on this point. And if any one asserts that I have too rigorously insisted upon inferences to be drawn from the principle of aristocratic governments, that the consequences which I have depicted do never fulfil themselves in so complete a manner, that, for example, the qualification of birth has never held exclusive possession of a right to sovereignty, that never has publicity been entirely quenched—I freely concede all this. At no time, in no place, has evil been allowed to gain exclusive possession of society and government; struggle between principles of good and evil is the permanent condition of the world. False ideas may achieve a more or less extended, a more or less durable success—they can never extirpate their godlike assailants. Truth is patient—it does not easily surrender its hold on society—it never abandons its purpose—it even exercises some sway over that region where error reigns most despotically. Providence never permits bad governments to become so bad as is logically demanded by the principle upon which they rest. So we have seen institutions of justice and liberty existing and even gaining a powerful existence, in the midst of societies ruled by the principle of hereditary right; these institutions have battled against the principle, and have modified it. When the worse principle has prevailed, then have society and government fallen into impotence and decay; this is the history of the Venetian republic. Elsewhere, the struggle has been attended with happier results: the good principle has possessed sufficient force to be able to introduce into the government elements, which have made it vital, which have protected society against the effects of the evil principle, which have even in some sort saved the evil itself, rendering it tolerable by the good with which it is associated. This is the history of England, that striking example of the mixture and struggle of good and evil principles. But their mixture, however intimate it may be, does not prove that they are confounded in their interior character. Good never springs from evil; and representative government has not sprung in England, any more than elsewhere, from the exclusive principle of aristocratic governments; it has sprung from an entirely different principle; and so far from the distinction which I established at the commencement being compromised by the facts to which I have alluded, it is on the other hand triumphantly confirmed by them.
I have just proved, by a comparison between the principle of the aristocratic and that of the democratic form of government, that they are essentially different; I intend now to show that there is as fundamental a difference between the principle of representative government, and that of democratic government.1
No one has ever understood the sovereignty of the people to mean, that after having consulted all opinions and all wills, the opinion and will of the greatest number constitutes the law, but that the minority would be free to disobey that which had been decided in opposition to its opinion and will. And yet this would be the necessary consequence of the pretended right attributed to each individual of being governed only by such laws as have received his individual assent. The absurdity of this consequence has not always induced its adherents to abandon the principle, but it has always obliged them to violate it. The sovereignty of the people is contradicted at the outset, by its being resolved into the empire of the majority over the minority. It is almost ridiculous to say that the minority may retire from the majority; this would be to keep society continually on the brink of dissolution. On every question the majority and the minority would disagree, and if all the successive minorities should retire, society would very soon exist no longer. The sovereignty of the people then must necessarily be reduced to the sovereignty of the majority only. When thus reduced, what does it amount to?
Its principle is, that the majority possesses right by the mere circumstance of its being the majority. But two very different ideas are included in the one expression—the majority; the idea of an opinion which is accredited, and that of a force which is preponderant. So far as force is concerned, the majority possesses no right different from that possessed by force itself, which cannot be, upon this ground alone, the legitimate sovereignty. As to the expression of opinion, is the majority infallible?—does it always apprehend and respect the claims of reason and justice, which alone constitute true law, and confer legitimate sovereignty? Experience testifies to the contrary. The majority, by mere fact of its being a majority, that is to say, by the mere force of numbers, does not then possess legitimate sovereignty, either by virtue of power, which never does confer it, nor by virtue of infallibility, which it does not possess.
The principle of the sovereignty of the people starts from the supposition that each man possesses as his birthright, not merely an equal right of being governed, but an equal right of governing others. Like aristocratic governments, it connects the right to govern, not with capacity, but with birth. Aristocratic government is the sovereignty of the people in the minority; the sovereignty of the people is aristocratic despotism and privilege in the hands of the majority. In both cases, the principle is the same; a principle contrary, in the first place, to the fact of the inequality established by nature, between the powers and capacities of different individuals; secondly, to the fact of the inequality in capacity, occasioned by difference of position, a difference which exists everywhere, and which has its source in the natural inequality of men; thirdly, to the experience of the world, which has always seen the timid following the brave, the incompetent obeying the competent,—in one word, those who are naturally inferior recognising and submitting themselves to their natural superiors. The principle of the sovereignty of the people, that is to say, the equal right of all individuals to exercise sovereignty, or merely the right of all individuals to concur in the exercise of sovereignty, is then radically false; for, under the pretext of maintaining legitimate equality, it violently introduces equality where none exists, and pays no regard to legitimate inequality. The consequences of this principle are the despotism of number, the domination of inferiorities over superiorities, that is, a tyranny of all others the most violent and unjust.
At the same time, it is of all others the most transient, for the principle is impossible of application. After its force has spent itself in excesses, number necessarily submits to capacity—the inferior retire to make room for the superior—these enter again into possession of their right, and society is reestablished.
Such cannot be the principle of representative government. No one disputes that the true law of government is that of reason, truth, and justice, which no one possesses but which certain men are more capable than others of seeking and discovering. Faithful to this aim, representative government rests upon the disposition of actual power in proportion to the capacity to act according to reason and justice, from whence power derives its right. It is the principle which, by the admission of all, and by virtue of its simple appeal to the common sense of the community, is applicable to ordinary life, and to the interest of individuals themselves. It is the principle which confers the sovereignty over persons, families, property, only to the individual who is presumed to be capable of using it reasonably, and which withdraws it from him who is seen to be positively incapable. Representative government applies to general interests, and to the government of society, the same principle which the good sense of the human race has led it to apply to individual interests and to the control of each man’s private life. It distributes sovereignty according to the capacity required for it, that is to say, it only places actual power, or any portion of actual power, where it has discovered the presence of rightful power, presumed to exist by certain symptoms, or tested by certain proofs. It is remembered, that power though legitimate is not to be conceded fully and completely to any one, and not only is it not attributed to the mere fact of birth, but it cannot be allowed to remain by itself in irresponsible isolation, which is the second characteristic of representative government, by which, not less than by the preceding, it is distinguished from the sovereignty of the people.
It has been often said, that representative government is the government of the majority, and there is some truth in the assertion; but it must not be thought that this government of the majority is the same as that involved in the sovereignty of the people. The principle of the sovereignty of the people applies to all individuals, merely because they exist, without demanding of them anything more. Thus, it takes the majority of these individuals, and says—Here is reason, here is law. Representative government proceeds in another way: it considers what is the kind of action to which individuals are called; it examines into the amount of capacity requisite for this action; it then summons those individuals who are supposed to possess this capacity—all such, and such only. Then it seeks for a majority among those who are capable.
It is in this way, in fact, that men have everywhere proceeded, even when they have been supposed to act according to the idea of the sovereignty of the people. Never have they been entirely faithful to it; they have always demanded for political actions certain conditions, that is to say, indications of a certain capacity. They have been mistaken, more or less, and have excluded the capable, or invited the inefficient, and the error is a serious one. But they have followed the principle which measures right by capacity, even when they have professed the principle that right is derived from the simple fact of possessing a human nature. Representative government, then, is not purely and simply the government of the numerical majority, it is government by the majority of those who are qualified to govern; sometimes assuming the existence of the qualification beforehand, sometimes requiring that it should be proved and exemplified. The peerage, the right to elect and to be elected, the royal power itself, are attached to a capacity presumed to exist, not only after certain conditions have been complied with, but by reason of the position occupied by those men in whom the capacity is presumed, in their relations to other powers, and in the limits of the functions assigned to them. No one is recognised as possessing an inherent right to an office or a function. Nor is this all; representative government does not content itself with demanding capacity before it confers power; as soon as the capacity is presumed or proved, it is placed in a position where it is open to a kind of legal suspicion, and where it must necessarily continue to legitimatize itself, in order to retain its power. According to the principle of the sovereignty of the people, absolute right resides with the majority; true sovereignty exists wherever this force is manifested; from this follows necessarily the oppression of the minority, and such has, in fact, generally been the result. The representative form of government, never forgetting that reason and justice, and consequently a right to sovereignty, do not reside fully and constantly in any part of the earth, presumes that they are to be found in the majority, but does not attribute them to it as their certain and abiding qualities. At the very moment when it presumes that the majority is right, it does not forget that it may be wrong, and its concern is to give full opportunity to the minority of proving that it is in fact right, and of becoming in its turn the majority. Electoral precautions, the debates in the deliberative assemblies, the publication of these debates, the liberty of the press, the responsibility of ministers, all these arrangements have for their object to insure that a majority shall be declared only after it has well authenticated itself, to compel it ever to legitimatize itself, in order to its own preservation, and to place the minority in such a position as that it may contest the power and right of the majority.
Thus, the considerations we have suggested show that a representative form of government regards the individuals whom it brings into activity, and the majority which it seeks, from quite another point of view than that involved in the sovereignty of the people. The latter admits that the right of sovereignty resides somewhere upon the earth; the former denies it: this finds the right in question in a purely numerical majority; that seeks it in the majority of those qualified to pronounce on the subject: the one attributes it fully and entirely to number; the other is satisfied with the presumption that it is there, admits at the same time that it may possibly not be there, and invites the minority to substantiate its claims, securing, meanwhile, every facility for its so doing. The sovereignty of the people sees legitimate power in the multitude; representative government sees it only in unity, that is to say, in the reason to which the multitude ought to reduce itself. The sovereignty of the people makes power to come from below; representative government recognises the fact that all power comes from above, and at the same time obliges all who assume to be invested with it to substantiate the legitimacy of their pretensions before men who are capable of appreciating them. The one tends to lower those who are superior, the other to elevate those who are inferior, by bringing them into communication with those who are naturally above them. The sovereignty of the people is full at once of pride and of envy; representative government renders homage to the dignity of our nature, without ignoring its frailty, and recognises its frailty without outrage to its dignity. The principle of the sovereignty of the people is contrary to all the facts which reveal themselves in the actual origin of power, and in the progress of societies; representative government does not blink any one of these facts. Lastly, the sovereignty of the people is no sooner proclaimed, than it is compelled to abdicate its power, and to confess the impracticability of its aims; representative government moves naturally and steadily onward, and develops itself by its very existence.2
So far, then, from deriving its existence from the principle of the sovereignty of the people, representative government disowns this principle, and rests upon an entirely different idea, and one which is attended with entirely different consequences. It matters little that this form of government has been often claimed in the name of the sovereignty of the people, and that its principal epochs of development have occurred at times when that idea predominated; the reasons of this fact are easily discovered. The sovereignty of the people is a great force which sometimes interferes to break up an inequality which has become excessive, or a power which has become absolute, when society can no longer accommodate itself to them; as despotism sometimes interferes, in the name of order, violently to restore a society on the brink of dissolution. It is only a weapon of attack and destruction, never an instrument for the foundation of liberty. It is not a principle of government, it is a terrible but transient dictatorship, exercised by the multitude—a dictatorship that ceases, and that ought to cease as soon as the multitude has accomplished its work of destruction.
Briefly, to conclude: as the object of these lectures is to trace the course of representative government in modern Europe wherever it has found any footing, I have looked for the primal type of this government in order to compare it with the government of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, which we have already examined, and with the other primitive governments which we shall meet with in Europe. In order to distinguish precisely the character of a representative government, I have been obliged to go back to the source of all government. I think I have shown that we must classify all governments according to two different principles. The one class, allied to justice and reason, recognises these alone as their guides; and as it is not in the power of human feebleness, in this world, to follow infallibly these sacred leaders, these governments do not concede to any one the possession of an absolute right to sovereignty, and they call upon the entire body of society to aid in the discovery of the law of justice and reason, which can alone confer it. The other class, on the contrary, admitting a right inherent in man to make a law for himself, thus degrade the rightful sovereignty; which, as it belongs only to justice and reason, ought never to come under the absolute control of man, who is ever too ready to usurp sovereignty, in order to exercise it for the promotion of his private interests, or for the gratification of his passions. I have shown that a representative government alone renders homage to true principles, and that all other governments, democratic as well as aristocratic, ought to be arranged according to an entirely different scheme of classification. I have now to enter upon the examination of the exterior forms of representative government, and to compare its principle with the historical principle of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, as it is exhibited before us in its institutions.
[1. ]The difference between the principle of representative government and political democracy is another key idea in Guizot’s political thought. It will be recalled that Guizot welcomed democracy as a social condition while also arguing for limited franchise. This ambivalent attitude toward democracy was widely shared by nineteenth-century liberals. Haunted by the specter of the darkest episodes of the Revolution, Guizot feared the potentially destructive elements of democracy. Nonetheless, he defended civil equality and civil rights, which he considered to be fundamental principles of the new social order. Furthermore, the distinction between representative government and political democracy must be related to another important dichotomy in Guizot’s political philosophy between the sovereignty of reason and popular sovereignty. Unlike political democracy, representative government grants power and political rights only in proportion to the capacity of individuals to act according to reason and justice. Therefore, representative government is not purely and simply the government of the numerical majority, but the “government by the majority of those who are qualified to govern” (HORG, p. 62). For another important statement on political democracy, also see Guizot, “De la démocratie dans les sociétés modernes,” Revue française, Vol. III, 1837, pp. 139–225.
[2. ]This is yet another important passage in which Guizot elaborates on the distinction between the sovereignty of reason and the sovereignty of the people. It will be recalled that for Guizot, the legitimacy of power does not necessarily result from the number of voices that might support a certain course of action, since justice and wisdom are not necessarily present in the will of the majority. Moreover, Guizot argues that it is false to assume that the entire people could ever exercise political power in the proper sense of the word.