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LECTURE 19 - 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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Government of Charlemagne. ~ Apparent revival of free institutions. ~ Individual independence and social liberty. ~ Organization of monarchical power under Charlemagne. ~ His active surveillance over his vassals and agents. ~ Rapid decline of monarchical institutions after his death. ~ Definitive predominance of the feudal system. ~ Central institutions during the same epoch: royalty. ~ Causes of the progress of royalty, and of the principle of hereditary succession among the Franks. ~ Influence of the clergy.
After the Merovingian anarchy, at the accession of the Carlovingians and especially during the reign of Charlemagne, two facts, which seem contradictory, present themselves to our notice. Free institutions appear to gain new life, and at the same time the monarchical system evidently prevails. We must closely study this singular coincidence, and endeavour thoroughly to understand its causes.
There are two ways in which we may understand a man’s personal liberty; first, as the independence of the individual having no law but his own will; and secondly, as the enfranchisement of every individual from every other individual will, which is contrary to reason and justice.
Liberty, if taken in the first sense, is barbarous and anti-social; it is the infancy, or rather the absence, of society. The word society itself indicates the union of individuals in one common idea, feeling, and interest. Society can exist only by the obedience of individuals to one common rule. If the liberty of each man constitutes his only law, if every restriction to the independence of individual will is considered illegitimate, society is impossible. The law which should rule society, according to truth and justice, is exterior to and independent of individual wills. The object of society is to discover this superior law, and to exact obedience to it alone; but to this law obedience must be given; society is possible only by the reign of brute force, or by the government of true law. If the independence of the individual is regarded as the condition of liberty, we may be certain that force will become the dominant power of society, for society there must be; it is an imperious necessity of human nature; and this necessity will receive its gratification from force, if it cannot obtain it from justice and reason.
The object of government, then, is twofold; it proposes, first, to seek out and discover the true law which must decide all the questions to which social relations give rise, and to subject to this law all adverse individual wills; and secondly, to prevent individuals from being subjected to any other laws but the true law, such, for example, as the arbitrary will of other more powerful individuals. Good and true government, then, does not say to every individual: “Thou shalt be subject only to thy own caprice,” for on these terms there could be no society, and no government; but it says: “Thou shalt be subject, not to the caprice of any other individual, but only to reason and justice.” The progress of civilization consists, on the one hand, in extending the authority of reason over all individuals, and in neglecting no means to convince their individual reason and to render their obedience voluntary; and, on the other hand, in limiting the sway of the arbitrary will of individuals over one another. Where the arbitrary will of one or more individuals prevails, legitimate liberty does not exist; where the isolated independence of every individual is maintained, society is impossible.
The importance of this distinction between moral and natural liberty, between social freedom and individual independence, is immense. It would be easy to demonstrate its intimate connexion with the true theory of liberty, considered in relation to man personally, and independently of society. It is as a reasonable being, capable of recognizing truth, that man is sublime; therein resides the divinity of his nature: liberty is in him nothing but the power of obeying the truth which he recognises, and making his actions conform thereto. On this ground, liberty is very respectable; but liberty is respectable on this ground alone.
In the infancy of society, the liberty which almost all men desire and defend, is natural liberty—liberty to do nothing but what they please. This is caused by the imperfection of the moral development of each individual, and by the imperfection of the same development in the social powers; from which imperfection it results that these powers ill-understand the true law, never apply it, and are themselves directed by individual wills, as arbitrary as they are capricious. On this account, the state of freedom with which we meet at the outset of all societies lasts for so short a time, and is so quickly superseded by the despotism of one or several persons. Society cannot exist if natural liberty, that is, individual independence, exists in all the extent of its desire: and as society is as yet ignorant both how to govern according to the moral law, and how to respect moral liberty, force seizes upon the government.1
When, in such a state of society, a man of superior genius and character appears, he is inevitably driven to found a despotism, that is, the empire of his own individual will. He is irritated and off ended by the collision of all these barbarous or stupid individual wills; his instinct tells him that society cannot exist in this manner, that such a state of things is not society. He is personally disgusted, moreover, at the sway which all these narrow and ignorant wills claim to exercise over all things, and even over himself. The authority of blind force over enlightened force is nothing but a despotism; and what is greater insolence than the power of a brutal multitude over a lofty individual reason? The superior man becomes indignant and seeks to free himself from this yoke, to impose some rule upon this disorder; and this rule he seeks in his own reason, in his own will. Thus is established, at such epochs, the despotism of a single person; it is not radically illegitimate, and the best proof that it is not, is afforded by the easy reception with which he meets the admiration with which he is regarded, the gratitude even which he inspires, and which lasts as long as the state of things which originated his power. In truth, the loftiest superiority, that which is most naturally called to empire by the disorder and dissolution of society, soon becomes corrupted and rude, by becoming itself a purely individual will, full of egotism and caprice: but that which constituted its force and credit, at the outset, was its better comprehension of the general wants of society; it had obtained a deeper knowledge of the true law which must govern society; and it rescued society from its losing battle with a multitude of ignorant or ferocious individual wills. It is by these means that great men triumph at first. It was thus that Charlemagne triumphed; it was thus that the first three Carlovingians, Pepin of Heristal, Charles Martel, and Pepin the Short, had prepared the way for him. Under the Merovingians, the state was falling into dissolution; every strong man was making himself independent, every weak man was falling into subjection to a stronger. Although the Pepins had sprung from the dominant aristocracy, they early struggled against its excesses. Charles Martel put down the petty tyrants who had sprung up in every direction. The tendency of Charlemagne’s policy was to establish the monarchical system, that is, to secure the universal prevalence of his will by making it felt everywhere by means of his agents. In order to understand with any exactness what was Charlemagne’s pure monarchy, we must see how he managed his own property, and in what manner he administered his palace. The activity of his surveillance was surprising; we shall find details of it in his capitulary De villis, and in the first part of one of Hincmar’s letters.2 He governed his empire in the same spirit. This was the only means he possessed for restoring order, and applying the national forces to the accomplishment of his designs. Into the despotism of a superior man, there always enters a powerful instinctive feeling of justice, and of protection to the weak. Charlemagne diligently endeavoured to check the power of the nobles by subjecting them to surveillance, and by bringing his subjects into direct relationship with the royal authority. He paid great attention to the employment and administration of his benefices, even when in the hands of beneficiaries; he was careful not to give more than one county to the same count, and this rule he rarely transgressed; he ordered the nobles to distribute strict justice to their vassals, and took most energetic measures to compel them to do so, and to judge all men according to the law. Charlemagne also kept watch over the conduct of the counts; the assemblies of free men had almost entirely perished; and they requested as a favour to be allowed to absent themselves. To supply the place of the active surveillance exercised by these ancient assemblies, Charlemagne created the missi dominici. These were inspectors of the whole state of the kingdom, and particularly of the conduct of the counts and nobles.
The delegates of Charlemagne, the imperial judges, had assessors; and as the free men whose duty it was to fill the office of assessors seldom attended the periodical assemblies, Charlemagne superseded them by the scabini,3 who were appointed by the missi dominici, whom he enjoined to select them with the greatest care. This intervention of the delegates of the sovereign himself in judicial affairs, was a powerful means of monarchical centralization.
In his Frankish empire, it was not against the ancient free institutions, but against public anarchy and the disorderly power of the strong, that Charlemagne directed these means of government. In his other dominions, wherever he feared the influence of liberty, his despotism was exerted to crush it rigorously; thus he interdicted all public assemblies of the Saxons.
All this monarchical organization fell with Charlemagne. Its existence is protracted, as if by habit, in the speeches and laws of Louis the Débonnair; but the hand which sustained the edifice is no longer there. The language of Charlemagne in the mouth of Charles the Bald, is nothing but a piece of ridiculous rhodomontade. The feudal system gains the upper hand and organizes itself in every direction. The great vassals either attack the king or isolate themselves from him. The dignity of count became so considerable, that the sons of kings and emperors desire and obtain it. Hereditary succession prevails in the offices of dukes, counts, viscounts, &c. Rhegino cites as a singular fact that the sons of Duke Robert did not succeed to his dukedom, and assigns as the reason, that their tender age rendered them incapable of repulsing the Normans. The sons of two counts of Austria were not put into possession of the counties of their fathers; so their relations took arms, and drove out the usurper. The power of the counts, now they had become hereditary seigneurs, was augmented by the authority they had exercised, under that title, as delegates of the king. The feudal hierarchy, strong by its own intrinsic power, thus gained additional strength from the wreck of royal authority. Hence resulted a new order of local institutions, which I cannot now explain.
The picture of central institutions reproduces, under another aspect, the same facts, and leads to the same results. Central institutions, as you are aware, may be reduced to two—royalty, and the general assemblies of the nation.
To royalty among the Franks you may apply what I have said of royalty among the Anglo-Saxons; only, among the Franks, the royal family does not bear, at the outset, the character of a religious filiation. This is perhaps attributable to the fact that the Franks were a confederation of different tribes; among them, the king appears especially as a military chieftain. Under the first Merovingians, there was always a great mixture of hereditariness and election; hereditariness fluctuated among the members of the same family; election, when it was not an act of violence, was rather a recognition than an election.
It is a grave error to expect to find in facts the basis of a primitive and exclusive law: facts may be made to demonstrate anything. The most opposite parties have fallen into the same error in this respect. Whoever has discovered, at the origin of a state, an act of violence in conformity to his preconceived opinion, takes it as the foundation of what he calls the general law. Some fancy they can discern absolute and well-regulated hereditary succession in the midst of barbarism; others transfer the troubles and violence of a barbarian election into a more advanced stage of civilization; whatever they find existing as fact in the infancy of society, they convert into law for society in its greatest extension and development. This is neither philosophy nor history. The ruling law is that which is conformable to reason and justice. There is always more or less of this law at every epoch in the life of human society; but at no epoch is it pure or complete. We must resign ourselves to the task of freeing it everywhere from all alloy.
Let us then pass by the primitive and exclusive right of royal heredity, which existed neither among the Franks nor in other countries; all that can be said is that the principle of hereditary monarchy tended, early and constantly, to prevail. The heirship of the private domain of the kings, which was of considerable value, powerfully contributed to establish the heirship of the kingdom, just as the partition of the private domain among the sons led to the partition of the royal dominions; but the partition of the kingdom was almost always made with the consent of the nobles, whilst the heirship of the crown, in each state, does not appear to have required their formal assent.
We have already seen what were the causes which occasioned the fall of the Merovingian race, and the accession of Carlovingians. The fall of the latter, in the tenth century presents some features of similarity to that of the Merovingians, but between the two, there was greater diversity than resemblance. The ancient companions of the Frankish kings, the Leudes, the Antrustions, and the beneficiaries, had left the court, established themselves on their lands, and become feudal lords: revolutions were no longer effected at the foot of the throne, and in the interior of the royal palace. The feudal lords were much more isolated, not only from the king, but also from one another, than the Leudes had been under the Merovingians. Pepin the Short was king in fact when Childeric III. was king in name; Pepin assumed the name belonging to his power. At the end of the tenth century, there was no king, and no powerful man in the king’s service who wielded the royal power in the name of Louis V. Hugh Capet took possession of an almost vacant place, which, at the moment, added much to his dignity, but little to his authority. After the fall of the Merovingians, Pepin and Charlemagne were able to attempt to establish the monarchical system, and to inaugurate the central authority of the king; Hugh Capet was unable to do this, nor did he attempt it; the feudal lordships had divided the kingdom amongst them. Pepin was the head of an aristocracy which had its centre in the palace of the Merovingian kings. Hugh Capet was one of the principal members of an aristocracy which had no centre; he made himself king because the crown was within his reach. If Louis V. had resided at Rouen, the Duke of Normandy would probably have seized the monarchy.
As regards the nature and extent of the royal authority, what I have already said sufficiently indicates what it was: very limited and precarious before the settlement of the Franks on Roman territory—being nothing but the power of the chief of a warlike band, always restrained by the presence of the free men, his comrades—it became extended and strengthened after the conquest by various causes: 1. By the dispersion of the Franks. They ceased constantly to surround the king; his authority was but slight over those who left him; but those who were habitually near him depended more closely upon him; a court of barbarian servants succeeded to a court of warriors. 2. By the subjugation of neighbouring chiefs or kings. 3. By the increasing inequality of wealth: the royal property greatly augmented, and this was their principal source of power; they devoted all their energies to the amassing of treasure; it was useless to leave their children a kingdom, unless they could at the same time bequeath to them a full exchequer.4. By the influence of religious and Roman ideas. In the opinion of the Christians, the king was the successor of Saul and of David; in that of the Romans, he was the representative of the emperors. The Frankish kings were fully sensible of the advantages of this two-fold position, and they eagerly accepted the titles of Patrician and Consul. But the royal authority had no definite character; it was proportionate to the ability and energy of those who exercised it.
Nothing can be more different than the idea of royal authority in those times and in our own day. If a village were now to disregard the king’s authority, or to refuse to obey him, it would be a serious event, the sign of a great decay of power. Such was not the case then; authority was not universally diffused over the country; remote places and interests were in some sort independent of it. It had no real supremacy, except in case of war; the rays of its influence were short, and wherever it was applied, it was matter of fact rather than of right.
With regard to authority and liberty, right and fact are almost identical in the infancy of society. The idea of right, separate from fact, has but very little power and can scarcely be said to exist. Hence arise the eternal vicissitudes of authority and liberty; whoever ceases to possess them is never permitted to regain them. It is the work and the master-work of civilization to separate right from fact, and to constitute right a power able to maintain, defend, and vindicate itself.
We must not, however, believe that religious ideas exercised no other influence, in regard to the royal authority, than to extend it, and to represent it as absolute and springing from divine right; they contributed powerfully to render it moral. It is true, they rendered it independent of the public liberties, which were frequently mere embodiments of arbitrary power and brute force, and thus they helped to establish absolute power; but at the same time they subordinated it to the divine laws, in which the moral laws are comprised. The limits which Frankish usages imposed on the royal authority were very different from those assigned to it by Christian ideas: “the king,” to use the expression of the Councils, “is he who governs with pity, justice, and goodness; he who does not govern thus is not a king, but a tyrant.” The restraint which this principle laid upon the royal authority was more efficacious than that which resulted from the influence of Frankish usages. This system, it is true, gave no positive and real guarantee for the observance of the rules which it imposed as duties upon royalty. But the age in which we live has taken too much pains to seek guarantees in physical force, and has neglected to seek for them in the power of moral ideas. In barbarian times, as all powers, both of kings and subjects, are almost equally unregulated, they appear bad guarantees to sensible men, who seek for purer sureties in moral ideas. When, in the epoch of which we are now speaking, the Franks or Leudes repress the abuse of royal authority, they repress it only in virtue of their own powers, and defend their liberties only out of regard to their own interests, and not in obedience to any moral idea of justice and of general right. The ecclesiastics, on the contrary, speak in the name of the general ideas of justice and humanity. They oppose morality rather than force to the abuse of authority. The clergy thus gave utterance to things which answered to the necessities of all the weak, and led them to consider them as their protectors.
The vice of the religious system, doubtless, is that it creates no political institution, and consequently, no effectual guarantee; thus it always ends by being more favourable to power than to liberty: but, in barbarous ages, when power and liberty were almost equally brutal and anarchical, this system has rendered immense services to humanity and to civilization.
[1. ]This long discussion sheds light on Guizot’s distinction between moral and natural liberty, i.e., between social freedom and individual independence. For Guizot, liberty is not the freedom to do what ones pleases, but the freedom to do what the precepts of reason, truth, and justice require us to do. In other words, liberty is respectable only insofar as it is defined as the power of discovering and translating into practice the principles of reason, truth, and justice. Writes Guizot: “Liberty, as existing in the individual man, is the power to conform his will to reason . . . ; accordingly the right to liberty . . . is derived from the right to obey nothing that is not reason”(HORG, p. 296). Guizot developed the same idea in his unfinished treatise Philosophie politique: de la souveraineté (Political Philosophy: On Sovereignty), where he pointed out that liberty cannot be identified with individual sovereignty or will, since no individual will can ever be the source of legitimate power. On the contrary, human beings are (and can remain) free only as long as they obey a transcendent law which does not depend on their will or consent. The upshot of this idea is that only the law of reason, truth, justice can legitimately command universal allegiance. For more details on Guizot’s theory of liberty, see HORG, pp. 285–97.
[2. ]For a detailed discussion of Hincmar’s letter (written in 882), see HORG, pp. 143–48.
[3. ]Royal judges; also see p. 149.