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Guizot on man’s unquenchable desire for liberty and free political institutions (1820-22)

The French politician and liberal historian François Guizot (1787-1874) argued in 1822 that no matter what the outward form a government might be “there is an instinctive sense of justice and reason dwelling in every human spirit” which always bubbles to the surface to express the desire for liberty and free institutions such as representative government:

At all times men have endeavoured to limit the power which they regarded as perfectly legitimate. Never has a force, although invested with the right of sovereignty, been allowed to develop that right to its full extent. The janissaries in Turkey sometimes served, sometimes abrogated, the absolute power of the Sultan. In democracies, where the right of sovereignty is vested in popular assemblies, efforts have been continually made to oppose conditions, obstacles, and limits to that sovereignty. Always, in all governments which are absolute in principle, some kind of protest has been made against the principle. Whence comes this universal protest? We might, looking merely at the surface of things, be tempted to say that it is only a struggle of powers. This has existed without doubt, but another and a grander element has existed along with it; there is an instinctive sense of justice and reason dwelling in every human spirit. Tyranny has been opposed, whether it were the tyranny of individuals or of multitudes, not only by a consciousness of power, but by a sentiment of right. It is this consciousness of justice and right, that is to say, of a rule independent of human will—a consciousness often obscure but always powerful—which, sooner or later, rouses and assists men to resist all tyranny, whatever may be its name and form. The voice of humanity, then, has proclaimed that the right of sovereignty vested in men, whether in one, in many, or in all, is an iniquitous lie.

Such, however, is the force of truth, that this error could not reign alone and absolutely. At the very time when men appeared to believe, and did theoretically believe, that the primitive and absolute power of giving law belonged to some one, whether monarch, senate, or people, at the same time they struggled against that principle. At all times men have endeavoured to limit the power which they regarded as perfectly legitimate. Never has a force, although invested with the right of sovereignty, been allowed to develop that right to its full extent. The janissaries in Turkey sometimes served, sometimes abrogated, the absolute power of the Sultan. In democracies, where the right of sovereignty is vested in popular assemblies, efforts have been continually made to oppose conditions, obstacles, and limits to that sovereignty. Always, in all governments which are absolute in principle, some kind of protest has been made against the principle. Whence comes this universal protest? We might, looking merely at the surface of things, be tempted to say that it is only a struggle of powers. This has existed without doubt, but another and a grander element has existed along with it; there is an instinctive sense of justice and reason dwelling in every human spirit. Tyranny has been opposed, whether it were the tyranny of individuals or of multitudes, not only by a consciousness of power, but by a sentiment of right. It is this consciousness of justice and right, that is to say, of a rule independent of human will—a consciousness often obscure but always powerful—which, sooner [51] or later, rouses and assists men to resist all tyranny, whatever may be its name and form. The voice of humanity, then, has proclaimed that the right of sovereignty vested in men, whether in one, in many, or in all, is an iniquitous lie.

If, then, the right of sovereignty cannot be vested in any one man, or collection of men, where does it reside, and what is the principle on which it rests?

In his interior life—in his dealings with himself, if I may be allowed the expression, as well as in his exterior life, and in his dealings with his fellows—the man who feels himself free and capable of action, has ever a glimpse of a natural law by which his action is regulated. He recognises a something which is not his own will, and which must regulate his will. He feels himself bound by reason or morality to do certain things; he sees, or he feels that there are certain things which he ought or ought not to do. This something is the law which is superior to man, and made for him—the divine law. The true law of man is not the work of man; he receives, but does not create it; even when he submits to it, it is not his own—it is beyond and above him.

Man does not always submit; in the exercise of his free will and imperfect nature, he does not invariably obey this law. He is influenced by other principles of action than this, and although he perceives that the motives which impel him are vicious, nevertheless he often yields to them. But whether he obey or not, the supreme law for man is always existent—in his wildest dreams he recognises it, as placed above him.

We see, then, the individual always in presence of a law,—one which he did not create, but which asserts its claim over him, and never abandons him. If he enters into society with his fellows, or finds himself thus associated, what other rule than this will he possess? Should human society involve an abdication of human nature? No; man in society must and does remain essentially the same as in his individual capacity; and as society is nothing but a collection of individuals, the supreme law of society must be the same as that which exercises a rightful control over individuals themselves.

About this Quotation:

The historian Guizot traced the origin of modern representative government to the English and Germanic tribes of the early middle ages. What gives his analysis considerable power and relevance to France in 1822 and now is that at the same time that he is tracing the unique historical forms which these proto-representative institutions took he also wants to show how the love of liberty is something which is universal in all mankind no matter what the contemporary circumstances might be. Within each human’s breast there is a desire for independence, autonomy, and freedom which cannot be extinguished for long by tyrants or emperors (he had in mind Napoleon of course). A consequence of his view is that he rejects much of contemporary political theory, which was either concerned with the outward form which political institutions took (monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy), or how the different branches of government might act as checks and balances against each other. Guizot argues that liberty and free institutions arise and are protected from encroachment by tyrants because there is “an instinctive sense of justice and reason dwelling in every human spirit”, or “a natural law”, which results in the possibility of a “universal protest” against injustice. Hence, in his view, liberty comes from within the individual not without from any given form of government.

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