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

François Guizot

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.

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.