Guizot on the legitimacy of state power and its limits (1851)

François Guizot

The French historian and politician François Guizot (1787-1874) reflects on the nature of political power and the role of representative government in keeping it within limits. He believed the “will of the people” had to be strictly limited by “reason, justice, and truth” in order not to violate the liberty of others:

What is true concerning the child and the imbecile is true of man in general: the right to power is always derived from reason, never from will. No one has a right to impose a law because he wills it; no one has a right to refuse submission to it because his will is opposed to it; the legitimacy of power rests in the conformity of its laws to the eternal reason—not in the will of the man who exercises, nor of him who submits to power.

Given as a series of lectures in the 1820s but not published until 1851, Guizot reflected on the nature of political power and the emergence of representative political institutions in Europe over many centuries. In chapter 10 of his important and influential book The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe he focused on the thought of Rousseau whose ideas had had a profound impact on many advocates of democracy during the French Revolution. The idea that “will” of many individuals could be organised to reflect “the general will” and that this “general will” gave legitimacy to the actions of the state was something Guizot vigorously opposed. He believed that no single person’s will, or that of a group of individuals organised into a political organisation like a representative government elected democratically, was morally or legally justified in imposing its will on others if it violated more abstract principles of reason and justice. His conclusion was that “no action, no power exercised by man over man, is legitimate if it wants the sanction of reason, justice, and truth, which are the law of God.” Or, we might add in a Jeffersonian manner, “the laws of nature.” It is interesting to note that he waited over 20 years before publishing his lectures in the aftermath of another disastrous Revolution (February 1848) which saw both Rousseau-inspired socialists and another Napoleon come to power. He obviously thought that the French still had not solved the problem of limiting the power of the state in general, or the power of representative government in particular.