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Variations on Montesquieu: Raynal and Diderot's "Histoire des deux Indes" and the American

Revolution
Author(s): Guillaume Ansart
Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Jul., 2009), pp. 399-420
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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Variations
on
Montesquieu: Raynal
and
Diderofs Histoire des deux Indes and
the American Revolution
Guillaume Ansart
Within the rich
body
of literature on the United States
published
in France
during
the
period extending
from the
beginning
of the rebellion in the colo
nies to the start of the French
Revolution, Raynal
and Diderot's Histoire
pbilosophique
et
politique
des etablissements et du commerce des Euro
p?ern
dans les deux Indes
(A Philosophical
and
political history of
the set
tlements and trade
of
the
Europeans
in the East and West
Indies, 1770-80)
holds a
privileged place.1
Little known
today,
the Histoire des deux
Indes,
1
Among
the most
important
firsthand accounts of America of the
period,
one should
mention Saint
John
de Crevecoeur's Lettres d'un cultivateur americain
(1784),
a
substan
tially
revised French version of his 1782 Letters
from
an American
Farmer, Voyages
dans
VAmerique Septentrionale (Travels
in North
America, 1786) by
the
marquis
de Chastel
lux,
officer in Rochambeau's
army,
and Nouveau
voyage
dans les Etats-Unis de VAmer
ique Septentrionale (New
Travels in the United States
of America, 1791),
an account of
his 1788
trip
to the United States
by
Brissot de
Warville,
the future Girondin leader.
Works more
purely political
or
philosophical
in nature include
Mably's
Observations sur
le
gouvernement
et les lois des Etats-Unis
d'Amerique (Observations
on the Government
and the Laws
of
the United States
of America, 1784),
Condorcet's "De l'influence de la
Revolution
d'Amerique
sur
l'Europe" ("On
the Influence of the American Revolution on
Europe," 1786-88)
and
"Eloge
de Franklin"
("Eulogy
of
Franklin," 1790), Filippo
Maz
zei's Rech er ch es
historiques
et
politiques
sur les Etats-Unis de
VAmerique Septentrionale
(Historical
and Political Researches on the United States
of America, 1788),
and the
extended notes
by Condorcet, Dupont
de
Nemours,
and
J.-A.
Gallois to Examen du
gouvernement d'Angleterre, compare
aux constitutions des Etats-Unis
(Observations
on
the Government
of England compared
to the constitutions
of
the United
States, 1789),
a
Copyright
?
by journal
of the
History
of
Ideas,
Volume
70,
Number 3
(July 2009)
399
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JOURNAL
OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS
JULY
2009
an
encyclopedic philosophical history
of
European
colonization
throughout
the
world,
was one of the most
important
and successful works written
by
the
philosopbes
of the French
Enlightenment.
In
fact,
the
chapters
devoted
to the thirteen colonies and the United States in the Histoire2 constitute
what was
probably
the
single
most influential account of America written
in
eighteenth-century
France.3 First
published
in
1770, Raynal's
colonial
encyclopedia
was then revised and
substantially expanded
in 1774 and
1780. It went
through thirty
to
fifty
editions between 1770 and
1820,
de
pending
on
whether
only
official editions are
considered
or
pirated
ones as
well.4 Such
was its success that it was
very rapidly
translated into the main
European languages.5
In
addition,
the Histoire des deux Indes was not the work of
Raynal
alone,
but of several
contributors,
chief
among
them Diderot.6 Its mode of
composition,
characterized
by
a
plurality
of
collaborators,
successive revi
translation of
John
Stevens's
pamphlet
Observations on Government
(1787), erroneously
attributed to William
Livingston.
2
Chapters
I-V and XVIII-XXX of book 17 and the whole of book
18,
or
approximately
five hundred
pages.
These
chapters
can be divided into two sections.
Preceding
the discus
sion of the Revolution
itself,
the first and
longest
section
presents
a detailed and
quite
interesting
treatment of the
history
of the thirteen
colonies,
a treatment
which, however,
we need not consider in
depth
here. I have discussed the
image
of colonial America in the
Histoire des deux Indes in "From Voltaire to
Raynal
and Diderot's Histoire des deux
Indes: The French
Philosophes
and Colonial
America,"
in America
Through European
Eyes:
British and French
Reflections
on the New World
from
the
Eighteenth Century
to
the
Present,
ed. A. Craiutu and
J.
C. Isaac
(University
Park: Penn State
University Press,
2009),
71-89.
3
See Durand
Echeverria, Mirage
in the West: A
History of
the French
Image of
American
Society
to 1815
(Princeton:
Princeton
University Press, 1957),
3-174 on the
philosophes.
Echeverria's book remains the
indispensable study
of the vast literature on America in
eighteenth-
and
early nineteenth-century
France.
4
See Cecil P.
Courtney,
"Les
metamorphoses
d'un best-seller: VHistoire des deux Indes
de 1770 a
1820,"
in
Raynal,
de la
polemique
?
l'histoire,
ed. G. Bancarel and G.
Goggi
(Oxford:
Voltaire
Foundation, 2000),
109-20.
5
On the
reception
and
impact
of the Histoire des deux Indes
throughout Europe
and
America, see,
in addition to the volume
just
cited:
H.-J.
L?sebrink and M.
Tietz, eds.,
Lectures de
Raynal.
LTIistoire des deux Indes en
Europe
et en
Amerique
au XVIIIe siede
(Oxford:
Voltaire
Foundation, 1991).
6
Up
to a third of the Histoire could be attributed to
Diderot, according
to some contem
poraries.
His contribution was all the more
significant
since it included most of the
gen
eral
developments
in
political
and moral
philosophy.
Michele Duchet has identified with
great precision
all the
segments
of the Histoire that can be credited to him with a reason
able
degree
of
certainty.
In the sections on the United States or future United
States,
Diderot contributed
chapters
IV and XXI of book 17 and
chapters I, XLII, XLIII, XLIV,
and XLV of book 18 as well as
many
shorter
fragments
which we will
identify
when
appropriate.
See Diderot et /'Histoire des deux Indes ou Vecriture
fragmentaire (Paris:
Nizet, 1978).
400
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Ansart
Raynal,
Diderot,
and the American Revolution
sions and
additions,
and
Raynal's
own
practice
of
borrowing freely
from
various
sources,
while
creating
inconsistencies and
some lack of cohesion
in structure and
content,
also made the Histoire a
remarkably representa
tive work.
By incorporating
so much of the
ideological patrimony
shared
by
the
philosophes,
it became a faithful reflection of their outlook and
a
sort of
encyclopedia
of liberal ideas
widely adopted by
reformist intellectual
elites of late
eighteenth-century
France.
Indeed,
the Histoire should be num
bered
among
the most
significant early, pre-revolutionary examples
of
French liberal
political thought.
The sections
on
the United States are
par
ticularly interesting
in this
regard, partly
because
they
abound
in?mostly
unacknowledged?references
to The
Spirit of
the Laws
(1748), thereby
il
lustrating
both the continued relevance of
Montesquieu
in the
political
de
bates of the end of the Old
Regime
and the sort of
uneasy
ambivalence
elicited
by
the
Montesquieuan approach
to
politics among
those who
ar
gued
for
profound political
reforms.
As with the Histoire des deux Indes as a
whole, Raynal
and Diderot's
observations
on America
present
a
characteristic blend of historical
analysis
and liberal
political aspirations.
On one
hand,
the two
philosophes
were
fairly
well-informed about American realities.
Raynal,
for
example,
was a
member of the American
Philosophical Society
and
consequently
corres
ponded
with it. On the other
hand,
the Histoire contributed
greatly
to the
propagation
in
France, Europe,
and
beyond,
of a
"philosophical" image
of America. This idealized
image
of America as a land of
frugal,
virtuous
republicanism
reminiscent of
Antiquity played
a critical role in the histori
cal
development
of American national consciousness.
Moreover,
the
impact
of
Raynal's
work in this
respect
was further
magnified by Crevecoeur,
whose influence on the
emergence
of a
distinctly
American sense of national
identity
was considerable. Crevecoeur had read the Histoire with enthusi
asm and even dedicated his Letters
from
an American Farmer to
Raynal.7
For such
reasons,
Raynal
and Diderot's reflections
on
the American
Revolution deserve to be rescued from the relative oblivion to which
they
have been confined for the
past
two hundred
years.
Groundbreaking
work
on
the Histoire and Diderot's contribution to it was
published by
Yves
Benot and Michele Duchet in the
early
1970s. More
recently, important
studies
by Anthony Pagden,
Sankar
Muthu,
and
J.
G. A. Pocock have
ap
peared.8 However,
these have focused
primarily
on the
general ideological
7
See David
Eisermann,
"La
'Raynalisation'
de VAmerican
farmer:
la
reception
de VHis
toire des deux Indes
par Crevecoeur,"
in Lectures de
Raynal,
329-39.
8
Yves
Benot, Diderot,
de Vatheisme a Vanticolonialisme
(Paris: Maspero, 1970),
162
259;
Michele
Duchet, Anthropologie
et Histoire au siede des lumieres
(Paris: Maspero,
1971), 170-77, 407-75; Anthony Pagden, European
Encounters with the New World:
401
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JOURNAL
OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS
JULY
2009
orientation of the
Histoire,
in
particular
its
anti-imperialist
and anti
colonial stance.
They only
mention
very
briefly,
if at
all, Raynal
and Di
derot's extended comments on the American Revolution. In a
sense,
there
is
hardly anything surprising
about this
apparent oversight.
For Diderot
especially,
the
new
United States
represented
the antithesis of
empire:
local
self-government
instead of
despotic
rule from
a
distant
metropole;
and
open
trade and
industry based,
at least in
part
and in the
North,
on
free labor
as
opposed
to
exploitative
forms of commerce
involving monopolies
or
slav
ery.
In his
penetrating reading
of the
Histoire, Pagden only
mentions Di
derot's reflections on the United States to make a similar
point:
Diderot
considered the new
republic
the sole
exception
to the barbaric
imperialist
rule exercised
by Europeans
all over the Americas.9 On the other
hand,
and for the
same
reason,
Raynal
and Diderot's
response
to the American
Revolution should also be viewed as the
necessary revolutionary comple
ment to the overall
anti-imperialist
outlook of the Histoire des deux
Indes,
adding
much
depth
to the
political
dimension of
Raynal's
work.
The
point
that the thirteen colonies
are a
unique exception
in the his
tory
of
European imperialism
is made
early
on in the
Histoire,
before the
pages
on the American Revolution.
Writing
about
Pennsylvania, Raynal
proclaimed:
The mind of the writer and of his reader dwells with
pleasure
on
this
part
of modern
history,
and feels
some kind of
compensation
for the
disgust, horror,
or
melancholy,
which the whole of
it,
but
particularly
the account of the
European
settlements in
America,
inspires.
Hitherto we have
only
seen
these barbarians
depopulat
ing
the
country
before
they
took
possession
of
it,
and
laying every
thing
waste before
they
cultivated it. It is time to observe the
dawnings
of
reason,
happiness,
and
humanity, rising
from
among
the ruins of
a
hemisphere,
which still reeks with the blood of all its
people,
civilized
as
well
as
savage.10
From Renaissance to Romanticism
(New Haven,
Conn.: Yale
University Press, 1993),
141-88;
Sankar
Muthu, Enlightenment against Empire (Princeton:
Princeton
University
Press, 2003), 72-121; J.
G. A.
Pocock,
Barbarism and
Religion,
vol. 4:
Barbarians,
Sav
ages
and
Empires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005),
229-328.
9
Pagden, European
Encounters with the New
World,
161.
10
Guillaume-Thomas
Raynal,
A
Philosophical
and Political
History of
the Settlements
and Trade
of
the
Europeans
in the East and West
Indies,
trans.
John Justamond,
6 vols.
(New
York:
Negro
Universities
Press, 1969),
Book
18,
10. All references to the
History
of
the East and West Indies will be to this 1969 edition
(with
book numbers followed
by
page numbers), reprint
of the 1798 translation
published by J.
Mundell &
Co., London,
402
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Ansart
Raynal,
Diderot,
and the American Revolution
In
fact,
the colonial
enterprise
of the
Anglo-Americans
turns out to be such
a radical
exception
in the minds of
Raynal
and
Diderot,
that it finds itself
in the
position
to redeem not
only
the
history
of
European
colonization
across the world but also
perhaps
the entire
history
of
Europe:
"If ever
despotism, superstition,
or
war,
should
plunge Europe again
into that state
of barbarism out of which
philosophy
and the arts have extricated
it,
the
sacred fire will be
kept
alive in
Philadelphia,
and come
from thence to en
lighten
the world."11 In this
regard,
the Histoire continues a
tradition which
was well established
among
the
philosophes,
a
tradition which idealized
colonial North America and
Pennsylvania
in
particular,
as a land of
virtue,
enlightenment
and tolerance. Earlier
expressions
of this tradition can be
found in Voltaire's
Philosophical
Letters
(1734,
Letter
IV),
the
Encyclo
pedie,
and even in The
Spirit of
the Laws
(Book IV, Chapter 6,
where Mon
tesquieu compares Pennsylvania
to
Sparta
and William Penn to
Lycurgus,
even
though
the two
legislators
had
obviously very
different
objectives
in
fostering virtue).
Benot was therefore
quite justified
to
point
out,
as he did in his
pioneer
ing study,
that the sections on the American
Revolution, strategically placed
at the end of the next to last
book,
constitute in fact the
political
conclusion
of the entire Histoire.12 After the
chapters
on the United
States,
the final
book,
number
19, presents
a
recapitulative general conclusion, organized
thematically,
which does contain a
long
section
on
government,
but deals
exclusively
with the Old World: the various
governments
of the main Euro
pean
nations
plus
the Ottoman
Empire. Interestingly, Raynal
seized this
opportunity
to
express,
in
openly Montesquieuan
terms,
his admiration for
the
English constitution, emphasizing
the
separation
of
powers
and balance
between
King, Lords,
and
Commons,
and
concluding,
with
Diderot,
that
"there hath never been a constitution so well
regulated upon
the face of the
which itself
reproduced
the translation
by John Justamond
based on the 1780 French text
and first
published
in 1783. The
chapters
on the American Revolution are in vol.
6,
122-214. Because this translation is sometimes inaccurate and even omits certain
pas
sages,
we will also
provide page
references to the
original
French text we
used,
the "defin
itive" 1780 edition
(chapters
are not numbered in the translation and the division in
volumes is different from the
original,
on the other
hand,
the division in books remains
identical): Raynal,
Histoire
philosophique etpolitique
des etablissements et du commerce
des
Europeens
dans les deux
Indes,
10 vols.
(Geneva: Jean-Leonard Pellet, 1780),
Bk.
18,
16-17. The
chapters
on the American Revolution are in vol.
9,
218-382. The first critical
edition of the Histoire des deux
Indes, prepared by
an international team of scholars
under the direction of
Anthony Strugnell,
will be
published by
the Centre international
d'etude du XVIIIe
siecle, Ferney-Voltaire, beginning
later this
year.
11
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 24; Histoire,
42.
12
Benot, Diderot,
de Vatheisme ?
Vanticolonialisme,
241.
403
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JOURNAL
OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS
JULY
2009
globe."13
Other sections of Book
19, notably
the
chapter
entitled
"Morale,"
are
clearly Montesquieuan
in
spirit.
But no other
part
of the Histoire is as
consistently Montesquieuan
as its account of the American Revolution.
Writing
more
specifically
about Diderot's contribution to the sections
on the United
States, Anthony Strugnell
has
convincingly argued
that "as
an
increasingly important
contributor to
Raynal's
Histoire des deux Indes
he transformed it in the course of its three editions from a
fairly
run-of-the
mill attack on the
colonizing
endeavours of the
European powers
into a
barely
covert
revolutionary
manifesto."14 Yet this crucial dimension of the
Histoire des deux
Indes,
most evident in the
chapters
on
revolutionary
America,
has been
woefully
understudied.
Chapters
XXXVIII-LII of Book 18 are devoted to the rebellion in the colo
nies and the birth of the new United States.15
Raynal
dealt
primarily
with
the task of
recounting
the events
leading
to the rebellion and the
military
operations (up
to and
including
the
year 1778,
the date of official French
recognition
of the United States and of formal alliance between the two
countries).
His account
presents
historical information with some
analysis.
Diderot's contributions
(chapters
XLII-XLV of Book 18 and shorter
frag
ments),
on the other
hand,
are more
abstractly analytical, providing politi
cal and
philosophical commentary.
Typical
of the uneasiness felt
by many
late
eighteenth-century
liberal
reformers
regarding
the
empirical
orientation of much of The
Spirit of
the
Laws,
the
only explicit
reference to
Montesquieu
in the North-American
chapters
of the Histoire is somewhat
critical,
even
though
these
chapters
are
obviously Montesquieuan
in
inspiration. Early
in Book
18, Raynal
writes: "The author of a
work,
the
permanency
of which will render the
glory
of the French nation
immortal,
even
when
tyranny
shall have broken
all the
springs,
and all the monuments of the
genius
of
a
people
esteemed
by
the whole world for
so
many
brilliant and amiable
qualities;
even Mon
tesquieu
himself did not
perceive
that he was
making
men for
governments,
13
Raynal, History,
Bk.
19, 261; Histoire,
83.
14
Anthony Strugnell,
Diderot's
politics:
A
Study of
the Evolution
of
Diderot's Political
Thought after
the
Encyclopedic (The Hague:
Martinus
Nijhoff, 1973),
216.
Strugnell's
book includes a
very suggestive
discussion of Diderot's
writings
on the American Revolu
tion for the Histoire des deux Indes on
pages
205-17.
15
Almost
immediately
after the
publication
of the 1780
edition,
these
chapters
were
pi
rated and
published separately
in French
(under
the
title,
Revolution de
l'Amerique)
and
in
English
translation. A
reprint
has made one such
translation, published
in
Edinburgh
in
1783,
more
readily
available to modern
readers;
see
Raynal,
The Revolution
of
America
(Boston: Gregg Press, 1972).
404
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Ansart
Raynal,
Diderot,
and the American Revolution
instead of
governments
for men."16
However,
in
spite
of
Raynal distancing
himself here from what he seems to have considered as
Montesquieu's
ex
cessive
relativism,
the influence of The
Spirit of
the Laws is noticeable
throughout his,
and above all
Diderot's,
reflections on the United States. In
America,
for
example,
the
landscape
itself fosters
a
spirit
of freedom
among
the
people
who inhabit it:
Even the soil
they [the
children of
America]
inhabit must
keep up
in them a sentiment favourable to these ideas
[liberty]. Dispersed
over an immense
continent,
free as
nature,
which surrounds
them,
amidst the
rocks,
the
mountains,
the vast
plains
of their
deserts,
and on the skirts of those forests where
every thing
is still
wild,
and where
nothing
calls to mind neither the servitude
nor the
tyr
anny
of
man,
they
seem to receive from natural
objects
lessons of
liberty
and
independence.17
Echoing Montesquieu, Raynal
and Diderot
accepted
the idea that
specific
natural or
social factors
(such
as
climate, size, population, landscape,
tradi
tions and
opinions, religion, etc.)
have some
influence in
shaping
the form
of
government
of a
particular
nation.
Likewise, they
also
believed,
as we
will have the
opportunity
to
observe,
that these factors must be taken into
account when
contemplating
which
government might
be best suited to
any
given country
at
any given
time.18
Retracing
the inner
logic
behind Diderot's
arguments
will make it clear
how his assessment of the United States succeeds in
maintaining
a subtle
balance between the
application
of
general principles
and the
recognition
of local
factors,
in other words between universalism and
particularism.
Diderot
begins
with what seems to be
an elaboration on and a
justification
of the second
paragraph
of the Declaration of
Independence.
He first
poses
a strict distinction between
society
and
government: "Society
is the
first,
and in its
origin independent
and
free; government
hath been instituted for
16
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 51; Histoire,
89.
17
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 128; Histoire,
229-30.
18
It must be
emphasized
that we are not
primarily
concerned in the
present study
with
Montesquieu's complex
science of
politics per
se but rather with what our two
philo
sophes
made of it.
Obviously,
the author of The
Spirit of
the Laws was not a
simple
relativist-empiricist
and
recognized
universal
principles
of
justice. See,
for instance: Cecil
P.
Courtney, "Montesquieu
and Natural
Law,"
in
Montesquieu's
Science
of
Politics. Es
says
on The
Spirit
of
Laws,
ed. D. W.
Carrithers,
M. A.
Mosher,
and P. A. Rahe
(Lanham,
Md.: Rowman &
Littlefield, 2001),
41-67.
However,
it is the
empiricist
dimension of his
thought
that
mostly
seems to have
captured Raynal
and Diderot's attention.
405
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JOURNAL
OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS
JULY
2009
it,
and is
only
its instrument. The former has the
right
of
commanding,
the
latter must
obey."19
From the
start,
it is essential for Diderot to
refute
any
political theory
which
might regard
certain forms of
government (such
as
absolute
monarchy)
as
something
more
than mere
political institutions,
that
is to
say
as
reflections of a
divine or natural order.
Society
is the
primary
and natural
phenomenon; government
is
only
a
secondary,
artificial
one.
Society,
it could be
said,
needs no
legitimating
outside itself. But the same
is not true of
government,
which must
always
derive its
legitimacy
from
society.
The
following principles, therefore,
must
be
universally
acknowl
edged:
That there is
no
form of
government,
the
prerogative
of which
is to be immutable.
That there is no
political authority,
created either
yesterday
or
a thousand
years ago,
which cannot be
abrogated,
either ten
years
hence,
or to-morrow.
. . .
All
authority
in this world hath
begun
either
by
the consent of
the
subjects,
or
by
the
strength
of the master. It
may
be
legally put
a
stop
to in either of the cases. There is
nothing
which favours
tyranny against liberty.20
Government is
nothing
more
than a
malleable, adaptable
tool in the service
of
society.
More
precisely, government
can
only
assert its
legitimacy
insofar
as it fulfills its
primary purpose:
to ensure and
protect
the
general
welfare
of
society
and that of its members.
Writing
about the
colonies, Raynal
had
already
affirmed that: "All
legislation,
in its
nature,
should aim at the
hap
piness
of
society."21
Diderot echoes the
pronouncement
of his
colleague,
stating that,
where nations are
concerned,
"the
public felicity
is the first
law,
as it is the first
duty."22 Along
with the
principle
of
mutability
of
gov
ernment comes
its
corollary,
the
principle
of
"public happiness":
the main
function of
government
is to secure
public
welfare.
Change
is
justified
whenever
public happiness
is lost:
If
people
be
happy
under their form of
government, they
will
maintain it. If
they
be
wretched,
it will be
. . .
the
impossibility
of
19
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 139; Histoire,
249.
20
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 142; Histoire,
253-54.
21
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 113; Histoire,
202.
22
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 145; Histoire,
260.
406
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Ansart
Raynal,
Diderot,
and the American Revolution
suffering any more,
or for
any longer time,
which will determine
them to
change.
A
salutary commotion,
which the
oppressor
will
call
revolt, though
it be no more than the
legal
exercise of an un
alienable and natural
right
of the man who is
oppressed,
and even
of him who is not
oppressed.23
So
far,
Diderot and
Raynal's
foremost
preoccupation
seems to have
been to establish a set of
absolute,
universal
political principles.
In
fact,
this
is not
quite
the case. For
public happiness
is a
relative notion which varies
from
country
to
country.
The influence of
Montesquieu's empirical
relativ
ism is obvious when
Raynal
writes: "The means
by
which it
[legislation]
is
to attain this
great
end
[the happiness
of
society], depend entirely
on its
natural
qualities. Climate,
that is to
say,
the
sky
and the
soil,
are the first
rule for the
legislator."24 Diderot,
for his
part, emphasizes
the role of a
more social
variable, public opinion:
In all that
a
prince ordains,
the
happiness
of his
people
is con
cerned. The
opinion
of the
public,
in a nation that thinks and
speaks,
is the rule of the
government;
and the
prince
should never
thwart that
opinion
without
public
reasons,
nor
oppose
it without
having
first convinced the
people
of their error.
Government is to
model all its forms
according
to
public opinion: this,
it is well
known,
varies with
manners,
habits,
and information.25
He is
particularly
insistent on this
point:
The first
duty
of a
prudent
administration is
...
to
respect
the
prevailing opinions
of
a
country;
for
opinions
are the kind of
property
to which the
people
are more
attached than even to that
of their fortune. It
may, indeed,
endeavour to
rectify
them
by
knowledge,
or
alter them
by persuasion,
if
they
should be
prejudi
cial to the
strength
of the state. But it is not allowable to contradict
them without
necessity;
and there never was
any
to
reject
the
sys
tem
adopted by
North America.26
23
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 141; Histoire,
252-53.
24
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 113; Histoire,
202.
25
Raynal, H/s*ory,
Bk.
18, 110-11; Histoire,
198.
26
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 126; Histoire,
226. Edoardo Tortarolo has
pointed
out the
similarities between Diderot and Burke in the use of the
concept
of
public opinion:
"La
Revolution americaine dans VHistoire des deux Indes: la narration comme
dialogue?"
in
407
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JOURNAL
OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS
JULY
2009
This
emphasis
on
public opinion,
of
course,
introduces a
strong
measure of
relativism in Diderot's
political philosophy.
The
appropriate
form of
gov
ernment for "a nation that thinks and
speaks"
is
likely
to be ill-suited to
less
enlightened
societies: "Barbarous nations are
naturally subject
to the
oppressive yoke
of
despotic power,
till in the advanced state of
society prog
ress teaches them to conduct themselves
according
to their interests."17 To
be
more
precise, liberty
can thrive
when,
as in North
America,
a nation
combines a certain
degree
of
enlightenment
with a
spirit
of
equality
and
frugality (this
does not mean that the idea of
liberty
is not
universally
at
tractive, only
that the
Anglo-Americans,
for socio-historical
reasons,
are
particularly
attached to
it):
These
people [the Anglo-Americans],
who are almost all of them
devoted to
agriculture,
to
commerce,
and to useful
labours,
which
elevate and
strengthen
the mind
by giving simplicity
to the
man
ners,
who have been hitherto as far removed from riches as from
poverty,
cannot
yet
be
corrupted
either
by
an excess
of
luxury
or
by
a
multiplicity
of wants. It is
[in]
this state more
especially,
that
man who
enjoys liberty
can maintain
it,
and
can show himself
jealous
of
defending
an
hereditary right
which
seems to be the sure
guarantee
of all the other
rights.
Such
was the resolution of the
Americans.28
Here
again,
the influence of
Montesquieu
is unmistakable. Democratic
liberties, Montesquieu believed,
are best
preserved when,
in a
republic,
the
love of
equality
and
frugality
is inscribed in the laws and alive in the
spirit
of the
people.29 Inseparable
from each
other, equality
and
frugality
consti
L'Histoire des deux Indes; reecriture et
Polygraphie,
ed.
H.-J.
L?sebrink and A.
Strugnell
(Oxford:
Voltaire
Foundation, 1995),
205-21. It should be added that both Burke and
Diderot drew from the
Montesquieuan concept
of
esprit general.
27
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 110; Histoire,
197. The
part
in italics is
my
own
translation,
the 1798 translation
being clearly
incorrect here. It
might
seem at first difficult to recon
cile this statement
by
Diderot with the
praise
of "natural" societies found in the
Supple
ment au
voyage
de
Bougainville (1772)
or in other sections of the
Histoire,
for
example
the
"Comparaison
des
peuples polices
&c des
peuples sauvages" (Bk. 17,
Ch.
IV, by
Did
erot),
which is not in favor of civilization. The term
"barbare," however,
is not meant
here to
apply
to members of natural societies
(Tahitians,
Native
Americans)
but rather to
populations having
reached a
later,
more
complex
stage
of social and
political develop
ment,
that of the traditional
despotic
state.
28
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 128; Histoire,
230.
29
See
Montesquieu,
The
Spirit of
the
Laws,
trans. A. M.
Cohler,
B. C.
Miller,
and H. S.
Stone
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989),
Book
V, Chapters
3-7.
408
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Ansart
Raynal,
Diderot,
and the American Revolution
tute in fact the
very
essence of the
spirit
of
democracy.
Diderot and
Raynal
agree. They
also
agree
with
Montesquieu regarding
the crucial
importance
of the
question
of land distribution in this
respect.
For the author of The
Spirit of
the
Laws,
the best
way
to establish
equality
and
frugality
in a
newly
founded
republic
is
through
the initial distribution of land.
Ideally,
land should be divided
among
citizens in lots of
equal
and modest size.
Furthermore,
laws
regulating
the
acquisition
and transmission of
property
should be such
that,
within reasonable
limits, equality
and
frugality
be
pre
served. This is
possible
even when the wealth of
a
republic
is based
on
trade,
since the
spirit
of
commerce,
according
to
Montesquieu,
carries with
it the
spirit
of
frugality.30
For similar
reasons,
Raynal
insists on the
para
mount
importance
of well-established
property rights:
"The wisdom of
leg
islation will
chiefly appear
in the distribution of
property.
It is
a
general
rule,
which obtains in all
countries, that,
when
a
colony
is
founded,
an
extent of land be
given
to
every person
sufficient for the maintenance of a
family;"31
"The chief basis of a
society
for cultivation or
commerce,
is
prop
erty.
It is the seed of
good
and
evil,
natural
or
moral, consequent
on the
social state."32 He adds
a
few lines below: "It is then to the
repartition
of
lands that a
legislator
will turn his
principal
attention. The more
wisely
that
distribution shall be
managed,
the more
simple, uniform,
and
exact,
will
be those laws of the
country
which
chiefly
conduce to the
preservation
of
property."33 Simplicity, uniformity,
and
precision
in the
regulation
of
prop
erty rights
are essential to the
promotion
and
preservation
of
equality,
and
therefore of
democracy
itself. At the end of Book
18,
in his final address to
the
people
of North
America,
Diderot returns once more to this central
theme.
Luxury
and
inequality,
he
asserts,
are first
among
the
dangers
that
could threaten the
stability
of the new
republic.
The last of the
chapters
devoted to the United States in the Histoire thus ends on this
warning:
"Dread the influence of
gold, which,
with
luxury,
introduces
corruption
of
manners and
contempt
of the laws. Dread too
unequal
a
repartition
of
riches,
which indicates
a
small number of
wealthy citizens,
and a multitude
of citizens
plunged
in
misery;
from whence arises the insolence of the for
mer,
and the
degradation
of the latter."34
Another notable
example
of
convergence
with
Montesquieu
in Dider
ot's assessment of the United States can
be found in his comments on the
30
On all
this,
see more
particularly
book
V, chapters
5 and 6 of The
Spirit of
the Laws.
31
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 113; Histoire,
203.
32
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 115; Histoire,
207.
33
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 116; Histoire,
208.
34
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 213; Histoire,
380-81.
409
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JOURNAL
OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS
JULY
2009
first American
constitution,
the Articles of Confederation. In Diderot's
opinion,
the American form of
government,
a federative
republic, artfully
combines the
advantages
of a
republic (freedom
and
democracy within)
with those of a
monarchy (efficiency, especially
in the domain of
foreign
affairs):
"The united states of America
gave
themselves a confederate
con
stitution,
which added all the exterior
strength
of the
monarchy
to all the
interior
advantages
of
a
republican government."35
This comes
directly
from The
Spirit of
the
Laws,
where
Montesquieu
describes "a kind of con
stitution that has all the internal
advantages
of
republican government
and
the external force of
monarchy," making immediately
clear what he has in
mind: "I
speak
of the federal
republic."36
In
addition,
Diderot
highlights
the fact that the federal
system
of
government
devised in the Articles of
Confederation is
perfectly adapted
to the
specific geographical
and histori
cal situation of the United States.
Refuting arguments inspired by
contem
porary (Holland, Switzerland)
as well as ancient
examples (Greece)
of
federal
republics,
he
approves
of the
relatively strong powers
vested in Con
gress
and the central
government
in
part
because of the inevitable
difficulty
in
communicating
over the vast
territory
covered
by
the new
nation:
The case is not with them
[the Americans]
as with the confederate
republics
we see in
Europe,
I mean Holland and
Switzerland,
which
only occupy
a
territory
of small
extent,
and where it is an
easy
matter to establish
a
rapid
communication between the sev
eral
provinces.
The
same
thing may
be said of the confederacies of
ancient Greece.
. . .
But the united states of
America, dispersed
over an immense
continent, occupying
in the New World a
space
of near fifteen
degrees, separated by deserts, mountains, gulfs,
and
by
a vast extent of
coasts,
cannot
enjoy
so
speedy
a communica
tion. If
congress
were not
empowered
to decide
upon political
in
terests without the
particular
deliberations of each
province;
if
upon every
occasion of the least
importance,
and
every
unforeseen
event,
it were
necessary
for the
representatives
to receive new or
ders,
and as it were a new
power,
this
body
would remain in a
state of
inactivity.
The distances to be
traversed, together
with the
length
and the
multiplicity
of the
debates, might
be too
frequently
prejudicial
to the
general good.37
35
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 170; Histoire,
304.
36
Montesquieu,
Bk.
IX,
Ch.
1,131.
37
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 171-72; Histoire,
306-8.
410
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Ansart
Raynal,
Diderot,
and the American Revolution
Along
with the main
physical
and
geographical
features of the United
States, political reality
also contributes to the
necessity
of a
strong
central
government.
Certain historical
situations,
Diderot
explains, require
such
resolve and
continuity
in action as can
only
be
expected
from one small
body
of
representatives:
If we
consult the
history
of
republics,
we
shall find that the multi
tude have almost
always
the
impetuosity
and the ardour of the first
moment;
but that it is
only
in a small number of men chosen and
fit to serve as
chiefs,
in whom reside those constant and
vigorous
resolutions which
proceed
with
a
firm and certain
step
towards
a
great aim,
and which
are never
altered,
but
obstinately struggle
against calamities, fortune,
and mankind.38
In the
case of the United
States, then, geography (sheer size)
and
history
(the
turmoil of war and
revolution)
combined as it were to
plead
in favor
of a
powerful
central
government,
at least in some
domains.
Finally,
it is not
impossible
that Diderot and
Raynal
remembered Mon
tesquieu's
famous
judgment
on
England,
"the
people
in the world who have
best known how to take
advantage
of each of these three
great things
at the
same time:
religion,
commerce,
and
liberty,"39
when
they?briefly?dealt
with the role of
religion
in the American Revolution. Given the
philosopher
overall
hostility
toward
organized religion, expressions
of which abound in
the
Histoire,
as well as Diderot's
atheism,
it is not
surprising
that the
posi
tive role of
religion
in the American Revolution should have
appeared
al
most
paradoxical
to the authors of the Histoire.
Describing
the situation in
Boston in
1774, Raynal
remarks that:
The minds of men
grew
more
and more
exalted at Boston. The
cry
of
liberty
was
reinforced
by
that of
religion.
The churches
re
sounded with the most violent exhortations
against England.
It
was
undoubtedly
an
interesting spectacle
for
philosophy,
to see
that in the
temples
and at the feet of the
altars,
where
superstition
had so
often blessed the chains of the
people,
where the
priests
had
so
often flattered the
tyrants,
that
liberty
should raise its voice to
defend the
privileges
of
an
oppressed
nation.
. .
.40
38
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 173; Histoire,
309-10.
39
Montesquieu,
Bk.
XX,
Ch.
7,
343.
40
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 134; Histoire,
239-40.
411
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JOURNAL
OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS
JULY
2009
As for
Diderot,
he is somewhat
ambiguous
when
exhorting
the American
rebels in the
following
terms:
Americans,
let
your priests
be
incessantly
seen in
your pulpits,
with
crowns in their
hands,
and
showing
you
the heavens
opened.
Priests of the New
World,
it is time to
expiate
the ancient fanati
cism,
which hath desolated and
ravaged America, by
a
fanaticism
more
fortunate,
the
offspring
of
politics
and of
liberty.
But
you
will not deceive
your
fellow citizens.
God,
who is the first
principle
of
justice
and of
order,
abhors
tyrants.
God hath
imprinted
in the
heart of man the sacred love of
liberty,
and will not suffer that
servitude should
degrade
and
disfigure
the most beautiful of his
works.41
Can
religion
and
liberty
be true
allies,
or is
religion,
in the
eyes
of the atheist
Diderot, simply
a
political
tool to be
exploited?
Is there a
substantial,
au
thentic
connection,
as
Montesquieu
seemed to
imply,
between a
specific
form of
religion,
Protestantism,
and
liberty (and commerce)? Indeed,
Mon
tesquieu thought Protestantism,
and
especially Calvinism,
had been
shaped
by,
and thus
reflected, republican
values.42 Whatever his exact
personal
be
liefs
may
have
been,
it is certain that the author of The
Spirit of
the Laws
treats
religion primarily
as a
social
phenomenon.43
As
such, religion
is
part
of the
esprit general
of a
nation,
sometimes more
favorable to
liberty (as
in
Protestant Northern
Europe)
sometimes less
(as
in Catholic Southern Eu
rope).
Diderot
seems to
adopt
a
similar
perspective
here.
However
significant Montesquieu's
influence
may
have been in
shaping
Diderot and
Raynal's
views
concerning
the United
States,
what remains
beyond
debate is the
unequivocal support
for the American cause demon
strated in the Histoire.
Diderot,
in
particular,
is
enthusiastically optimistic
not
only
about the American Revolution itself but also
regarding
its
power
as
regenerative
factor for the rest of the world. Once
again addressing
him
self
directly
to the American
people,
he
writes, highlighting
the
importance
of the "American
exception":
Let the account of
your happiness
invite around
your dwellings
all
the unfortunate
men
upon
the face of the earth. Let
tyrants
of all
41
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 152; Histoire,
270-71.
42
See The
Spirit of
the
Laws,
Bk.
XXIV,
Ch. 5.
43
See Rebecca E.
Kingston, "Montesquieu
on
Religion
and on the
Question
of Tolera
tion,"
in
Montesquieu's
Science
of Politics,
375-408.
412
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Ansart
Raynal,
Diderot,
and the American Revolution
countries,
and all
oppressors,
whether
political
or
religious, know,
that there exists a
place
upon
the earth where one
may escape
from
their
chains;
where
humanity disgraced
hath raised its head
again;
where the harvests
grow
for the
poor;
where the laws
are no more
than the
guarantee
of
happiness;
where
religion
is
free,
and con
science hath ceased to be a
slave;
where
Nature,
in a
word,
seems
to wish to
justify
herself for
having
created
man;
and where
gov
ernment,
for
so
long
a
time
guilty
over
all the
earth,
at last makes
ample reparation
for its crimes. Let the idea of such
an
asylum
alarm the
despots,
and serve as a restraint to them.
. .
.44
Diderot's enthusiasm
appears
most
clearly
in this
emotional, lyrical
out
burst:
Heroic
country!
mine advanced
age
will not allow me to visit
thee! I shall
never be
present
amidst the
respectable persons
who
compose your Areopagus.
I shall
never assist at the deliberations
of
your congress.
I shall die without
having
seen the residence of
toleration,
of
morality,
and of sound
laws;
of
virtue,
and of
liberty.
A free and sacred land will not cover
my ashes;
but I could have
wished it: and
my
last words shall be vows
addressed to Heaven
for
your prosperity.45
Raynal,
on the other
hand, although generally supportive
of the ideals of
the American
Revolution,
is at the same time less idealistic about it. In his
account of the
military campaign,
the American side
appears
to suffer from
a low level of enthusiasm for its own cause.46 His reaction to the Franco
American
treaty
is to wonder what can lead an
absolute
monarchy
to enter
into an alliance with a
people defending
its freedom.
Realistically,
the court
of Versailles's main motivation is
unlikely
to have been a
pure
love of lib
erty
and
justice.47
Thomas Paine
roundly
criticized
Raynal
for these views
in his Letter addressed to the abbe
Raynal
on
the
affairs of
North-America.
In which the mistakes in the abbes account
of
the revolution
of
America
44
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18,156; Histoire,
279.1 corrected "at
length"
in the 1798 transla
tion to "at last."
45
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 168; Histoire,
300-301. I corrected
"region"
in the 1798
translation to
"country."
46
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 184-90; Histoire,
328-39.
47
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18,199-200; Histoire,
356-57.
413
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JOURNAL
OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS
JULY
2009
are corrected and cleared
up (1782).48
But in
my view,
the
mostly negative
reception
of
Raynal's
Histoire in
revolutionary
America had less to do with
fundamental
disagreements
on matters of
political philosophy
than with
secondary questions
about which American national
pride
could under
standably
be sensitive: controversies
surrounding
the
theory
of American
degeneration (see below),
the immediate
causes
justifying
the
rebellion,
or
the conduct of the
war,
for
example.
Raynal
is not
quite
sure that the Franco-American allies will be mili
tarily
successful either. More
importantly,
he does not seem
very
optimistic
about the future of the United States once victorious. On the
all-important
question
of
population growth, widely
seen in the
eighteenth century
as an
indicator of
prosperity
and therefore as a
sign
of
good government, Raynal
offers two
completely contradictory
views
concerning
the new
country.
Cit
ing
the
authority
of Franklin
himself,
whose observations
on
the matter are
related in order to demonstrate
why
the rate of
population growth
should
be so much
greater
in North America than in
Europe,
he first maintains
that,
even
without
taking immigration
into
account,
the
population
of the
colonies
naturally
doubles
every
twenty-five years. Consequently,
"in less
than two
centuries,
North America will arrive at an immense
degree
of
population."49 However, Raynal's
last words
on
the United
States,
which
immediately precede
Diderot's final address to the American
people, paint
an
entirely
different
picture,
that of a
country
with little human or eco
nomic
potential:
It cannot be determined without rashness what will one
day
be the
population
of the United States. This
calculation, generally
very difficult,
becomes
impracticable
in a
region
where the lands
degenerate
very rapidly,
and where
reproduction
is not in
propor
tion to the labours and
expences
bestowed
upon
them. It will be a
considerable
thing,
if ten millions of
men can ever
find a certain
subsistence in these
provinces,
and
even then the
exports
will be
reduced to little or
nothing:
but internal
industry
will
supply
the
place
of
foreign industry.
The
country
will
nearly
be able to
supply
its own
wants,
provided
the inhabitants know how to be
happy by
economy
and in
mediocrity.50
48
See Edoardo
Tortarolo,
"La
reception
de YHistoire des deux Indes aux
Etats-Unis,"
in
Lectures de
Raynal,
305-28.
49
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 106-7; Histoire,
189-92.
50
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 213; Histoire,
380.
414
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Ansart
Raynal,
Diderot,
and the American Revolution
This obvious contradiction could at least be
partly explained by Raynal's
change
in attitude toward the
"theory
of American
degeneration"
between
1770 and 1780. The
principal exponent
of this
fairly
influential
theory
in
the second half of the
eighteenth century
was the Dutch
philosopher
Corne
lius de Pauw in his Recherches
philosophiques
sur
les Americains
(Philo
sophical
researches
on the
Americans, 1768). Inspired by Montesquieu's
theory
of climate and above all
by Buffon,
who had claimed that the flora
and fauna of the New World
were
underdeveloped compared
to those of
the
Old,
de Pauw
expanded
the
theory
to include human
populations,
both
native and
transplanted
from
Europe.
The American climate
was so inhos
pitable
to
life,
so
the
theory
went,
that humans
living
in the New World
would soon show
signs
of
physical
as well as mental
degeneration.51
Having
abandoned the central tenet of the
theory,
the notion that natu
ral conditions in the New World are
unfavorable to human
population,
Raynal
would
simply
have
neglected
to amend or
eliminate,
in the definitive
1780
edition,
a number of
passages
reflecting
his earlier
opinion
on the
subject, including
the
paragraph quoted
above.
Indeed,
several
segments
inherited from
early
editions and connected to the
theory
of American de
generation
coexist in the 1780 version with others
refuting
it. On the other
hand,
it is hard to
imagine
how
Raynal
could have overlooked such
an
important paragraph,
so
prominently positioned
as to constitute the de
facto
conclusion of the whole section of the Histoire
dealing
with North
America. Was he not
entirely
convinced one
way
or
the
other,
so that he
still wished to
present
both sides of the
argument? Besides,
this
strategy
of
presenting
both the
pros
and the cons on a
particular
issue is not uncom
mon in the Histoire des deux Indes. It is used
quite deliberately,
for in
stance,
in the
chapters
on China
(Book 1, chapters XX-XXI)
and
on
the
Jesuit
missions in
Paraguay (Book 8,
chapters XIV-XVII).
Raynal
was more
penetrating
when he identified
another,
less
imagi
nary, danger potentially facing
the new
United
States,
unwittingly putting
his
finger
on a
powerful argument
in favor of American
exceptionalism:
If there be
any
circumstance
wanting
to the
happiness
of Brit
ish
America,
it is that of
forming
one entire nation. Families
are
there found sometimes
united,
sometimes
dispersed, originating
from all the different countries of
Europe.
These
colonists,
in
51
The classic book on this
topic
is Antonello Gerbi's The
Dispute of
the New World:
The
History of
a
Polemic, 1750-1900,
trans.
Jeremy Moyle (Pittsburgh: University
of
Pittsburgh Press, 1973),
3-288 on the
Enlightenment.
415
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JOURNAL
OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS
JULY
2009
whatever
spot
chance or discernment
may
have
placed them,
all
preserve,
with a
prejudice
not to be worn
out,
their mother
tongue,
the
partialities
and the customs of their
own
country. Sep
arate schools and churches hinder them from
mixing
with the hos
pitable people
who afforded them
a
place
of
refuge. Always
estranged
from this
people by worship, by
manners,
and
probably
by
their
feelings, they
harbour seeds of dissension that
may
one
day prove
the ruin and total overthrow of the colonies. The
only
preservative against
this disaster
depends entirely
on the
forms of
government.52
At the threshold of the historical
age
of transition from
baroque dynastic
states to modern
nation-states,
the United States
presented,
indeed still
pres
ent
today,
a
special
case. In
Europe, modernity
entailed
a
gradual
reduction
of old social and cultural differences within the soon-to-become nation
states. The result would be
political
entities where the whole
population
could
identify
with a
fairly homogenized (high)
culture. But this
European
pattern
does not
entirely apply
to the United
States; although uniformity
in
the social
or
Tocquevillian
sense would
rapidly get
more
pronounced
there
than in
Europe,
cultural
homogenization
would encounter
special
obstacles
such
as the ones alluded to
by Raynal.
What is
suggested
in this
paragraph
is
yet
another
original aspect
of the American
experiment:
the
emergence
of
a modern state whose cohesion will not rest
primarily
on
popular
identifi
cation with a national culture but on identification with a form of
govern
ment.
At this
point
the reader
might
wonder
why
so
crucial
a
question
as
slavery
has not been touched
upon.
In
fact,
for a work whose
general
stance
is
resolutely
anti-colonial and
anti-slavery,
the Histoire devotes
surprisingly
little attention
(about
half
a
dozen
pages
out of five
hundred)
to the
prob
lem of
slavery
in North America. Two reasons can be invoked to account
for this
apparent negligence.
The first and most obvious is that
slavery
has
already
been dealt with in
preceding sections, particularly
in those on
the
Antilles
(see
Book
11, chapters
XXII-XXIV).
There is
perhaps
also
a ten
dency
to
downplay
the evil of
slavery
in the North American context: "It
52
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 109; Histoire,
195-96. Words in italics are corrections to the
1798 translation.
Interestingly, Montesquieu
had made a similar observation
regarding
England.
As a
rule,
the
general spirit
of a nation constitutes the
organic
social
reality
out
of which
grew
the laws and form of
government. However,
this is less true with
England,
where the
general spirit
is
largely
a
product
of the laws and form of
government
them
selves. See The
Spirit of
the
Laws,
Bk.
XIX,
Ch. 27.
416
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Ansart
Raynal,
Diderot,
and the American Revolution
will not be
disowned,
that
they [the slaves] may
be better
fed,
better
clothed,
less ill
treated,
and less overburdened with
toil,
than in the islands.
The laws
protect
them more
effectually,
and
they
seldom become the vic
tims of the
barbarity
or
caprice
of an
odious
tyrant."53 Nevertheless,
Did
erot and
Raynal's
fundamental
position,
that
slavery
can never be
justified,
is made
very clear;
in a
sense,
the existence of
slavery
in a
free
country
like
the United States is all the
more
shocking:
"I shall
never
comprehend by
what
fatality
that
legislation,
which is the most
happily planned
of
any
that
hath
ever
existed,
hath been
capable
of
preferring
the interest of a
few of
its merchants to the dictates of
nature,
of
reason,
and of virtue."54
A similar observation
can be made
concerning
the brutal treatment of
indigenous populations.
Condemnation of the cruelties
perpetrated
on na
tive
peoples is,
as much as
opposition
to
slavery,
at the root of
Raynal
and Diderot's anti-colonial stance. Yet the Histoire des deux Indes remains
almost silent on this
topic
in connection with the American Revolution.
Only
a few
sharply
critical but brief
passages
included in the
chapters
cov
ering
the
history
of the thirteen colonies mention instances of atrocities
committed in New
England, Virginia,
or
Carolina in a
fairly
distant
past.
On the other
hand,
the
counter-example
of
Pennsylvania
serves to reinforce
a
general
sense of American
exceptionalism:
"His
[Penn's]
arrival in the
New World was
signalized by
an act of
equity,
which made his
person
and
principles equally
beloved. Not
thoroughly
satisfied with the
right given
him to his extensive
territory, by
the
grant
he had received of it from the
British
ministry,
he determined to make it his own
property by purchasing
it of the natives."55 Penn's humane treatment of native
populations
is called
"an
example
of moderation and
justice
in
America,
which was never
thought
of before
by
the
Europeans,"56
and the
purchase
of
Pennsylvania
is
singled
out to be the
subject
of the
engraving by
Moreau le
jeune placed
on
the
frontispiece
of volume 9
(book 18)
in the 1780 Pellet edition.
Too often overlooked
today,
the
chapters
on the United States in
Raynal
and Diderot's Histoire constitute without doubt
one of the most
significant
texts on America to issue from the
pen
of
pro-American philosophes
at the
end of the Old
Regime. They provide
a
richly representative sample
of ideas
on America which
were
prevalent among
the liberal intellectual elites of
53
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18,103; Histoire,
184-85.
54
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 105-6; Histoire,
189.
55
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 9; Histoire,
15.
56
Raynal, History,
Bk.
18, 9; Histoire,
15.
417
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JOURNAL
OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS
JULY
2009
pre-revolutionary
France.
They
also confirm the extent to which Montes
quieu?and
the
English
model of
liberty?remained
an
unavoidable,
even
if
problematic,
reference in constitutional debates in France
during
the last
years
of the Old
Regime.
In his classic
study
on the
image
of America in France
up
to
1815,
Durand Echeverria
distinguished
two
interpretations
of American
society
common in liberal circles
on the eve of the French Revolution.57 Both views
associated the United States with notions of
liberty
and
enlightenment,
but
whereas
images
of virtue and
simplicity completed
the
picture
in one
case,
in the other the idea of
progress supplied
the additional central element.
The Histoire shows
more
affinity
with the "virtue and
simplicity"
than with
the
"progress" paradigm.
It tends to see America as a re-creation of an
ideal
past
of
equality
and
frugality,
much in the
spirit
of the
republicanism
of
antiquity. Indeed,
as I have
argued elsewhere,58
the Histoire des deux
Indes,
in its account of colonial
America,
left unresolved
a fundamental
ambiguity,
a
problematic
tension between two models of
political
freedom: what Ben
jamin
Constant would later call "ancient" and "modern" notions of lib
erty.59 Following
the
example
of the
insurgents, Raynal
and
Diderot,
in the
subsequent chapters
of the Histoire devoted to the American
Revolution,
sketched a resolution of this tension
along essentially Montesquieuan lines,
by striking
a balance between modern universalist
principles (the recogni
tion of natural individual
rights)
and
empiricist-relativist
ones derived in
large part
from the
example
of ancient
republics
(the necessity
to accommo
date local realities and
manage conflicting
group
interests within a commu
nitarian
outlook).
In
spite
of an initial critical remark on The
Spirit of
the
Laws,
Raynal
and Diderot's
image
of America
clearly
reflects the influence
of
Montesquieu's empiricism
as well as
his celebrated
arguments
that virtue
constitutes the
principle
of
republican government
and that the
spirit
of
democracy
consists in the love of
equality
and
frugality.
Their
very
Montes
quieuan approach
to
constitutionalism, striving
for
an
equilibrium
between
universal ideas of
justice
and
more
relativist
principles recognizing
the
weight
of local
factors,
is
comparable
to the
approach adopted
later in the
Federal Constitution and The Federalist
(1787-88),
both
heavily
indebted
57
Echeverria, Mirage
in the
West,
144-61.
58
Ansart,
"From Voltaire to
Raynal
and Diderot's Histoire des deux
Indes,"
America
Through European Eyes,
71-89.
59
Benjamin Constant,
"De la liberte des anciens
comparee
? celle des modernes"
("On
the
Liberty
of the Ancients
compared
with that of the
Moderns"),
lecture delivered in
1819.
418
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Ansart
Raynal,
Diderot,
and the American Revolution
to
Montesquieu.60
Moreover,
Diderot and
Raynal regarded
the United
States in some
respects
as an extension
of,
or variation
on,
the
English
model rather than as a
radically
new one.
By
the late
1780s, however,
Mon
tesquieu?the
"oracle"
Montesquieu,
as Madison
famously
called him?
and the
English model,
also extolled in de Lolme's Constitution de
V
Angleterre {Constitution of England, 1771),
had lost
some
of their
appeal
in French liberal circles.
Rousseau, Turgot,
or
Condorcet,
to name
only
a
few famous
examples,
had criticized the author of The
Spirit of
the Laws
for
being
too
preoccupied
with what is rather than what
ought
to be. To be
sure,
Montesquieu
was
still
very
much admired
as an
implacable enemy
of
despotism
and
intolerance;
his masterwork still retained the
prestige
of "a
complete compendium
of
political knowledge
ancient and
modern,
a com
prehensive encyclopedia
of
political
forms with
insightful
discussions of the
political psychology, laws,
and customs
appropriate
for each distinctive
governmental type."61
But he was
often deemed too
respectful
of estab
lished
institutions,
and too reluctant to advocate radical reform. His clear
preference,
in constitutional
terms,
for
a
monarchy
with
a
privileged
nobil
ity acting
as a
tempering intermediary power
also reinforced his conserva
tive
image among
liberal reformers.
By 1791,
at
any rate,
the
Montesquieuan approach
to constitutional
self-government
had ceased to be a viable
option.62
The French revolution
aries tended instead to be divided between two other dominant and
compet
ing ideological
alternatives: a revival of
virtuous,
communitarian classical
ancient
republicanism
recast in universalist terms with the
help
of Rous
seau;
and a
resolutely
modern vision of social
progress
based
on
rational
public
debate and the
recognition
of universal natural
rights,
of which Con
dorcet was
perhaps
the most articulate advocate.63 As we
know,
the
party
60
Donald S. Lutz has established the
preeminence
of
Montesquieu
as
authority
of refer
ence in American
revolutionary literature;
see "The Relative Influence of
European
Writ
ers on Late
Eighteenth-Century
American Political
Thought,"
American Political Science
Review 78
(1984):
189-97. On the
reception
of
Montesquieu
in
revolutionary
America
and
beyond
see
notably:
Paul
Carrese, "Montesquieu's Complex
Natural
Right
and Mod
erate Liberalism: The Roots of American
Moderation," Polity
36
(2004): 227-50;
Anne
M.
Cohler, Montesquieu's Comparative
Politics and the
Spirit of
American Constitution
alism
(Lawrence: University
Press of
Kansas, 1988);
Paul M.
Spurlin, Montesquieu
in
America,
1760-1801
(Baton Rouge:
Louisiana State
University Press, 1940).
61
David W.
Carrithers,
"Democratic and Aristocratic
Republics:
Ancient and
Modern,"
in
Montesquieu's
Science
of Politics,
113.
62
See
Joyce Appleby,
"America as a Model for the Radical French Reformers of
1789,"
The William and
Mary Quarterly
28
(1971):
267-86.
63
See for instance Keith M.
Baker, "Defining
the Public
Sphere
in
Eighteenth-Century
France: Variations on a Theme
by Habermas,"
in Habermas and the Public
Sphere,
ed.
C. Calhoun
(Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT
Press, 1992),
181-211.
419
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JOURNAL
OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS
JULY
2009
of "ancient
liberty," Robespierre
and the
Montague, eventually,
if
only
tem
porarily, prevailed
after the failure of the Girondin constitution in 1793.
Thus,
a
decade after the
publication
of the definitive edition of the
Histoire, Raynal's
own
political position during
the French
Revolution,
based
as it was on some of the same
Montesquieuan principles
that had
informed his views on the American
Revolution,
was bound to
appear
reac
tionary
to
many,
and in fact did. On
May 31, 1791,
in a rare intervention
in the
public
debate
(Raynal
did not
play any
active role
during
the Revolu
tion),
the
philosophe
submitted
an Adresse ? VAssemblee nationale read
to the
deputies
the same
day.
In
it,
he shocked the National
Assembly by
unexpectedly calling
for a
strengthening
of
royal power
and a ban on
politi
cal
clubs, warning against popular tyranny
and violence. From then
on,
his
image among
liberals would be that of a
counter-revolutionary
and an
Anglophile.
But the
surprise
caused
by
the
Adresse,
which seemed to
many
in
complete
contradiction with the
Histoire,
was
due, among
other
factors,
to
partial readings
that had
ignored
some
of the more
politically
moderate
sections of
Raynal's work, including
the
chapters
on the United States.64
Indiana
University.
64
Including
also the section on
government
in book 19. See
Hans-J?rgen L?sebrink,
"Le
role de
Raynal
et la
reception
de VHistoire des deux Indes
pendant
la Revolution
franchise,"
in Lectures de
Raynal,
85-97.
420
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