Cover image for Condorcet: Writings on the United States Edited, translated, and with an introduction by Guillaume Ansart

Condorcet

Writings on the United States

Edited, translated, and with an introduction by Guillaume Ansart

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$67.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05381-3

$24.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05382-0

160 pages
6" × 9"
2012

Condorcet

Writings on the United States

Edited, translated, and with an introduction by Guillaume Ansart

“The volume is a vital, genuinely original contribution to the literature on Condorcet's political thought—and how he applied his general views on republicanism and constitutionalism to the case of the United States—as well as on early European responses to American constitutional development.”

 

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Condorcet (1743–1794) was the last of the great eighteenth-century French philosophes and one of the most fervent américanistes of his time. A friend of Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine and a member of the American Philosophical Society, he was well informed and enthusiastic about the American Revolution. Condorcet’s writings on the American Revolution, the Federal Constitution, and the new political culture emerging in the United States constitute milestones in the history of French political thought and of French attitudes toward the United States. These remarkable texts, however, have not been available in modern editions or translations. This book presents first or new translations of all of Condorcet’s major writings on the United States, including an essay on the impact of the American Revolution on Europe; a commentary on the Federal Constitution, the first such commentary to be published in the Old World; and his Eulogy of Franklin, in which Condorcet paints a vivid picture of his recently deceased friend as the archetype of the new American man: self-made, practical, talented but modest, tolerant and free of prejudice—the embodiment of reason, common sense, and the liberal values of the Enlightenment.
“The volume is a vital, genuinely original contribution to the literature on Condorcet's political thought—and how he applied his general views on republicanism and constitutionalism to the case of the United States—as well as on early European responses to American constitutional development.”
“This excellent book offers easy access to the thinking of an important French philosophe, Condorcet, on the early days of the United States. With this collection, the reader can better understand how the American Revolution was viewed in Europe in the eighteenth century; how Franklin came to represent the perfect universal philosophe while remaining distinctively American; and how critical analyses of the American Constitution could have partly shaped some of the principles in its various French counterparts.”
“The marquis de Condorcet is one of those highly influential political thinkers whose work has too often, over time, been winnowed down to just one work, his famous outline on the progress of the human spirit. In that sense, just calling attention to a body of his other writings is a useful service. Guillaume Ansart has happily brought to light here a number of Condorcet's writings on the implications of the American experience that have heretofore been difficult or impossible to find in English. An informative introduction and extensive notes situate the texts most helpfully in relation to other writings of the period, notably the widely read History of the East and West Indies.
“Scholars and aficianados of the early national period of U.S. history who have been fascinated by the commentaries of Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer . . . and de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America should take note of Guillame Ansart’s addition to this significant genre of interpretations of the American Revolution and the subsequent fledgling republic. Condorcet: Writings on the United States adds another significant dimension to the discussion, despite the fact that this ‘last’ of the philosophes never visited the New World. . . . We should all thank Guillaume Ansart for compiling this anthology.”

Guillaume Ansart is Associate Professor of French Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Contents

Translator’s Note and Acknowledgments

Introduction: Condorcet and America

Influence of the American Revolution on Europe (1786)

Introduction

Chapter One: Influence of the American Revolution on the Opinions and Legislation of Europe

Chapter Two: On the Benefits of the American Revolution with Respect to the Preservation of Peace in Europe

Chapter Three: Benefits of the American Revolution with Respect to the Perfectibility of the Human Race

Chapter Four: On the Good That the American Revolution Can Do, Through Trade, to Europe and to France in Particular

Conclusion

Supplement to Filippo Mazzei’s Researches on the United States (1788)

Ideas on Despotism: For the Benefit of Those Who Pronounce This Word Without Understanding It (1789)

Eulogy of Franklin: Read at the Public Session of the Academy of Sciences, November 13, 1790 (1790)

Appendix: Notes to the French Translation of John Stevens’s Observations on Government (1789)

Chronology

Notes

Selected Bibliography in English

Index of Proper Names

Introduction:

Condorcet and America

Condorcet (1743–94), the last of the great figures of the French Enlightenment, was a fervent américaniste, one of the most prominent among the many French intellectuals who greeted American independence with unmitigated approval. His writings on the United States are in some measure a reflection of their time. Late eighteenth-century France, particularly the progressive intelligentsia known as the “philosophes”—the rationalist, liberal, reform-minded intellectuals (writers, philosophers, scientists, members of the academies, enlightened administrators, etc.) who most actively championed the values of the Enlightenment—responded to the American Revolution with an enthusiasm that prompted the publication, during the period extending from the beginning of the rebellion in the colonies to the start of the French Revolution, of a rich body of literature on the United States. This corpus comprises essentially two types of texts: accounts written by firsthand observers of American society (volunteers, officers in the French expeditionary force, travelers, diplomats, etc.), and works more purely political or philosophical in nature, whose authors as a rule had no direct knowledge of the United States but relied instead on written or secondary sources for their information. The most important firsthand accounts of America of the period include St. John de Crèvecœur’s Lettres d’un cultivateur américain (1784, a substantially revised French version of his 1782 Letters from an American Farmer); Voyages dans l’Amérique Septentrionale (1786) (Travels in North America) by the marquis de Chastellux, an officer in Rochambeau’s army; and Nouveau voyage dans les États-Unis de l’Amérique Septentrionale (1791) (New Travels in the United States of America), an account of the 1788 trip to the United States by Brissot de Warville, the future Girondin leader. Representing the more purely political works are the chapters on colonial America and the American Revolution in Raynal’s Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes (1770–80) (A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies), Mably’s Observations sur le gouvernement et les lois des États-Unis d’Amérique (1784) (Remarks Concerning the Government and the Laws of the United States of America), and Recherches historiques et politiques sur les États-Unis de l’Amérique Septentrionale (1788) (Historical and political researches on the United States of North America) by the Italian entrepreneur and diplomat, and friend and neighbor of Jefferson in Virginia, Filippo Mazzei.

Condorcet’s writings on the United States belong to this latter group of texts, political works by authors who, with the notable exception of Mazzei, had never traveled to America. Nevertheless, Condorcet, who had a good knowledge of English, was very well-informed about the American reality. To be sure, like most French philosophes, he was ideologically predisposed to be pro-American and to idealize the United States as a new philosophical promised land. At the same time, he had a thorough factual knowledge of recent American history. Numerous sources of information were at his disposal, namely, the travel literature by French authors listed above; books and newspapers from England or the United States; and American political documents, which were disseminated in France very rapidly—as early as 1777, French translations of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and several of the state constitutions were being published, and in 1787, the proposed text of the Federal Constitution was first translated, only two months after it had been signed. For further information, he could consult friends who had been to America, like Lafayette, Mazzei, or Brissot, and his American contacts in Paris. Franklin made visits to France in 1767 and 1769, before returning to Paris for a stay of nearly ten years (1776–85), and Condorcet knew him well. Both were members of the Royal Academy of Sciences. Condorcet was even closer to Jefferson, who lived in Paris between 1784 and the autumn of 1789 and succeeded Franklin as ambassador to France, and to Tom Paine, who first came to Paris in 1781 and spent much time in France from 1787 on. Paine, who had been granted French citizenship, served in the National Convention with Condorcet in 1792/93, and both were elected to its committee charged with drafting a new constitution. As a member of the American Philosophical Society, Condorcet also had access to colleagues in the United States with whom he could correspond. Finally, as permanent secretary of the Academy of Sciences, he was assured a worldwide network of contacts. Of all the French authors of the period who commented on the American Revolution, he was certainly one of the best informed. Indeed, his writings on the United States stand out as some of the most insightful of their time.

Other factors enhance the significance of these texts as well. Condorcet was the only major philosophe to live to see the French Revolution and to participate actively in it. His stature and influence as a constitutional theorist turned out to be considerable. Having gradually developed a position of radical constitutional republicanism that was equally critical of conservative reformers like Lafayette and of the terrorist politics of the Jacobins, he became a leading participant in the constitutional debates preceding the Terror. He was a member of the Legislative Assembly in 1791/92 (serving as its president in February 1792) and of the National Convention in 1792/93. Above all, he was the driving force behind the ill-fated, yet subsequently influential, draft constitution of 1793, the so-called Girondin constitution.

Yet, despite the significance and influence of Condorcet’s constitutional works, his reflections on the United States have been confined to relative obscurity for the past two hundred years. We hope, with this volume, to help restore these important pre- and early revolutionary examples of French liberal political thought to their proper place in intellectual history. Revolutionary studies in both French and American history should benefit from this overdue reexamination. Here are works by a prominent philosophe and a leading constitutionalist that provide a clear confirmation of the impact of the American Revolution on the French Revolution. At the same time, Condorcet’s observations on America point to an essential difference in orientation between the two revolutions. Montesquieu was, of course, a central reference and source of inspiration in American constitutional debates. Likewise, Condorcet’s writings on the United States abound in references to De l’esprit des lois (1748) (The Spirit of the Laws). But their tenor is almost invariably critical. Exploring how Condorcet, one of the most influential thinkers in late Enlightenment France, interpreted, evaluated, or criticized Montesquieu’s science of politics in the context of his américaniste works should contribute to a better understanding of where the American and French Revolutions followed divergent or similar paths.

Condorcet’s critical attitude toward the Montesquieuan approach to constitutional self-government was to a degree representative of the political climate in France in the late 1780s and early 1790s. While still very much admired as an implacable foe of despotism and intolerance, Montesquieu had been criticized, by Rousseau and Turgot among others, for being too respectful of established tradition and too reluctant to advocate far-reaching reforms. His clear preference, in constitutional terms, for a monarchy with a privileged nobility acting as a tempering intermediary power, also reinforced his conservative image among liberal reformers. So, by late 1789, it was clear that the English model extolled in The Spirit of the Laws and in Jean-Louis de Lolme’s Constitution de l’Angleterre (1771) (The Constitution of England) did not seem an attractive option to most French revolutionaries. After the fall of the monarchy in August 1792, those who continued to favor sweeping reforms were basically left with two alternatives, which Benjamin Constant would later call “modern” and “ancient” notions of liberty: either Condorcet’s resolutely modern vision of universal individual rights and progress through rational democratic politics, or a revival of communal classical ancient republicanism, combined with the Jacobin cult of nature, inspired in part by Rousseau. “Ancient liberty,” with Robespierre and the Montagne, eventually, but only temporarily, prevailed after the failure of the Girondin constitution in the spring of 1793. Thus Condorcet’s analysis of the American Revolution, which helped him elaborate some of his constitutional principles, can be seen as anticipating a specific and crucial moment of French revolutionary politics, between the fall of the monarchy and the Terror.

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