Philosophers in Parliament: The Crises of Eighteenth-Century Constitutionalism and the Nineteenth-Century Liberal Parliamentary Tradition

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Philosophers in Parliament: The Crises of Eighteenth-Century Constitutionalism and the Nineteenth-Century Liberal Parliamentary Tradition

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Title: Philosophers in Parliament: The Crises of Eighteenth-Century Constitutionalism and the Nineteenth-Century Liberal Parliamentary Tradition
Author: Selinger, William
Citation: Selinger, William. 2015. Philosophers in Parliament: The Crises of Eighteenth-Century Constitutionalism and the Nineteenth-Century Liberal Parliamentary Tradition. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: A crucial commitment of nineteenth-century French and English liberalism was to parliamentary government. Liberal authors including Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, Francois Guizot, and Walter Bagehot all specifically advocated constitutional structures in which cabinet officials sat as legislative representatives, and required the “confidence” of the legislature to remain in office. This dissertation offers a historical account of how liberal political thinkers came to favor parliamentary government. It elucidates the arguments and normative commitments that influenced liberals to embrace parliamentary institutions, and demonstrates their continuing relevance to political theory. One particularly important liberal value was deliberation. Liberal authors were convinced that parliamentary government was more conducive to political deliberation than other forms of representative government, including American “presidentialism.”
The first half of the dissertation examines the origins of parliamentary liberalism in eighteenth-century Britain and France. In Britain, I argue, liberal theories of parliamentary government originated in debates over legislative patronage. Defenders of patronage, such as David Hume and Robert Walpole, argued for the value of the king’s ministers serving in Parliament. Opponents of patronage, such as Henry Bolingbroke, argued that Parliament had to be able to regularly and habitually force out ministers. Both sides of this debate found themselves articulating a strikingly parallel idea: that the relationship between executive and legislature powers had to be worked out entirely within the legislature. I show that in France, this same idea became an important element of political thought because of the constitutional failures of the French Revolution. After 1789, the French National Assembly instituted a strict separation between legislative and executive power. As in the United States, executive officers were prohibited from sitting in the legislature. The legislature was also given no regular way of influencing ministerial appointments. The failure of such constitutional arrangements led political thinkers including Jacques Necker and Germaine de Staël to argue that the worst consequences of the French Revolution could have been avoided if France had adopted parliamentary-style institutions. A similar argument was advanced by Edmund Burke, who became a crucial figure in the liberal parliamentary traditions of both England and France.
The second half of the dissertation explores the sophisticated theories of parliamentary government that were expressed by nineteenth-century liberal authors such as Constant, Guizot, Bagehot, and Mill. I also detail the complex position of Alexis de Tocqueville—an admirer of American constitutionalism who preferred parliamentary government for France—within parliamentary liberalism. These liberal thinkers disagreed over the role of ministers in a parliamentary assembly; over how to deal with challenges like corruption and cabinet instability; and over whether democracy and parliamentarism could be compatible. But they were convinced that non-parliamentary forms of representative government were defective at promoting deliberation, and led to destructive conflicts between executive and legislature. Their arguments remain an important resource for Americans trying to understand the recurrent pathologies of our political culture and institutions.
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Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:23845479
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