Colossus: Constitutional Theory in America and France, 1776-1799
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Lebovitz, Adam J.
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CitationLebovitz, Adam J. 2018. Colossus: Constitutional Theory in America and France, 1776-1799. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation presents a new intellectual history of constitution-making in America and France, from the publication of Common Sense in Philadelphia through the coup d'état of Napoleon in Paris. It proposes that constitutional theories, both radical and reactionary, traveled much more freely across the Atlantic in this period than has been understood. And it argues that at the center of these pivotal decades was a confrontation of ideas that began in America in 1776, between exponents and critics of Pennsylvania's first republican constitution, and then moved to France, structuring the key debates about popular sovereignty and constitutional design at the heart of the French revolution. The American revolution in effect became the French revolution, as arguments about bicameralism, executive prerogative, and the legitimacy of constitutional conventions that began in Boston and Philadelphia were repeated in Paris, by politicians and intellectuals freely citing American models and ideas. The fulcrum of this exchange was John Adams's Defence of the constitutions of government of the United States of America (1787), written as a deliberate response to the political theories of Franklin and Paine, as well as the leading philosophes of the ancien régime, and was then used as both a foil and a guide by the revolutionaries of 1789, 1792, and 1795.
Following an introduction and a brief sketch of constitutional debates in America during the revolutionary war, the dissertation makes this argument in three parts. Part I offers an intellectual history of the origins and reception of John Adams's Defence, tracing his complex dialogues with Mably and Turgot over the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania models. It then analyses the unsparing critiques of his work from Condorcet and the Girondin circle in Paris, who maintained strong ties of sympathy to Paine, Franklin, and the tradition of Philadelphia radicalism. Part II presents a new history of the Thermidorean constitution, demonstrating the ubiquity of American examples and the centrality of Adams's Defence. It argues, in particular, that the most vociferous criticisms of the new constitution originated in the Coppet Circle of Jacques Necker and Madame de Staël, who faulted the new government for failing to adequately separate and balance the parts of government, and cited the work of Adams to bolster their conclusions. And it highlights the survival of Philadelphia constitutional arguments in this period, visible in the writings of Benjamin Vaughan, Thomas Paine, and the Abbé Sieyès. Finally, Part III focuses on a concerted intellectual and political movement for the reform of the American constitution, led by a constellation of radicals based in Philadelphia and inspired by the constitutional example of the French republic. In response to what radical journalists like Paine and Benjamin Franklin Bache perceived to be the monarchial drift of the Adams administration, they began to press for a drastic reform of the U.S. constitution, pointing to the more egalitarian French constitution, with its unicameral legislature and weak plural executive, as their model. The argument presented here thus underlines the surprising fragility and contingency of the American constitution in the early years of the republic, and highlights the powerful Atlantic currents of constitutional theory that began in Philadelphia, traveled to Paris, and ultimately returned to their point of origin.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41121195
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