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Republicanism after the French Revolution

The Case of Sismonde de Sismondi
Nadia Urbinati
The analysis of political languages and ideologies has been the distinctive
mark of Quentin Skinner’s project of freeing historical understanding from
anti-historical parochialisms.
While providing for a new understanding of
past events or beliefs that had until then seemed contradictory or irrational,
Skinner’s methodology has also played a kind of therapeutic role in relation
to several mythologies that were driving historiography and was, in this
regard, a check on the hubris of explanation. Political modernity from the
Renaissance to the English Civil War has been its main object of interpreta-
tion. To understand it, Skinner has not only redefined the method and iden-
tity of the history of political thought but has also reconstructed the titanic
battles between the two visions of liberty (political or natural) and sover-
eignty (self-governing peoples or the state) that marked modern European
history. His vision of political agency and historical understanding as well
as his view of thinking as political action through speech materialized in
the study of exemplary cases of, respectively, the neo-Roman vision of free-
dom or republicanism as it reemerged in modern political thought (freedom
as an artificial or political construction that calls for a legitimate law) and
the successful counter-attack upon it by the liberal (but actually Hobbesian)
It was also the main theme of Skinner’s ‘‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of
Ideas,’’ whose fortieth anniversary we celebrate here.
Copyright ᭧ by Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 73, Number 1 (January 2012)
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vision of liberty (freedom as a natural fact that exists prior to, and in con-
flict with, law). The hegemony of liberalism’s linguistic shift was fully
achieved after World War II with Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty,
which identified negative liberty with liberty in the ‘‘true’’ sense and posi-
tive liberty as something that had nothing to do with liberty but was, at
most, a condition for it (equal opportunity to be free through self-government
and distributive justice).
The history of the enormous impact of Berlin’s 1958 article on contem-
porary political philosophy, and on visions of liberty and liberalism in par-
ticular, is still to be written. Undoubtedly, Berlin was the author of a
‘‘vocabulary shift’’ in the Skinnerian sense because he succeeded in giving
an analytical cast to a dualism that had until then remained mainly an ideo-
logical remnant of several battles liberalism had fought, from the age of the
French Revolution through the Soviet Revolution, against its main rival—
equality (democratic or socialist). Berlin was able to put a halt to a more
than century-old dispute by concocting a definition of liberty that claimed
to be neutral, analytical, and categorical, and that both the ‘‘friends’’ and
the ‘‘enemies’’ of negative liberty would have to accept, which they did. His
was a hegemonic operation, or, in Skinner’s language, a rhetorical act. Ber-
lin performed as an ideologist not as an historian; he performed as Hobbes
(or Machiavelli) did before him who tried ‘‘to discredit and supersede’’ a
rival conception and did so by making it not merely old but moreover
wrong. As a consequence, Berlin reorganized modern political thought and
made a clear cut separation between thinkers who contributed to conceptu-
alizing liberty as noninterference (from Hobbes to Mill passing through
Constant) and thinkers who either misconstrued it (Condorcet and Kant)
or dangerously identified it with other ideas, like equal power or autonomy
(from Spinoza and Rousseau to Marx).
I have tried to show elsewhere that Berlin’s paradigm impaired our
understanding of the political ideas of seminal liberal authors like Benjamin
Constant and John Stuart Mill.
Although Berlin claimed a theoretical
affinity between his 1958 article and Constant’s 1819 lecture on the liberty
of the ancients and of the moderns, and although both essays ostensibly
arose in a counterrevolutionary climate, nevertheless Berlin constructed a
more radical dichotomy than Constant, who never relinquished the search
for a compromise between individual and political liberty, and did not iden-
Nadia Urbinati, Mill on Democracy: From the Athenian Polis to Representative Govern-
ment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
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Urbinati ✦ Symposium: On Quentin Skinner, from Method to Politics
tify, as Berlin did, political positive liberty with the rationalist project of
individual autonomy.
In fact, Constant’s definition of the liberty of the
moderns emerged out of his assumption that ancient liberty encompassed
an idea of ‘‘individual existence’’ that recognized ‘‘political existence’’ as
the only source of self-realization. Thus the decline of free public life was
the condition for the Stoic project of a rationally constructed self, a project
that defined individual existence in terms of personal and private destiny to
be sought outside the polis. Unlike Berlin, Constant saw the ‘‘liberty of the
ancients’’ as too poor and narrow rather than as too comprehensive and
As for Mill, the tension between negative and positive liberty
that Berlin detected in his work neither exhausted his contribution to the
theory of liberty nor explained his ongoing anxiety about the ‘‘physical
privation or moral degradation’’ of men and women in modern society.
Certainly, with negative liberty as our guide we can understand neither The
Subjection of Women nor Chapters on Socialism, two works that advance
and invoke a vision of liberty as non-subjection that demands interference
by a just law and a change in power relations.
The complexity of Constant’s and Mill’s liberalism emerges once we
reconstruct, in Skinner’s method, the meaning and implications of the
debate over the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns. It was
within the intellectual and political context of that debate, in the first half
of the nineteenth century, that European liberals perfected the procedures
and institutions of representative government and discussed the legitimacy
and scope of democracy and the place of political liberty, equality, and
competence in politics. French and British liberals developed their political
ideas in the context of their polemic against their respective adversar-
ies. The target of the French liberals and doctrinaires were the ultra-
Montagnards (eighteenth-century republicanism and Jacobinism), which
Benjamin Constant, ‘‘The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns,’’
in Political Writings, ed. Biancamaria Fontana (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1988), 310–11, 327. See Richard Muglan, ‘‘Liberty in Ancient Greece,’’ in Conceptions
of Liberty in Political Philosophy, eds. Zbigniew Pelczynski and John Gray (New York:
St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 23–24; Biancamaria Fontana, introduction to Benjamin Con-
stant, Political Writings, 17; Stephen Holmes, Benjamin Constant and the Making of
Modern Liberalism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984), 33–34.
Fontana, introduction to Benjamin Constant, Political Writings, 17; Holmes, Benjamin
Constant, 33–34.
John Stuart Mill, ‘‘Chapters on Socialism’’ (1869; 1879), in The Collected Works of
John Stuart Mill, 33 vols., ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press /
London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963–91), 5:713..
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had donned, as Karl Marx wrote, the mask of the ancients in order to
overturn the ancien re´gime.
But the targets of the English liberals were the
conservatives, who used ancient history as a tool to oppose their society’s
transition to liberalism and democracy and constructed two diametrically
opposite political models from the past—oligarchic Sparta which they
prized, and democratic Athens which they scorned. So when Mill sought to
counter the Tories’ strategy, he was forced to defend Athens against Sparta,
so to speak: one ancient republic against the other. He did not thus embrace
the theory of the ‘‘two liberties’’ and as a consequence his liberalism did not
contain those anti-republican characteristics that that theory supposedly
entails. His liberalism was constructed not in opposition to but as an
enrichment of the political wisdom of the ancients.
Post-revolutionary French liberals, instead, developed the theory of the
dichotomy between ancient and modern liberty in reaction to eighteenth-
century republican theory. Although neither that version of liberalism nor
the version of republicanism it gave rise to was the only version available
in Europe, they did become the dominant ones—to be resurrected more
than a century later when the model of the ‘‘two liberties’’ became the ideo-
logical language of the Cold War. That dualism still impinges on us and
thwarts our understanding of the transformations that republicanism or,
more precisely, a republican conception of politics and liberty, went
through in the two centuries that followed the American and the French
Revolutions. Two works have been recently published that intend to chal-
lenge the paradigm of the two inimical liberties: Liberal Beginnings by
Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson and Le Moment Re´publicain en France
by Jean-Fabien Spitz.
Kalyvas and Katznelson seek to refute Berlin’s simple binary logic but
also to prove that Skinner’s idea that liberalism decisively defeated and
replaced republicanism is wrong. Kalyvas and Katznelson choose to study
the period spanning the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries
because they claim that it was then that a gradual linguistic transformation
of republicanism took place due to the growth of an autonomous civil
society and the displacement of public-spirited political activity by self-
interested economic activity. Relying upon intuitions and suggestions
advanced by two scholars within the republican camp (Maurizio Viroli and
Gordon Wood), Kalyvas and Katznelson analyze the works of some seminal
eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political theorists (from Adam Smith
Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in The Marx-Engels Reader,
ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 595.
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Urbinati ✦ Symposium: On Quentin Skinner, from Method to Politics
and Adam Ferguson to Madame de Stael and Constant) to prove that liber-
alism was a transformation internal to republicanism rather than a counter-
ideology that established itself against its rival. Rather than an alternative
to republicanism, liberalism developed as a historical transformation of
classical republicanism.
On the European side of the Atlantic, Jean-Fabien Spitz has published
a voluminous historical reconstruction of French republicanism after the
Revolution of 1789. His contested paradigm is once again the binary logic
of the Cold War, with the difference that in France that paradigm took the
form of a dualism between liberalism on the one hand and democracy and
republicanism on the other. That was Franc¸ois Furet’s strategy against
the ideology of democracy that paved the way for the Terror. Yet, Spitz
observes, while post-revolution liberals polemically made republicanism
and democracy synonymous, it was republicanism that provided the mod-
erns with a conception of liberty, not democracy. Moreover, despite the
polemical Cold War identification of republicanism with the religion of vir-
tue and revolution, the republican conception of liberty, as Skinner and
Philip Pettit have proved, is neither communitarian nor religious; rather,
the neo-Roman idea of liberty as non-arbitrary interference is naturally dis-
posed toward liberalism, once liberalism is freed of the ideological identifi-
cation with freedom as non-interference. Spitz’s main ambition is to
reexamine the theoretical relationship between republican and liberal phi-
losophies in the view of reconstructing ‘‘the Euro-Atlantic republican tradi-
tion’’ within which liberalism and republicanism converge.
Against the classical view that stated two antithetical currents and
inverse values—civil liberty against political liberty, personal inde-
pendence against political community—it is now possible to show
that the republican tradition is the true matrix of the European
reflection on modern liberty, and that liberalism, with its focus on
the independence of the individual and civil society from the state,
was its heir, although it was not always faithful to the central val-
ues of the liberty of the moderns.
The works of Kalyvas and Katznelson and of Spitz present us with two
very different pictures. The former tells us that republicanism did not actu-
Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson, Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the
Moderns, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 1–17.
Jean-Fabian Spitz, Le Moment Re´ publicain en France (Paris: Gallimard, 2005), 38.
Spitz, Le Moment, 39 (my translation).
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ally disappear but became something else. Unlike the interpretation put
forth by Skinner and other contemporary republican scholars, Kalyvas and
Katznelson do not think that ‘‘liberalism decisively defeated and replaced
republicanism’’; developing from Franco Venturi, they posit instead that
classical republican discourse proved unable to face the unprecedented
innovations brought about by modern society. As a consequence, authors
who were ‘‘explicitly motivated to understand the prospects of republican
institutions’’ had to reorient their strategy so as to make those institutions
adapt to the ‘‘changing circumstances.’’
At the end of Kalyvas and Katz-
nelson’s re-interpretive effort we have not ‘‘the ideological triumph of liber-
alism’’ but a new liberal-republican ideology. Rather than a linguistic shift
or the anti-republican attack perpetrated by liberal theorists, we have a
merging of liberal and republican languages. Spitz, on the other hand, tells
us an opposite story, one in which republicanism was able to renew itself
and also emancipate liberalism from its own narrowness. Not liberalism, in
fact, but republicanism provides the moderns with a conception of liberty
that fits both a market society and an individualistic moral culture.
At the end of our examination of these two recent revisionist works we
may find ourselves a little bit disappointed because we are left with one
political tradition only, whether in the form of a liberal-republican amal-
gam or of a republicanism that has incorporated both liberalism and
democracy. To test competently the accuracy of these theses it would be
necessary to revisit the works of the authors that these two books analyze,
a task that would require a very different enterprise than this brief interven-
tion. What I would like to do instead is to propose a counter-argument that
questions somehow the ideological reductio ad unum that these two books
attain. I will revisit the ideas of a republican author who lived and worked
in the same age as the authors whose works Kalyvas, Katznelson, and Spitz
study and was engaged in a work of interpretation that was meant to
defend republicanism in a time in which republicanism was on trial. This
author is Jean-Charles-Le´onard Sismonde de Sismondi (1773–1842), an
important and prolific historian and economist, and a theorist of republican
thought who is barely referred to in contemporary studies on republican-
ism, in fact not even mentioned by Kalyvas and Katznelson, and only
alluded to by Spitz.
While in studying Mill’s political thought I emphasized the contribu-
tion of ancient republican ideas in the making of nineteenth-century liberal-
Kalyvas and Katznelson, Liberal Beginnings, 6.
Spitz, Le Moment, 58–61.
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Urbinati ✦ Symposium: On Quentin Skinner, from Method to Politics
ism, by revisiting Sismondi’s writings I would like to show how the French
Revolution and the advent of capitalism changed the nature of republican-
ism without obliterating it. That change was prompted however by its
antagonism with democracy, not liberalism. It was not the priority of indi-
vidual interest and liberty that troubled Sismondi the most; what challenged
political liberty was the growth of a society that praised equality and elec-
toral consent and made virtue and honor negligible. Well before Alexis de
Tocqueville’s diagnosis, Sismondi thought that, if not tamed, the demo-
cratic transformation of society would threaten individual as well as politi-
cal liberty. Republicanism as a theory of liberty and constitutional
government was the taming strategy. In sum, republicanism after the French
Revolution became the counter-response to democracy, a remedy that relied
on an honorable tradition that, after the collapse of the Roman Republic,
was revived in the Middle Ages. According to Sismondi, it was urgent that
modern nations resume and adapt it to their society.
Sismondi was born into a Genevan aristocratic republican family; his father
was a Calvinist pastor and the member of the city council.
The young
Sismondi was trained to become a tradesman but the French Revolution
interrupted his career. All his family’s property was confiscated and he was
forced into exile, first in London (1793) and then in Pescia, Tuscany (1795).
England and Italy were pivotal in his political and intellectual education
and influenced the character of his republicanism.
In London, Sismondi became acquainted with the works of Smith and
Ferguson and the juridical texts of the Swiss Jean-Louis Delolme and of
William Blackstone.
In London, he also witnessed the social and moral
The citation in the title of this paragraph is from Jean-Charles-Le´onard Simonde de
Sismondi, Epistolario, 4 vols., ed. Carlo Pellegrini (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1933–
1954), 3: 284 (letter to Mme St-Aulaire, June 6, 1835).
For an excellent examination of Sismondi’s thought on the constitution see Lucien
Jaume, ‘‘La conception sismondienne du gouvernement libre compare´ e a` la vision
franc¸aise,’’ in Sismondi e la civilita´ toscana: Atti del Convegno internazionale di studi,
Pescia 13–15 aprile 2000 (Florence: Olschki, 2001), 213–30; Francesca Sofia, ‘‘Sul pen-
siero politico-costituzionale del giovane Sismondi,’’ in Rassegna storica del Risorgimento
68 (1981): 131–48; and Marco Miberbi, ‘‘Analisi storica e costituzionalismo in Sis-
mondi,’’ in La cultura politica nell’eta´ dei lumi: da Rousseau a Sismondi, ed. Rolando
Minuti (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2009), 165–80.
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impact of the industrial revolution. In what scholars consider his master-
piece, the Nouveaux principles d’e´conomie politique (1819), Sismondi
devised a critique of market society and strong objections against a dog-
matic interpretation of Smith’s ideas (in particular Jean-Baptiste Say’s).
Moreover, he brought to light the relationship between economic liberty
and social conflicts, identified industrial society as classist and capable of
jeopardizing the possibility of a ‘‘good government,’’ and consequently
made the government responsible for implementing social policies and rees-
tablishing social equilibrium.
Sismondi incorporated political economy
into the republican project. Finally, during his exile in Tuscany, he devel-
oped the two most important interests of his life: agriculture (as an object
of study and a profession) and the history of the republican constitutions.
It was actually in Tuscany in 1796 that he began working on his Recherches
sur les Constitutions des Peuples Libres. After returning to Geneva in 1800,
he completed several volumes of the Recherches and became an assidue´ of
Madame de Stae¨l’s circle of Coppet with Constant, Paul-Henry Mallet, Jean
de Mueller, and August Wilhelm von Schlegel. Sismondi accompanied de
Stae¨l on her journey in Italy and Germany, and according to some interpret-
ers her Corinne ou de l’Italie was a sort of transcript of her dialogue with
Sismondi on the history of European liberty, its birth, transformation,
decline and renaissance, after Napoleon’s Empire.
Within that intellectual
environment Sismondi wrote his first major works, De la litte´rature du midi
de l’Europe and his monumental Histoire des Re´publiques Italiennes du
moyen aˆ ge, which inspired the political culture of the Risorgimento as, liter-
ally, the ‘‘resurrection’’ of Italian political liberty from its medieval city-
states (its ‘‘antiques liberte´s’’).
Sismondi took part in the post-revolutionary debate over the liberty of
the ancients and the liberty of the moderns, the object of a comparative
Sismondi started actually as a follower of Say’s ideas with his De la richesse commercial
ou, Principes d’e´ conomie politique, applique´ s a` la le´ gislation du commerce (Geneva: J. J.
Paschoud, an XI [1803]); cfr. H. O. Pappe, ‘‘Sismondi’s System of Liberty,’’ Journal of
the History of Ideas 40 (1979): 251–66.
J.-C.-L. Simonde de Sismondi, Nouveaux principes d’e´ conomie politique ou, De la rich-
esse dans ses rapports avec la population, 2 vols. (Paris: Delaunay, 1819), 1:208, 420;
2:312, 359, 363, 561. According to Gareth Stedman Jones, Sismondi ‘‘introduced the
term in 1819’’: Introduction to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Mani-
festo (London: Penguin Classics, 1967), 35.
Pierangelo Schiera, Presentazione of J. C. L. Sismonde de Sismondi, Storia delle Repub-
bliche italiane (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1996), xiv-xxiii.
Jean-R. De Salis, Sismondi 1773–1842. La vie et l’oueuvre d’un cosmopolite philo-
sophe (Paris: Librairies ancienne Honore´ Champion, 1932), 50.
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Urbinati ✦ Symposium: On Quentin Skinner, from Method to Politics
analysis that had started before Constant’s famous lecture of 1819. A cru-
cial text that instigated that debate was Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws,
in which the dualism of the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns
overlapped with that of the Latin tradition of liberty (civic and politically-
oriented) and the Gothic one (moral and privately-oriented). This theme
acquired a new meaning in the mid-nineteenth century, when the debate on
liberty merged with the examination of the forms of government and
became historically contextual. Thus, for instance, while Franc¸ois Guizot
sided with the Gothic tradition and the liberty of the moderns, Pasquale
Villari and John Stuart Mill questioned the idea of a dualism and tried to
combine both liberties.
However, Sismondi employed the tension between
those two traditions—Latin and Germanic; ancient and modern—to posit
something new, namely, that in Europe political liberty started after the
decline of the Roman Empire and before the formation of territorial states.
This interpretation had important implications.
Certainly, it entailed the identification of political liberty with constitu-
tionalism and the reinterpretation of classical republican topics like virtue
and honor as not only political but individual and private qualities. Sis-
mondi enriched the republican discourse of good government with the eigh-
teenth century’s attention to the stabilizing role of economic interests, and
deemed the correlation between individual interests and the general interest
as an essential indication of the conditions for the attainment of political
liberty. Hence, he interpreted rationality as the evolution of political liberty
and social well-being according to the historical trajectory that each politi-
cal community activated in accordance with its traditions (which is why he
depicted the history of republicanism through the reconstruction of various
republican constitutions and societies, from Venice, Geneva, and Pisa to
Florence, Geneva, and the Hanseatic cities). Finally, he highlighted a further
implication of republicanism, namely its federative propensity and its con-
tribution to peace. His thought reflected his Swiss origins, since Switzerland
represented for him (as it did for several republicans in the age of national
self-determination) both a model of good government and a model of coop-
eration among peoples.
Sismondi’s writings on Swiss republican federal-
ism became an important document for a republican author like Carlo
Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (1748),
trans. Anne M. Choler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1989), Bk. 11, chap. 6.
Cfr. Henri Perrochon, ‘‘L’Histoire des re´ publiques italiennes et la Suisse,’’ in Studi su
G.C.L. Sismondi raccolti per il primo centenario della sua morte (1942), con Prefazione
di Luigi Einaudi (Bellinzona: Istituto Editoriale Ticinese, 1945), 183–92.
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Cattaneo and a liberal author like George Grote. The former was the leader
of Milan’s insurrection in 1848 and the theorist who opposed a liberal and
federalist model of republicanism to a democratic and nationalist one
(which was represented by Giuseppe Mazzini). The latter tackled the con-
servatives’ denigration of Athens by comparing the old city-state to the can-
tonal democracy of Swiss Confederation.
Searching in the Middle Ages for the origins of political liberty reso-
nated with the ethical and pedagogical meaning that Sismondi ascribed to
his historical work. But it also marked a break with a consolidated tradition
that had Montesquieu as one of its most authoritative representatives.
Indeed, in going back to a time that was prior to the electoral and constitu-
tional revolution of seventeenthcentury England, Sismondi advanced some
truly revolutionary ideas: that the modern history of political liberty started
with the collapse of the Roman Empire and developed in the course of the
struggle against a centralizing and imperial power, before the formation
of the territorial states, whose hegemonic role after the sixteenth century
interrupted the republican experience and became the natural sites of mod-
ern centralism. Sismondi gave some important political messages to his con-
temporaries: first, that as with the past, political liberty could have a new
beginning with the decline of the Napoleonic Empire; second, that modern
political liberty started from the periphery and through an endless tension
against centralizing forces; third, that the history of medieval city-states
was not a mere piece of erudition but an ethical document that contained
an educational and political message for contemporary European countries;
and finally, that local government was like a school of citizenship that mod-
ern nations needed to promote and defend against the centralistic propen-
sity of state sovereignty. The ideological project Sismondi proposed to the
moderns was twofold: to end the relegation of republican institutions to
ancient history; and to emancipate the Middle Ages from the eighteenth-
century identification with backwardness and darkness. In sum, the Italian
free cities of the twelfth century started the ‘‘classical age’’ of political lib-
erty and republicanism.
See, respectively, Carlo Cattaneo, Stati Uniti d’Italia: Scritti sul federalism democratico,
with an introduction by Norberto Bobbio (1945) and a preface by Nadia Urbinati (Rome:
Donzelli, 2010); and Grote’s report of his journey in Swiss cantons in his ‘‘Letters on
Switzerland’’ of 1847, in George Grote, The Minor Works: With Critical Remarks on His
Intellectual Character, Writings, and Speeches, ed. Alexander Bain (London: John Mur-
ray, 1873).
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Urbinati ✦ Symposium: On Quentin Skinner, from Method to Politics
Sismondi devised his republicanism out of a direct confrontation with the
French Revolution, and a close analysis of two extreme cases of the destruc-
tion of liberty it provoked: the destruction of political liberty by the hand
of absolute powers; and the attempt to establish political liberty by revolu-
tionary means. The former case pertained to governments that lacked legiti-
macy because they violated the criterion of a constitutional limitation of
power: they pertained thus to both absolute monarchy and absolute popu-
lar sovereignty. Sismondi testified to the fact that the republican theory of
liberty was forged in the midst of two polemical confrontations: against the
arbitrary power of the one (tyranny) and against the arbitrary power of
the multitude (democracy). This pattern, which had in Cicero its classical
champion, was to be resumed at other critical moments of regime transi-
tion, for instance in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries.
The sec-
ond case of destruction of liberty pertained to the means by which a
legitimate political order could be constituted. The issue of the means to
achieve political liberty and implement constitutional government invari-
ably concerned the character and role of leadership. Sismondi revived the
classical republican issue of the inability of the people to recognize and
to want what was in their interest, and consequentially the need of some
‘‘gens e´clairs’’ or virtuous, honest, and competent political leaders who
could channel the people’s anti-absolutist passions toward constitutional
changes. Although partial in its interests, this class needed to be integrated
into the sovereign nation and be made a positive component of the history
of liberty (wherein we may sense Sismondi’s implicit polemical reference to
Sieye`s’s declaration of the noble class as foreigner to the nation).
exigency of a political class of virtuous and competent men that the people
should reward and honor rather than exclude or strip of their specificity
made his critique of democracy strong and hard to temper because it ques-
tioned the interpretation of equality, the basic democratic principle.
Cfr., Philip Ayres, Classical Culture and the Idea of Rome in Eighteenth-Century
England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), chap.1; Caroline Robbins,
Introduction to Two English Republican Tracts: Plato Redivivus by Henry Neville; An
Essay Upon The Constitution of The Roman Government by Walter Moyle (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1969), 40–43; Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998), 30–31.
J. C. L. Sismondi, Recherches sur les Constitutions des peuples libres, texte ine´ dit, with
an Introduction by Marco Minerbi (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1965), 105.
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Democracy and violence on the one hand and democracy and tyranny
on the other were among the targets of Sismondi’s Recherches, an attempt
to prove, via history, that only a gradual transformation of institutions and
rules could translate into a good or constitutional government.
He acknowledged only one positive form of uprising by subjugated
people: when it occurred after more or less numerous signs of civil or politi-
cal oppositions, like petitions, complaints, critical denunciations through
the press and the like. In this case, a popular uprising was not a revolution-
ary act but the extreme sign of long-lasting disbelief in the established order,
an indication of people’s oppositional sentiments rather than their creation.
Sismondi’s interpretation brings to mind Edmund Burke’s distinction
between a legitimate revolution (which actually was not a revolution), such
as the Glorious Revolution and a true (thus pestilential) revolution, like the
French one.
According to Sismondi, all uprisings that resulted in political
liberty (for example, in England, Holland, the United States, and Switzer-
land) were not sudden explosions of rage or mass mobilizations. They were
instead the final result of a process that had started before and was able to
educate the people’s ‘‘sentiment and reflection’’ and change their mentality.
He acknowledged the legitimacy of anti-absolutist passions that were
brought to the revolution; what he opposed and criticized was the justifica-
tion of the revolutionary act and the direct infusion of passions in politics.
Sismondi’s critique of democracy was a critique of the principle of pop-
ular sovereignty, and in particular Rousseau’s conception of sovereignty as
‘‘total alienation of rights by each to the community.’’ Interpreting the
social contract as a means to make the political community strong instead
of making liberty secure entailed, according to Sismondi, the construction
of a government in which the people had the capacity of giving itself laws
but not of resisting them or limiting its own power. Rousseau’s notion of
political liberty, he claimed, was radically incapable of bearing constitu-
tional constraints because it was expressed in term of the will first, rather
than the law. The extreme consequence of political equality was thus anar-
chy because liberty could not be entrenched or subjected to the will of ‘‘yes-
terday,’’ to paraphrase Rousseau. Sismondi’s argument brought him to his
main conclusion: violence and democracy go necessarily hand in hand and
are opposite to a secure liberty and constitutional government.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1789–1790), ed. by J. G. A.
Pocock (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 29–30.
Sismondi, Recherches, 103–4.
Ibid., 116. However, Sismondi’s relation to Rousseau was very complex and not only
negative; actually he was very receptive of Rousseau’s Lettres e´ crites de la montagne in
which the institutions of the republic of Geneva were discussed according to a very mod-
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Urbinati ✦ Symposium: On Quentin Skinner, from Method to Politics
racy as popular sovereignty was the ‘‘enemy of true liberty’’ because it
merged political power with equality.
‘‘True’’ liberty consisted in the
‘‘equilibrium of powers, which can only preserve the constitution and save
society from the dangerous convulsions’’ and ‘‘the tyranny of popular
In an ideological style that reminds us of post-World War II interpreters
of the genesis of Jacobinism, Sismondi merged the French Revolution and
democracy through the Social Contract and developed his conception of
civil and political liberty against both of them. While he did not see any
radical incompatibility between good government and individual liberty
(private property, freedom of commerce, free speech, freedom of the press
and of religion), he detected instead a strong tension between liberty and
equality. Only a pluralistic organization of society and politics could secure
division of powers and moreover prevent the centrality of the legislative
assembly. However we judge Sismondi’s political vision, it is certain that
his argument against democracy was made in the view of recovering repub-
licanism from the ashes of Jacobinism. He made from within the republican
theory of political liberty the same maneuver against government by con-
sent that was made by the reactionary thinkers of his time (in particular
Joseph de Maistre) from within the doctrine of monarchical authority. Per-
haps no republican author of modernity like Sismondi was able to devise
such a comprehensive and cogent anti-democratic idea of the republic.
The connection he instituted between reform and constitutional gov-
ernment allowed Sismondi to disassociate republicanism from the illiberal
trajectory of the French Revolution. At the same time, he was able to hold
only democracy responsible for the Terror because democracy was singu-
larly associated with violence and despotic domination. If democracy could
not come gradually and peacefully it was because the goal it put forward
was invariably one that destabilized social pluralism without succeeding in
achieving unanimous consent by all citizens: equality in the distribution of
erate spirit; cfr. Minerbi, Introduzione of Sismondi, Recherches, 31–33; and Minerbi,
‘‘Analisi storica e constituzionalismo in Sismondi,’’ 167–69.
C. L. C. Sismonde de Sismondi, Examen de la Constitution Franc¸ aise (Paris: Treuttel et
Wu` rtz, 1815), 49 (this Examen is an important document of Sismondi’s pro-Napoleonic
moment after the Emperor’s escape from St. Elena).
Sismondi, Recherches, 98; Examen, 10.
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political power, regardless of competence, honor, responsibility, and
knowledge, was a goal that could hardly receive the consent of the ‘‘gens
e´clairs.’’ That the political order should rely on quantity (counting of votes)
meant that one part of the polity, the majority, necessarily had an absolute
power over the entire community because no power could resist it effec-
tively. Thus democracy could either be tamed with a variety of electoral
stratagems that could break the unity of the masses (Sismondi proposed
plural voting, a solution that would also attract Mill, although there is no
evidence that Mill derived the idea from Sismondi’s book) and with consti-
tutional constraints, or it was destined to become tyrannical precisely
because was based on consent and equality. Yet to him, such a tamed
democracy was a departure from democracy altogether and in fact was a
‘‘wise constitution and good government,’’ that is to say, a republic. Politi-
cal freedom could succeed only within a society that was composed of
‘‘diverse classes’’ and that ‘‘multiplied’’ the criteria of the distribution of
the right to vote. Yet that was ‘‘a kind of political heresy’’ because ‘‘today
democracy has got a complete victory in all countries in which scholars
write about politics.’’
Sismondi’s contribution to the republican theory of political liberty is
relevant for us. First of all, by political liberty he meant the ‘‘constitution’’
rather than simply the ‘‘republic.’’ Liberty, civil and political, was an essen-
tially negative expression of power; as a limitation and constraint on state
power it resulted in ‘‘wise constitutions.’’ Sismondi’s theory of liberty con-
tained reiterated classical republican arguments (some of which were
recently analytically revisited by Philip Pettit) claiming that the criterion of
good law resides in the fact that the law is constitutionally legitimate rather
than responsive to the public and citizens’ consent.
As the medium that
establishes the relations of individuals to each other, and to society as a
whole, the law has to be impartial as the will of the majority cannot be.
Sismondi’s radical counter-argument against democracy consisted in disas-
sociating the law and the will (or power) and making the former the deposi-
Sismondi, Recherches, 129 and 124; see also the French edition of the Recherches he
published with the title, E
tudes sur Les Constitutions des Peuples Libres (Brussels: Socie´ te´
Typographique Belge, 1839), 60.
Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1997), 182. Pettit adds an important caveat to his criticism of democ-
racy: the enemy of liberty as non-domination and republican good government was born
in the nineteenth century, with the theory of national sovereignty and the centrality of
public opinion and parliamentary democracy (Republicanism, 182); yet the nineteenth
century was also the century of Sismondi’s anti-centralistic and constitutional republi-
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Urbinati ✦ Symposium: On Quentin Skinner, from Method to Politics
tory of the political freedom that the community contains within its
On Sismondi’s critique of democracy an important role was
played by the writings of John Adams, who had stressed the continuity of
the American Revolution with the English revolution, claimed that liberty
rested in a compromise between aristocracy and democracy, and finally
claimed that the former had actually codified the existence of a new aristoc-
To conclude, Sismondi redefined the republican theory of liberty and
government in direct opposition to democracy, not liberalism. He achieved
this goal by ascribing to the constitution (‘‘une constitution libre’’) three
purposes: that of devising, regulating, and equilibrating state powers; that
of setting procedures for gathering the will of all the individual citizens and
of the parts composing the nation in a way that was consistent to liberty
rather than equality; and finally, that of making sure that no part of the
state or section of society speak in the name of the ‘‘totalite´ de la nation.’’
The aim of the constitution was that of making sure that the government
was not subservient to any portion of society or partial interest (and the
majorities in particular). But the kind of democracy that eighteenth-century
republicanism had contributed in creating with its identification with popu-
lar sovereignty and consent could not bear those constitutional limitations
because its two leading principles, the priority of the will and a homoge-
neous conception of the collective, were inherently inimical to liberty, civil
and political.
Columbia University.
Sismondi, Recherches, 112–13.
John Adams, A defense of the constitutions of government of the United States of
America, against the attack of M. Turgot in his letter to Dr. Price, dated the twenty-
second day of March, 1778 (London : Printed for J. Stockdale, 1794), Letter XI; see on
this issue, Francesca Sofia, ‘‘Le fonti sulla civilta` toscana nella biblioteca del giovane
Sismondi,’’ in Sismondi e la civilta` , ed. Francesca Sofia (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2001),
Sismondi, Recherches, 91.
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