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The Humane Comedy: Constant, Tocqueville and French Liberalism.

Paradoxically there is no liberal party in contemporary France, but George Armstrong Kelly's The Humane Comedy. Constant, Tocqueville and French Liberalism reveals the varying nineteenth-century liberalisms having a decisive place in French history and French political and social theory. He brilliantly presents the fundamental importance of intellectuals' expectations attending the development in France of liberal discourse in the first half of the nineteenth century. This dialogue inescapably included pride, guilt, and fear linked to the recollections of the nation's revolutionary past, and recent support of Napoleon's Empire. Regret about the past and anxiety about the future, Kelly observes, accompanied France's political philosophers through periods of hope, doubt, and anxiety about the nation's future in the years of the Restoration, the July Monarchy, and the Revolution of 1848.

These opportunities and failures frame Kelly's narrative and analytical representation of liberalism during these decisive decades for France. He begins his account and analysis by examining how liberalism failed its own expectations and those of the July Monarchy. He observes that those of liberal convictions who actually held a public office, often performed their tasks poorly. At the same time, Kelly stresses that the ideas and concepts, expressed by serious authors of liberal texts, decisively fashioned their generation's comprehension of the political choices open to the French nation. He further emphasizes the major differences between liberal thinkers brought into the debates about France's destiny. This passionate involvement was a commitment of paramount importance for Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville.

To add to this drama Kelly notes that Tocqueville never read Constant's Cours de politique constitutionnelle first published in 1816. Tocqueville was, of course, only eleven years old when Constant's major work appeared. Kelly obviously was cognizant of the disparity in their ages. Yet he was both surprised and perplexed that Tocqueville neglected Constant's achievements. Kelly properly judges Constant's work indispensable to understanding the history of liberalism. Reflecting his regret that Tocqueville neglected Constant, Kelly offers the explanation that Tocqueville read little. It is pertinent to remember that Tocqueville at twenty-five began his public career in 1830 at Versailles with a post in the judicature. This was the year when Constant died at the age of sixty-three. The generational distances, and actual public service decisively shaped Constant and Tocqueville's individual expectations for Frances political future. Scholars have not yet adequately explained how Constant, after writing in 1813 a pamphlet assaulting Napoleon's reputation, could during Napoleon's Cent-Jours write for Napoleon the "Acte additionel" giving him the semblance of a constitution for France.

The philosopher Arthur C. Danto has observed that it is difficult, but necessary, to read the text of other minds. How well Kelly accomplished this when he summarized the thrust of Constant's life and work by concluding for "Constant liberty is everything" (p. 2). In the same manner, Kelly admirably brings together the trust and belief in freedom professed by Jacques Necker, Alexandre Vinet, and Frangois Guizot. And surprisingly, but appropriately, Kelly adds to this cohort those he identifies as participating in "Catholic submissions" to the cause of liberty. Here Lacordaire and Montalembert have fitting places. He further reminds us that when Lacordaire entered the Academie Francaise, succeeding to Tocqueville's chair, he was unlimited in his praise of Tocqueville's celebration of liberty and equality.

Under the rubric "Philosophy and Civil Religion," Kelly renews interest in figures such as Simon-Theodore Jouffroy, and the not well-recognized Jean-Philbert Damiron. Astutely, he identifies Lamartine's liberalism as that of a "liberalism sui generis: more often that not waged against liberals" (p. 219). This anxiety is attributed to liberal distrust of socialist ideas, and the dread of anarchy; a disquietude heightened by Lamartine's reaction to the revolution of 1848. Kelly skilfully recreates the difficulties liberals confronted, while they attempted to create common liberal beliefs, capable of sustaining the unity of French society. In this matter Kelly discerningly stresses the active support Protestants, constituting only 2 to 3 per cent of France's population, gave to liberal ends and prospects for France. The most visible and articulate participants in this effort, identified by Kelly, include Necker, de Stael, Vinet, and Guizot.

Guizot particularly addressed the means by which political liberalism could be enhanced while advancing the harmony and solidarity of France - thus his proposal "... Let the Catholic Church profess its infallibility in the religious order and the state its liberty of thought in the social order" (p. 113). Here Kelly describes Catholics in this climate submitting to the realities of their time. Appropriately, he further notes the importance of Montalembert's affirmation that Catholics had nothing to fear from liberal democracy. And he underlines Montalembert's anxiety and warning that any rejection of a free polity for France would suffocate all promises of an open and generous political and social order in France. Certainly, Louis Napoleon's destruction of the Second Republic confirmed this prediction.

Kelly's achievement greatly enhances our understanding of France's liberal intellectuals in the first half of the nineteenth century, who attempted to accomplish what their Enlightenment predecessors had sought to comprehend in their own search for the conditions making possible a free society. His success invites historians to appreciate the permanence and impermanence of all theory marshalled to create free peoples and nations.
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Author:Gargan, Edward T.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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