As the modern state became the reality of modern politics, Hobbes' theory of the naturally sovereign state was enacted in different forms. Many thinkers after Hobbes held that reason also determined natural rights for each man beyond just self-preservation. States developed in combinations and balances of sovereignty and rights. For thinkers, this was the the struggle of nature and reason. The 18th century regime changes in England, France, and the United States show different combinations, birthed in differing conceptions of sovereignty and rights within the modern state. Most importantly, they demonstrate that the modern state reduces the players in the quest for power to two: the state and the individual.
Montesquieu studied closely the development of the British regime in the 18th century. He found it to be the best expression of a free, modern state. Montesquieu thinks that republics best preserve freedom but must adapt to the modern world (or the modern state idea). The state, for Montesquieu, must respect the individual's rights. Montesquieu sees the laws and constitution as the best expression of reason for the state. Laws are not reasonable in themselves as acts of a state. Instead, the laws must preserve the freedom of the individual within them as reason dictates they best can (128). Reason, for Montesquieu, does not belong exclusively to the state, but the state should use it.
In order for republics to survive in modern statehood they must confederate to provide external strength in addition to free institutions (126). Montesquieu follows the natural right theory of government. In external relations, rights belong to the state in terms of natural desire for self-preservation (133). Just war is rooted in natural right and defense of the interest of the state itself. Enlightenment, the development of reason, leads to peace as states respect rights internally and externally. Thus, conquering states owe a debt to human nature (137). States cannot claim an exclusive rationality to overrun the rights of other states or people.
Mixed regimes are Montesquieu’s ideal when constituted in terms of natural right of the people and unified by a monarch. This is the English regime which Montesquieu studies. Power in this regime must not only be separate, but must also provide a check on the other powers in order to protect rights (152). The powers are separated by a representative and aristocratic legislature with strong executive to unite the state. Rather than the people bending their subjective goals to the will of the state, the state through representative institutions moves towards the people’s ends for their overall good. The ends of the state are not rational and good in and of themselves. Instead their rationality depends on the regime. They are good when pursuing political liberty, as in the English constitution (151) The state itself must bow to a greater purpose, that is, the political liberty of the citizens. The mixed representative regime brings together all the various parts of the nation and protects liberty in self-government. The good of the whole is the rational goal for the laws of the state. Representatives allow for deliberation and reason in the assembly of the state while preserving the great goal of political liberty. This deliberation of representatives places them apart from the direct will of the people, which would to often fall prey to the natural instinct for preservation. Representatives can concern themselves with what is truly rational the good of the people and the good of the state met as one. Thus, the state is absolute in its government, but is founded on the free self government of the individuals (310).
Separation of the powers in the English constitution also means to protect the liberty of the people by checking the powers of the government. Some freedoms such as speech must be necessarily preserved in order to protect the constitution even if speech agitates against the state (309). Reason demands freedom and works itself out in the institutions of a free society. Reason is good in itself (315). The very act of reasoning is good for the state. Even if the people reason poorly, the free institutions and representation provide safeguards against the wide effects of poor reasoning. The republic then is free to be commercial and international with the executive power respected abroad while the people’s representatives keep the internal works running. This English regime provides the strongest example for Montesquieu of a modern state concerned with freedom and also ruled by reason even if lacking the grace of more statist centered societies.
Henry Adams takes a look at the American regime in the early part of its growth and the role that reason played in its nation and state. Adams found the American society to be rather rough and hard working. It lacked many of the refinements of more advanced European societies. The lack of general enlightenment demonstrates a lesser role for the purely rational in the American regime (31). The American regime moved farther than ever in the direction of full equality in political liberty (83). Socially as well, culture and enlightenment was broadened even while shallow. Thus with wealth as the new goal for many, the state became one which provided institutions for the secure pursuit rather than subsuming all pursuits in its own exclusive ends. The American regime placed the state alongside, not over, the private interest as the securer of it. Jefferson tried to encourage progress by melding the democratic character with science (93). Once again the distinction is clear: reason, progress, and the like are the area of the private sphere over and outside of the state. The state must facilitate and respect, not overrun the individual interest. With this approach, Adams notes that in the social and private spheres Americans were able to make great scientific advancements, even beyond those of Europe, for practical ends (96). The democratic and conservative character downplayed pure reason in exchange for practicality.
With the French Revolution, the full other end of the spectrum in which pure reason tries to create a modern regime, shows itself. This did not fare well. According to Tocqueville, the real study of the French regime should be made before the Revolution to see how the modern state and nation of France developed. The state created before the revolution had become totally centralized, both governmentally and administratively (84). The ends of the state, under the preceding monarchs, took complete precedent and brought all administration into itself (123). It did so simply on the right and power of the monarch more purely demonstrating the Hobbesian ideal. In doing so it completely undercut the power and influence of the French aristocracy in the political realm. The usefulness of the aristocracy declined, and it became hated by the lower classes (118). Wealth became a driving factor as with the American and English regimes but always with the state in view rather than the private interest.
Resultantly, private interests had to match those of the regime if the individual desired to have any influence. Offices became bought and sold by the monarch because the rising importance of wealth to the state (125). All political power had to be administered in line with the central government; local, self-government decreased. The state became the father as well as the government of the people and the actualization of all power within the nation.
The Old Regime built a foundation of administrative centralization under the aristocracy and needed only the revolution to destroy the aristocracy completely (136). The bureaucracy of the regime became the new aristocracy. This bureaucracy created a climate in which the application of the law became subject to the whim of the bureaucrat himself. This created contempt for the law among the French (142). The French also became more isolated in their classes rather than working together (England) or equalizing (America). The isolation continued until equality could only be found in an empire under Napoleon. The individual could no longer even freely will the good of the state, but must simply live under that will.
The French Revolution was very philosophical. Because of the centralization of the old regime, the reformers had no practice in politics. For this reason they took little care for practical matters instead proposing wide reforms in abstract terms that could not be sustained (197). Without public life in France, politics became a literary and philosophic pursuit (198). The Revolution was birthed by pure reason, but reason itself cannot sustain a state. This “reason” built an imaginary society which could not translate to the real conditions of a modern state (201). Tocqueville contrasts French Revolution thinkers with Montesquieu’s English regime where the intellectuals mixed with the politicians so that reason was tempered by prudence and sustained progress could be made (200). France kept these apart, and when the intellectuals took power they could not hold it. As against the American Revolution and experience, the French revolution had a very irreligious character (206). The revolution was birthed in the enlightenment of the philosophes who rejected religion. Instead the revolution became like a religious movement itself, pursued by its followers with religious zeal (100). The French Revolution created a passionate rationalism that surpassed any seen before.
These developments in the practice of modern statehood demonstrate a new layer of complexity to the “power determined by nature” synthesis of Machiavelli and Hobbes. Reason seemed to indicate an equality of individuals that demanded rights for them as well. This created a new tension between reason and nature, as well as the individual and state. The examples from the British, American, and French states, show that an appeal to reason could mean more political freedom against the power hungry modern state, but could also lead to terror and empires. Nevertheless, the all demonstrate a turning away from Hobbes' conception of nature as determinative for the modern state.
Adams, Henry. The Formative Years, Volume 1. Ed. Herbert Ager. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT. 1947, 1974. Print.
Montesquieu. The Spirit of the Laws. Trans. Thomas Nugent. Hafner Press: NY. 1949. Print.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. The Old Regime and the Revolution, Volume I. Trans. Alan S. Kahan. U of Chicago Press: 1998. Print.
*This blog has been adapted from a previous essay entitled, "The Modern State Redefined".