Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

The United States and France had complicated and seemingly inconsistent relations in the years preceding and shortly following the American Revolution. In the 1750s, the American colonists and the British military fought the French in the French and Indian War. But in the 1770s, the French provided invaluable assistance to the American cause in the fight against the British in the War of Independence. During that war, the newly formed United States entered into a treaty allying itself with France, but after another revolution broke out in France in the 1790s, America’s first president, George Washington, issued a neutrality proclamation, effectively negating the treaty.

While the revolution raged in France, American politicians staked out positions of support or denunciation of the increasingly bloody regimes that replaced the government that had aided their cause in the fight for independence. A few years later, a new government and a new powerful figure, Napoleon Bonaparte, ruled over France. His rule made a considerable mark in the United States, for he was responsible for ceding enormous territory to the new nation in what has become known as the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. A few years later, the wars Bonaparte stirred up in Europe carried over to the western hemisphere in what is known now as the War of 1812, in which Americans once again fought the British, the primary enemy of France in that era.

The foreign affairs of these two nations are not so much the focus of this essay as they are illustrations of the implications of domestic events in each nation. During these years, the new nation of the United States and the relatively old nation of France each experienced dramatic changes in their constitutional development. These developments left the United States with an energetic yet institutionally constrained executive leading the government of a federal republic. In France, an emperor dominated the political scene of a unitary state in which the executive controlled both the legislature and the judiciary. This essay will explore how and why two nations with such intertwined histories took such divergent paths.

In 1984, the political scientist, Donald S. Lutz, published an article reporting his findings from research that examined which European authors were most frequently cited in the writings of America’s founders both before and after the revolution. The author most commonly cited was Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, the author of a book published in English under the name The Spirit of the Laws.[1] In that work, Montesquieu developed a modern theory of what we now call the separation of powers. Montesquieu also made a case for an independent and secure court system, not subject to the will of the executive, the legislature, or any particular private interest. Montesquieu had significant impact in the design of the federal constitution, as well as the constitutions of many American state constitutions. He also had considerable influence in Britain. Ironically, his influence in his native France was not as deep or long-lasting as his impact abroad.

The first American national charter, The Articles of Confederation, did not display any interest in a separation of powers. The government established a unicameral legislative body which could, by committee, appoint one of their number as a president with little power.[2] There were no courts for the central government. State courts would handle legal disputes within their states’ boundaries, and the confederation congress would hear cases involving boundary disputes between states.[3] All of this changed with the ratification of the new constitution. While there was some overlap and sharing of functions between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, to a great extent these institutions were kept separate, establishing a check against the mischief that might temporarily prevail in a single branch. The specific details of those checks will be discussed in the next essay. Suffice it to say now, that the institutional design of the constitution took into account the issues about which Montesquieu had written approximately a half century earlier.

In the Federalist Papers, the design of the United States Constitution was defended before a skeptical audience. James Madison, author of Federalist Paper #38, argued that no matter what flaws could be found in the new constitution, it was surely superior to the Articles of Confederation. In Madison’s words,

It is a matter both of wonder and regret, that those who raise so many objections against the new Constitution should never call to mind the defects of that which is to be exchanged for it. It is not necessary that the former should be perfect; it is sufficient that the latter is more imperfect. No man would refuse to give brass for silver or gold, because the latter had some alloy in it. No man would refuse to quit a shattered and tottering habitation for a firm and commodious building, because the latter had not a porch to it, or because some of the rooms might be a little larger or smaller, or the ceilings a little higher or lower than his fancy would have planned them. But waiving illustrations of this sort, is it not manifest that most of the capital objections urged against the new system lie with tenfold weight against the existing Confederation?[4]

One particularly noteworthy aspect of the new framework was provision for a president heading an executive branch of government. According to Alexander Hamilton, the constitution provided for “energy” in the executive through both the powers assigned to the office and the manner in which the officeholder would be selected. In Hamilton’s words, “The ingredients which constitute energy in the Executive are, first, unity; secondly, duration; thirdly, an adequate provision for its support; fourthly, competent powers.”[5] Under the Constitution, there is one chief executive, consistent with the unity principle. The president would serve fixed, four-year terms, consistent with the duration precept. Whether the support for the executive would be adequate would largely depend upon the appropriations of money by Congress. Hamilton believed that the powers vested in the president in Article II of the Constitution were “competent,” although at various times in history this claim has been challenged.

The political transformation of France took a different course. In 1789, while the American constitution was being drafted, France was a somewhat centralized monarchy, but with considerable autonomy exercised in its provinces. A National Assembly served as a constituent assembly, but it was unable to handle some pressing economic and political problems that were growing in the 1780s. The financial costs of war, including the American Revolution, had made the government almost bankrupt, despite the general trend of economic and population growth that the country enjoyed in prior decades. Crops failed in much of France in 1788, and prices for food and many other items spiraled up dramatically. The comptroller general of finances, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, proposed a substantial tax increase on the upper classes to cover the budget deficit, but the National Assembly refused to approve this proposal, instead calling for the gathering of the Estates-General, which had not met since 1614. The Estates General was a body representing the clergy, the aristocracy, and the commoners. When the Estates General met in Versailles, the Third Estate, representing the commoners, declared itself the National Constituent Assembly and began to write a new constitution. King Louis XVI reluctantly accepted the new body and urged the nobles and the clergy to join it. Behind the scenes, the king sought out armed forces to oppose it.[6]

The new constitution did provide for some separation of powers in which the assembly was preeminent, but the king could appoint and remove his own ministers. The nobles lost their titles and hereditary privileges, and the franchise was extended to most adult men. The provinces lost much of their power to eighty-three newly created departements, which were roughly equal in size and uniform in their organization. Each departement was further divided into districts, cantons, and communes. Originally, each departement elected its own officials, but eventually these units became tools of the central government.[7]

The Assembly declared that all church property was at the “disposition of the nation.” The government then issued bonds, called assignats, that were secured by the value of the land. Later, all property owned by emigrants to France were also declared to be national lands. These securities were tradable, and functioned for a while as a paper currency.   As the volume of assignats increased, so did inflation. By 1790, the Assembly required all sitting priests and bishops to take an oath of submission to the government. The bishops overwhelming refused to do this, but about half of the parish priests took the oath. Many clerics left the country, and about two-thirds of the country’s military officers resigned their commissions. As dissent became more prevalent, the government attempted to control the press. More radical factions began to subvert the role of the elected assembly, arguing that demonstrations, petitions, and public protests were superior methods of expressing the will of the people.[8]

Though his powers were limited, the king was still formally the head of state until August of 1792. The country was facing armed resistance from without and within, and more radical elements were gaining power.  After militants stormed the royal palace in Paris, the Assembly suspended the king. Immediately afterward, more than half of the Assembly’s deputies fled the city. As Prussian troops advanced toward the capital, French troops marched out to face them. With much of the elected government gone and most of the military absent from the city, mobs took over the city’s prisons, held sham trials, and killed over a thousand inmates, almost half the local prison population. A National Convention was held, which had as its first order of business the determination of the fate of the king. The Convention unanimously ruled that the king was guilty of treason, and by a much closer vote ordered his execution. Later his Austrian-born wife, Marie Antoinette, was also sent to the guillotine. With each bloody act, the revolution generated more resistance, and as more officials fled the government, or were imprisoned for their perceived disloyalty, the more radical the remaining officeholders became. Ultimately, some of the more blood-thirsty of the revolutionaries, such as Maximilien Robespierre, fell out of favor and were executed themselves without trial.[9]

After Robespierre’s death, the National Convention designed a new, somewhat more conservative constitution in 1795. This new government had a bicameral legislature and a plural, five-member executive called the Directory. Each director was supposed to serve one-year terms. The short duration of the Directory and the plural nature of its membership were not in keeping with Hamilton’s views regarding an ideal executive branch. The new government was beset with dramatic inflation and serious military threats, as well as challenges from radical dissidents. The legislature ultimately forced out four of the five directors. The new directors looked to form a new kind of constitution to provide stability in 1799. This new constitution provided for three ruling consuls, but only the first held substantial power. The constitution was approved by plebiscite. As first consul, the directors eventually chose a young, military hero who had managed to lead French armies to victory despite a depleted officer corps and a mass of enlisted soldiers who were recruited through a very unpopular conscription process. This person’s name was Napoleon Bonaparte. He was initially named consul, but soon made clear that he wished to exceed his constitutional limits. By 1804, Napoleon was named emperor by several government agencies and subsequently was approved as emperor in a national plebiscite.[10]   Napoleon was to wield more concentrated power than any extant monarch in the world. His rise to power demonstrates both the failure of France’s constitutional design and its commitment to enforce constitutional provisions.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. Dr. Clinger teaches courses in state and local government, Kentucky politics, intergovernmental relations, regulatory policy, and public administration. Dr. Clinger is also a member of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board and a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association. He currently resides in Hazel, Kentucky.

[1] Lutz, Donald S. “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought.” The American Political Science Review 78, no. 1 (1984): 189–97.

[2] Articles of Confederation, Article IX

[3] Articles of Confederation, Article IX

[4] The Federalist Papers, Number 38

[5] The Federalist Papers, Number 70

[6] Encyclopedia Britannica, French Revolution. Accessed July 10, 2022.

[7] Encyclopedia Britannica, Restructuring France.  Accessed July 10, 2022.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


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