Classical Influences on the Law and Politics of the French Revolution
Mortimer Newlin Stead Sellers
University of Baltimore - School of Law
July 21, 2009
THE CLASSICAL TRADITION, Anthony Grafton, Glenn Most, Salvatore Settis, eds., Harvard, 2009
The French Revolution was the last great political event to take its inspiration, iconography and institutions primarily from classical antiquity. French revolutionaries depended heavily on Roman and Greek history for ideas, and for the courage to apply them. But even if their understanding of history had been accurate (it seldom was) French politicians could never settle which ancient model to follow. Classical antiquity provides innumerable conflicting moral and political examples and the French came close to having tried them all, running through the whole of Roman history in fifteen years. Eighteenth-century Frenchmen postured as Romans, Athenians and Spartans, without ever achieving liberty against arbitrary power, or any consistent rule of law. The French Revolution’s ostentatious classicism, comprehensive experimentation, and obvious failure, discredited Roman and Greek antiquity as practical models for political reform. Future revolutions would need new models, including the experience of France itself, and the transatlantic successes of the United States of America. The French Revolution discredited classical antiquity, by following it too capriciously, too blindly and to the bitter end.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 15
Keywords: classical tradition, French Revolution, French republic, Roman republic, Sparta, Athens, neo-classicism, constitutionalism, liberty, rule of law, separation of powers, Rousseau, Constant, Robespierre
JEL Classification: B19, B30, F01,K19, K39, N00, N23, N40, N43Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: July 23, 2009
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