Political Anglomania: Voltaire, Montesquieu
and England's Political System

Throughout the 17th century, during the reign of Louis XIV, few of the Sun King's subjects took much interest in the affairs of the island country across the Channel. France was very much the cultural hub of Europe, and all eyes were on the activities of the French court. The first half of the eighteenth century, however, saw England come into its own as a source of cultural influence on the Continent, as there was a surge of interest among the French in all things English – the anglomanie. From English frock coats and English horses to the philosophy of Newton and Locke, the English were suddenly en vogue1. In this paper, I examine a particular aspect of French eighteenth-century Anglomania: namely, the considerable interest of French thinkers in the English political system, which after the Great Revolution of 1688 differed sharply from the absolute monarchy in France. In my discussion, I focus on the views of Voltaire, the Enlightenment's most distinguished man of letters, and Montesquieu, one of the eighteenth century's foremost political philosophers, both of whom played a significant role in introducing England and its politics to their countrymen.2 I argue that for all their differences, these two thinkers admired much the same things about English political life, and that their descriptions of England were important in highlighting the inadequacies of the political system bequeathed to the French by Louis XIV.

The last of the French philosophes, the Marquis de Condorcet, writing near the end of the eighteenth century, traced the origins of anglomanie to Voltaire and the publication of his Lettres philosophiques in 1733.3 There is much truth in this, as Voltaire's witty collection of essays, which drew on his experiences during a brief exile in England 1726-1728, was an instant bestseller. The letters discussed a variety of topics relating to England, ranging from the Quaker sect to the plays of Shakespeare. In the decades following the publication of the letters, it became customary for French writers to have at least some knowledge of English affairs. The widespread and lasting intellectual influence of Voltaire's letters, however, may probably be traced to the sections on Isaac Newton and John Locke, and – crucially – to their daring and polemical advocacy of balanced government.

In 1726, Voltaire was forced to leave France after a quarrel with the nobleman the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, which had resulted in Louis XV issuing a lettre de cachet for his arrest. Agents of the king made it clear to him that he would have to leave France, or else risk imprisonment in the Bastille.4 Voltaire departed for England, and much to his surprise, he found a great deal to admire on the other side of the Channel. He discovered "the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them," and furthermore, a people who managed to "share in the Government without confusion."5 Although he spent a great deal of time in the company of the Tory politician Lord Bolingbroke, and learned much of what he knew of the English political system from Bolingbroke's counsel, the England conceived and described by Voltaire was very much that of the Walpole government. On the whole, he seems to have sympathised with the Whig platform.6 He singles out for special praise the fact that in England, men and their property could not be seized by the authorities without due process, and throughout his life, he would continue to argue for a stable and impartial system of property relationships in France.7 His Lettres philosophiques compared the parliament of Britain favourably to that of the Romans: "The House of Lords and that of the Commons," Voltaire noted approvingly, "divide the legislative power under the king, but the Romans had no such balance."8 The English House of Commons thus served to check and direct the powers of the monarch. This operated as a safety mechanism against despotism and arbitrary travesties of justice, but left an 'enlightened' monarchy – Voltaire's ideal system of government – free to work for the benefit of its subjects. In England, he said, "the king [is] all-powerful to do good works" but is "at the same time prevented from doing harm."9

Voltaire had sound reasons for fearing the hand of unrestrained kingly authority, having himself suffered at its hand. The advocacy of freedom from just such arbitrary authority is a recurrent and pervasive theme in his large corpus of writings, and it was precisely this freedom that caused Voltaire to hold England in such high esteem. It was not the workings of English politics itself that elicited his admiration, nor any particular legalistic or practical features of the English political system, which he by and large treated with his customary irony, commenting on the rampant corruption in the House of Commons. What he admired was the social liberty of the English, rather than their political liberty.10 Perhaps, he thought, the latter could be attributed to the former: diffusion of power brought toleration of diversity, and freedom of intellectual, political and religious expression. A more likely explanation, though, was the role of commerce in English life, which brought men of all doctrines and creeds together in pursuit of their financial interests, as witnessed by his famous comment on the Royal Exchange, which he described as

a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan and the Christian transact together as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts.11

Whatever the cause of this unusual liberty might be, England was a country where "one could think freely and nobly without being restrained by any servile fear."12 In other words, it was a place of security for the philosophe, unlike absolutist France, where the enlightened writer was forced to worry about whether his writings were pleasing to the king and his cronies, lest he be thrown in shackles.

Interestingly enough, Voltaire does not seem to have shown much interest in the practical political writings of the English thinkers he admired so much. For all his veneration of John Locke and praise for The Essay Concerning Human Understanding in the Lettres philosophiques, he nowhere mentions or quotes Locke's Essays on Civil Government, which discussed the particularities of English political life. The actual mechanism of the system seems to have been of little interest to him, being the product of a long history of changes and compromises, instead of being planned and constructed from scratch according to the dictates of reason. Never the less, Voltaire would continue throughout his life to compare the English political system favourably to that of France, remarking to James Boswell in 1764 that the English were slaves of laws, whereas the French were slaves of men.13

Of all eighteenth-century political writers, Baron Montesquieu was probably the most widely read and frequently cited. Montesquieu like Voltaire, admired English political life, and his admiration would later give rise to his now famous theory concerning the separation of powers. More than any other French commentator, he gave great impetus to the prestige of England and English political institutions among his contemporaries.14 His magnum opus, The Spirit of Laws (1748), published 15 years after Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques, was a bestseller by the standards of the time, and was in no small measure inspired by an eighteen month sojourn in England.15 Montesquieu's own political concerns were somewhat different from those of Voltaire. As a member of the noblesse de robe, the French administrative aristocracy, he lamented the abolition of intermediate political powers that had taken place during the reign of Louis XIV, and argued that power should invested in more than a single institution.16

Montesquieu was unsparing in his praise for English political organisation. England, he said, is the "only country in the world that has for the direct end of its constitution political liberty."17 He believed that this could at least partially be traced to a "spirit of trade and industry" prevalent in the country, and which was in turn was reflected in its politics.18

Other nations have made the interests of commerce yield to those of politics; the English, on the contrary, have ever made their political interests give way to those of commerce. They know better than any other people upon earth how to value, at the same time, these three great advantages – religion, commerce, and liberty.19

Montesquieu, like Voltaire, thus believed that the influence of merchants and traders played a significant role in the freedom of the English. They had to fight for the security of their property against the encroachment of the crown, and therefore had vested financial interest in keeping its authority in check. So respected were property rights in England that the Great Charter forbade the confiscation of merchandise belonging foreign merchants, even in the case of war. It is, Montesquieu said, "an honor to the English nation that they have made this one of the articles of their liberty."20 Thus, like Locke, he saw the freedom of individuals as tied in no small extent to the safety of property rights. The English, furthermore, had structures of government that limited some of the powers of the monarch, something that Montesquieu much desired to see enacted in France, observing that "the English, to favour their liberty, have abolished all the intermediate powers of which their monarchy was composed. They have a great deal of reason to be jealous of this liberty."21

Montesquieu was also preoccupied with freedom from arbitrary authority. Ideally, he said, everyone should be able to enjoy the "tranquility of mind arising from the opinion each person has of his safety." This required that "the government be so constituted as one man need not be afraid of another."22 While the subjects of many an oriental despot groaned "under the most dreadful oppression" due to the fact that all powers were vested in a single person, most European states were somewhat better off because judicial power was delegated to other parties by the monarch. Only the English, however, had managed to achieve a state of affairs most conducive to social liberty, by going further in separating the executive, judicial and legislative powers of government.23

The English, too, sensibly prohibited torture, and therefore did not permit of the racking of suspects in ordinary criminal cases like the authorities in France. Montesquieu does not seem to have objected to torture in principle, but he thought that its prohibition exemplified the pragmatic English turn of mind – confessions were not extracted with the rack. Instead, justice was resolved through the use of multifaceted testimony, and, significantly, trial by one's peers. This prevented the crown from being able to consign people to prison at whim and subsequently legitimate its actions by forcibly extracted confessions.24

Despite Montesquieu's admiration for the English constitution, however, he seems to have had some reservations about the use to which the English put the liberty they had attained, and expressed skepticism about its endurance. "It is not my business," he remarks, "to examine whether the English actually enjoy [their] liberty. Sufficient it is for my purposes to observe that it is established by their laws, and I inquire no further."25 His concerns in this regard, however, seem to have been overshadowed by a general admiration of English freedom from political tyranny of any kind.

These two thinkers, Voltaire and Montesquieu, are to a large extent representative of the two dominant schools of political thought among the French philosophes throughout the eighteenth century. On the one hand, we have Voltaire who, as a disciple of Locke, rejected the notion that men had innate ideas, and believed that rational principles of government could be discovered by reason alone, divorced from history and context. Montesquieu, on the other hand, was in many ways a much more conservative thinker and stressed a flexible, empirical approach to politics and legislation, believing that political systems and their lawmakers were obliged to take into consideration factors such as climate, which were outside the sphere of human control.26 For all their differences, both seem to have admired much the same things about England's politics: the checks on the powers of the monarch, the tolerance and social liberty brought about by the interests of commerce, and the freedom of intellectuals to write and express themselves without living in perpetual fear of incurring displeasure at court.

The views of both Voltaire and Montesquieu on English political life were influential among the French intellectual elite and seem for some time to have been reasonably representative of Enlightened French political thought. Comparison with England quickly became the method by which to criticise French absolutism, censorship, taxation and laws. Many of the "second generation" philosophes invoked the example of England as a progressive model not only because of the social liberty enjoyed by the English, but also due to the beneficial effects of political participation, which inculcated citizens with civil virtue. Some of them even believed the latter to be more conducive to the production of great minds. Claude Adrien Helvétius, for example, remarked in his De l'esprit that "we commonly meet in London, with knowing men, who are with much more difficulty found in France." This, he said, was because it was a country where "every citizen has a share in the management of affairs in general."27

As the century progressed, however, there was increasing disenchantment with the political system of the English among the French. This may be tied both to the outbreak of the Seven Years' War, and increasing political radicalism among the salon intellectuals of Paris. Some French commentators maintained that the much-touted social liberty of the English gave rise to boorishness, ignorance and lack of sophistication.28 Political power in England, as Genest and other anti-English pamphleteers would point out, was actually in the hands of a single class – an acquisitive landed aristocracy – of which the Whig and Tory parties were both composed.29 While this arrangement counterbalanced the power of the monarch, it came to be deemed insufficiently politically representative a model to strive for. This disenchantment is clearly reflected in the politically radical French literature of the late eighteenth century: D'Alembert and Diderot's monumental Encyclopédie, for example, does not contain an entry on the English constitution.30 In the same vein, Baron d'Holbach, probably the most radical of the philosophes, returned from England dissatisfied and disgusted with the rampant corruption, avarice and elitism of English political life.31 He and other radicals such as Condorcet held up the image of an ideal society, built on principles dictated by reason alone, aiming for the betterment of mankind as whole. For all their internal philosophical and political differences, they generally recognised that while England came closer to these ideals than absolutist France, it fell very far from realising them in full. Near the end of the century, both Mably and Condorcet commented disparagingly on the shortcomings of British political institutions,32 and called for much of what we would associate with twentieth-century democracy: universal suffrage and abolition of hereditary rights and privileges – neither of which was the case in eighteenth-century England.33 Their reformist writings shaped French intellectual climate in the heady years following the French Revolution, and by the early 19th century, French praise for the English political system became increasingly rare.34

In conclusion, the interest among leading French thinkers in Britain's political system may be largely traced to an admiration for English social freedom, introduced to them through the writings of the "first generation" philosophes Voltaire and Montesquieu. The English constitution as such, which was recognised as the product of a long history of evolution instead of being constructed from scratch in accordance with rational principles, did not hold as much interest for them as its byproduct: a more or less tolerant political and social environment. While England was not a full realisation of progressive Enlightenment ideals, it lent weight to the idea that a fully functioning society of largely free and tolerant people could exist. The example of English political life thus served as an important propaganda tool for the French Enlightenment thinkers in their quest for social reform.

Endnotes


1. Tombs, Robert and Isabelle, That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present (London, 2006), pp. 93-99.
2. Williams, David, "French Opinion Concerning the English Constitution in the Eighteenth Century" Economica, No. 30. (Nov., 1930), pp. 296.
3. Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de, Vie de Voltaire, Oeuvres (Paris, 1847), IV, p. 31.
4. Pearson, Roger, Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom (London, 2005), pp. 65-67.
5. Voltaire, Philosophical Letters, translated by Ernest Dilworth (New York: Bobbs-Merril, 1961), Letter VIII.
6. Menhennet, David, "A Note on Voltaire's Political 'Anglomania'", Parliam Aff. 1960; XIV, p. 203.
7. Neserius, Philip George, "Voltaire's Political Ideas", The American Political Science Review, Vol. 20, No. 1. (Feb., 1956), pp. 31-51.
8. Voltaire, Philosophical Letters, Letter VIII.
9. Ibid.
10. Williams, p. 296.
11. Voltaire, Philosophical Letters, Letter VI.
12. Quoted in Williams, p. 297.
13. Menhennet, p. 210.
14. Williams, p. 296.
15. Ibid, p. 299.
16. For an interpretation of Montesquieu as an apologist for the noblesse de robe, see Cranston, M., Philosophers and Pamphleteers: Political Theorists of the Enlightenment (Oxford, 1986).
17. Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, Baron de, The Spirit of Laws, translated by Thomas Nugent, revised by J. V. Prichard (London: G. Bell & Sons, Ltd., 1914), Book XI, Part 5.
18. Ibid, Book XXII, Chapter 29.
19. Ibid, Book XX, Chapter 7.
20. Ibid, Book XX, Chapter 14.
21. Ibid, Book II, Chapter 4.
22. Ibid, Book XI, Chapter 6.
23. Ibid, Book XI, Chapter 6.
24. Ibid, Book XXIX, Chapter 11.
25. Ibid, Book XI, Chapter 6.
26. For an overview of Montesquieu's political thought, see Bok, Hilary, "Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
27. Helvétius, Claude Adrien, De l'esprit or, Essays on the Mind, and Its Several Faculties, anonymous translator (London: 1759), p. 100.
28. Tombs, p. 100.
29. Williams, p. 301.
30. See Diderot, Denis and d'Alembert, Jean Le Rond, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une Société de Gens de lettres, ARTFL Project Encyclopédie, (Rev. 2.1 - 06/2005), URL = .
31. See Holbach, Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d', Politique Naturelle (London : 1773).
32. This disenchantment is particularly visible in Gabriel de Mably's De l'Étude de l'Histoire (1775), where Mably harshly criticises the much-touted 'happy balance' of the English system.
33. See for example Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de, Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind (Philadelphia, 1796).
34. Jennings, J. R., "Conceptions of England and Its Constitution in Nineteenth-Century French Political Thought", The Historical Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Mar., 1986), pp. 65-85.

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