Benjamin Constant and the Birth of French Liberalism

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2013-02-13
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

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Traditional scholarship on French liberalism has frequently proceeded by defining the core issues and telling a story of their emergence and development. This book takes a different approach: rather than beginning with an a priori definition of liberalism, it focuses on the political thought of Benjamin Constant and Germaine de StaŽl, the first figures in France to call their thought 'liberal.' Author K. Steven Vincent argues that Constant's distinctive liberal political stance emerged during the Directory and Consulate, earlier than other scholars have claimed. He also demonstrates that Constant's thought was deeply influenced by traditions of sensibilitť and pluralism. This book advances a new interpretation of the timing and character of Frenchand more broadly Europeanliberalism and contributes to the ongoing debate concerning the place of morality, sociability, and conceptions of the 'self' in modern liberal thought.

Author Biography

K. Steven Vincent is Professor of History at North Carolina State University. His previous publications include Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism and Between Marxism and Anarchism: Benoît Malon and French Reformist Socialism.

Table of Contents

'As a fierce advocate of decentralization, religious toleration, and the rule of law, Benjamin Constant's Talleyrand-like ability for political survival has led many scholars to label him a political opportunist. However, in this superb exploration of the provenance of French liberalism, Vincent restores the intellectual and physical companion of Germaine de Staël to renewed importance. Highly recommended.'—CHOICE

'Vincent's new work, deftly drawing on a wide array of both primary and secondary works, is bound to become an indispensable instrument for any student of Benjamin Constant in the English-speaking world.'—History of European Ideas


'The book expertly narrates Constant's early years and development into a liberal political thinker and actor. It provides excellent descriptions of post-revolutionary France and the problems Constant confronted when he entered politics in the 1790s. Vincent convincingly argues that Constant's liberal political stance emerged quite early, namely during the Directory and Consulate, and that it was conceived expressly to deal with the issues of his time.'—H-France

"Benjamin Constant and the Birth of French Liberalism is lucid, elegantly written, and useful, summing up the major elements of political history in this period with accuracy and incisiveness. Vincent brings together the political, the socio-cultural, and the literary, using each to reflect on the other in provocative ways. His account allows readers to follow the intricate connections between the volatile ideological climate of the period from 1789 to 1815, the elite social world of the Old Regime and Revolution, and the literary discourse of sensibilité. This careful exposition allows Vincent to make subtle points with considerable acuity." - John Warne Monroe, Associate Professor, Department of History, Iowa State University

"This book is an original and well-researched piece of scholarship about a thinker of major importance and growing reputation. Vincent shows a flawless familiarity with Constant's own writings, the political and intellectual context in which they were set out, and the secondary literature relating to Constant himself and the period. Benjamin Constant and the Birth of French Liberalism will make a contribution to Constant scholarship, to the study of French liberalism, and to the study of liberal thought." - Jeremy Jennings, Professor of Political Theory, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London

"This is an illuminating, thoughtfully conceived, and richly contextualized study of Benjamin Constant's development as a political thinker. Vincent provides a lucid and nuanced account of Constant's 'pluralistic liberalism' and argues persuasively that this important variety of French liberal political theory emerged in the aftermath of the Terror in the struggle to establish a stable political order that would not subvert the principles of the Revolution." - Jonathan Beecher, Professor of History, University of California, Santa Cruz

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