Most of the 18th-century political theorists with the biggest reputations come from rather out-of-the-way places, at least in geopolitical terms: Vico from Naples; Hume and Adam Smith from Edinburgh; Rousseau from Geneva; Kant from Königsberg. But because the 18th century was also, in the end, an Age of Revolution, its two most important political thinkers do not really belong in this club of international superstars. One, James Madison from Virginia, is more than just a superstar in the United States. He is one of the secular gods of the American Republic, the architect of its Constitution and the author of many of the Federalist Papers written in its defence, including 'Federalist No. 10', which is one of the Republic's holy texts. This makes the rest of the world uncomfortable, and Madison's ideas can often seem too American to be true (in contrast to Rousseau, whose ideas can often seem too true to be Swiss). The other, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyčs from Provence, is not mistrusted outside his native France so much as ignored. Even in France he is more of an intellectual curiosity than an object of reverence. The French Republic has had too many constitutions, too many false gods and too many false dawns to go in for the hero-worship of its founding fathers that gives Americans such satisfaction. Sieyčs contributed to some of the shortest-lived of those constitutions, and he was responsible for more than one of the false dawns. Nevertheless, he was a political thinker of genius, one to compare with any of the great names of the 18th century. And he understood, perhaps as well as anyone, the new world that both the American and French Revolutions helped to create.
LRB 23 October 2003 | PDF Download