Our Shared Legacy – Hugo Toudic & Céline Spector

Self-knowledge sometimes requires complete distance from the familiar. Such is the famous method used in the Persian Letters, the epistolary novel that was a landmark of the Enlightenment and brought fame to the young Montesquieu. In this tale, two young Persians travel to Paris and observe, half amused, half dismayed, the delights of life in an already decadent capital. Their outsider’s view enables the European reader to take a lucid look at the relativity of their morals, laws, and even religion. Far from lending credence to conventional relativism, this confrontation between opposing points of view enables readers, on the contrary, to consider what had previously been taken for granted – morals, laws, religion – as genuine objects of possible scientific knowledge. The lesson of the Persian Letters is then to replace our prejudices with reasoned opinions, a fundamental rule of the Enlightenment.

Figure 1. The Persian Letters was a huge success throughout Europe and ensured the fame of the young Montesquieu. Montesquieu, Lettres Persanes, Pierre Marteau: Cologne, 1721, Print, Wikimedia Commons, Cologne, Germany. Public Domain.

In our article for EAS, “Montesquieu and The Federalist: A Contested Legacy,” we use the method Montesquieu devised for the Persian Letters to reinterpret The Federalist by examining L’Esprit des Lois (Spirit of the Law), a much later work he wrote. The Federalist, has been the subject of infinite interpretation since its publication between 1787 and 1788. Many fields of thought have in turn taken up this collection of 85 articles, from history to linguistics to political science. It’s safe to say that not since the Bible has a work been subjected to such scrutiny. And yet, the interest this text arouses has scarcely extended beyond the borders of the United States. And what could be more understandable for a work that is so quintessentially American? The Federalist was first addressed to the citizens of New York, then ultimately to all Americans, and this dialogue has persisted since the end of eighteenth century.

Figure 2. A proper understanding of The Federalist requires us to reintegrate this work into its dialogue with European Enlightenment thought. The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, as Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787, NY: J. & L. McClean, 1788, Print, Library of Congress.

One unfortunate consequence of this national obsession is a certain myopia in the American reading of its founding text. While it is true that The Federalist is an American piece, it is also a pure offshoot of the European Enlightenment. It is even possible, as we have attempted to do, to see in this sum a response to the aporias of European political science. Only a few American and British scholars have noticed the presence of Montesquieu’s main concepts in The Federalist, even though the French author is the only one cited by name several times by both Madison and Hamilton. While it is difficult to explain this lack of curiosity, it seems relevant to suggest that unfamiliarity with the complex theory of The Spirit of the Laws is the main reason for this silence. Yet it is enlightening to read Publius’ (the pseudonym used by Hamilton and Madison) work as a response to Montesquieu’s ideas about the size of the republic, the separation of powers, and federalism. The detour via the French philosopher’s concepts is all the more justified given that, in many respects, The Federalist is a continuation of The Spirit of the Laws. Madison, Hamilton, and Brutus, a pseudonymous Anti-Federalist author, were avid readers of the French magistrate, and in their intellectual and political quarrel, each attempted to claim the legacy of the last great lawgiver of the nations. By rediscovering this forgotten dialogue between European and American political science, we should be able to reflect on the challenges facing both societies at a time when institutions created almost two hundred and fifty years ago are under unprecedented attack. The continental drift between America and Europe, so often prophesied, will perhaps not take place, if we learn how to recognize our common and lasting heritage.

Hugo Toudic is Associate Director of the University of Chicago International Institute of Research in Paris. He wrote his dissertation on Montesquieu and The Federalist under the supervision of Céline Spector (Sorbonne University) and Paul Cheney (University of Chicago). His work explores the lasting legacy of Enlightenment political theory on the Founding Fathers.

Céline Spector is Professor in the Philosophy Department of Sorbonne University. Her research includes work in modern and contemporary political theory, especially the French Enlightenment, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and their legacy. Among her recent publications: Rousseau (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019); Émile: Rousseau et la morale expérimentale (Paris: Vrin, 2022).

Read Toudic and Spector’s article “Montesquieu and The Federalist: A Contested Legacy at the American Founding” in EAS’s Winter 2024 issue.