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Revolution, Reaction and Restoration: The Meanings and Uses of Seventeenth-Century English History in the Political Thinking of Benjamin Constant, c.1797-1830

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JournalEuropean Review of History
DatePublished - 2007
Issue number1
Volume14
Number of pages26
Pages (from-to)21-47
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Comparisons, juxtapositions or analogies between France's recent Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary history and England's experiences of Revolution, Civil War and Restoration between the 1640s and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 were a common but controversial feature of political discourse dealing with France's contemporary situation in the decades following the Revolution of 1789. The present article probes this dimension of post-Revolutionary political debate, by tracking the shifting meanings and uses of seventeenth-century English history in the published and unpublished political writings of the leading liberal thinker and politician Benjamin Constant, from the 1790s through to his death in 1830. Such an analysis reveals the sometimes striking reversals and inconsistencies to which Constant was driven in his effort to adjust his historical readings to France's rapidly changing political conditions, but it also reveals underlying continuities in his historical and political thinking. The exemplarity of England's case lay, for Constant, less in the provision of a constitutional model that France might hope to appropriate than in the historical spectacle of a nation's struggle for liberty, and the value of this spectacle lay as much in its cautionary messages—focused on the sterile brutality of the Stuart Restoration—as in its eventually progressive outcomes.

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