A few weeks ago, we published the bio of Nicolas de Condorcet and his scientific theories. Since then, we have also published an article about Condorcet voting method that we try to spread through our Slack app and our API. For us, this blog is also an opportunity to share ideas, interests, and sometimes to gain perspective on our products and services. As such, Condorcet’s philosophy, his political choices during the Revolution, had to be discussed.
This article deals with political commitments of Condorcet, his career and his ideas during the French Revolution. Then, we will focus on the details of his constitution’s project and how it’s still relevant today.
Parisian City councillor
From a Mathematician, Condorcet gradually becomes a Statesman by occupying various positions during Turgot’s Ministry. His passion for Enlightenment ideas directs him towards politics and he is elected at the City Council of Paris in September 1789. This assembly is considered as the first city council of the City of Paris.
Condorcet was elected member of Legislative Assembly in September 1791. This legislative assembly, considered as the first real national representation, had to perpetuate the achievements of the French Revolution by adopting a political regime of constitutional monarchy. However, the MPs (Members of Parliament) abolished this regime and a new assembly was constituted a year after (the National Convention), with the creation of the First Republic. During the election in September 1792, Condorcet was re-elected.
The Revolutionary Member of Parliament
The scientist joined the Girondists political tendency, leader in the Assembly in 1792, and their moderate republican ideas. They are opposed to the “Montagnards”, more radical revolutionaries, with Robespierre as one of the leaders.
In January 1793, the trial of King Louis XVI takes place in the Legislative Assembly. MPs have to decide, publicly, whether the King is guilty and what the sentence should be. Nicolas de Condorcet had already publicly defended the abolition of the death sentence. He will continue to affirm his opinion by declaring to be in favor of: “The most severe sentence in the penal code wich is not death”, that is to say condemnation to the galleys.
Progressively, the Montagnards will gain more power in the hemicycle by putting pressure on the Girondists to adopt harder measures against the counter-revolutionaries. Considered to be the “theorist of the Girondists” by the Montagnards, for them, Condorcet personifies this intellectual from the little aristocracy exhibiting the science of the Enlightenment as the only source of the French Revolution. Blaming him for his vote against the King’s death and the Montagnards’ constitution, they signed a arrest warrant against him in July 1793, provoking his flight.
He died 7 months later in his cell, just after he was arrested.
The referendum of popular initiative
During the period he was part of the Legislative Assembly, Condorcet wrote a constitution called the “Girondist Constitution“. Presented in February 1793, it was never adopted by the assembly, which was ruled by a Montagnard political tendency.
You can consult the draft constitution co-written by Condorcet and 8 other MPs here (French only). This text is certainly a great institutional advance for the time. It walks through many themes that are present in our current constitution such as territorial division, citizenship, administration, etc. For example, Condorcet has innovated on the referendum of popular initiative which allows the Citizens to solicit the legislature (represented by the Assembly) to debate a law.
For example, Article 1, Title VIII of this Constitution states that:
“When a Citizen wants to attract the surveillance of the MPs on acts of Legislation or administration, to provoke the reform of a law; He shall have the right to request the office of his Primary Assembly, to summon it on the next Sunday and deliberate on his proposal.”
Abandoned in the constitution of the Montagnards, the French institutional system does not allow, today, a referendum such as the one Condorcet wrote in 1793. Even though there was a progress with the referendum of shared initiative in 2008, its conditions of organizations do not place it at the same level of democratic reform that the referendum proposed by Condorcet… in 1793.
At the moment, more and more citizen initiatives are proliferating in order to give meaning to our democracy and bring the legislative process to the citizen. We even heard candidates talking about a referendum of popular initiative during the 2017 French presidential campaign. Proof that nothing is ever lost.
There are many aspects of the political commitment of Nicolas de Condorcet that we have not mentioned. The scientist is considered to be one of the pioneers in women’s rights, for example, by militating for mixed voting rights as early as 1788. We have not cited his thoughts on the Republican School either: he was a forerunner on many subjects such as secularism, free school and accessibility of the Republican School to all.
From the period of the Enlightenment, History has retained Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Beaumarchais… From the period of the French Revolution, we often name Robespierre, Danton, Desmoulins, Marat, and Brissot… However, few characters of these time may as well embody the link between these two periods, as Condorcet does. He has put his philosophy into action, and his ideas on human rights, on the constitution, and on the school will be taken up later by generations of philosophers and politicians.
Was Condorcet ahead of his time or is it our democratic system which is falling behind?
Do not hesitate to comment in the section below.