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Etienne Dumont, the British constitution and the French Revolution

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-08, 07:01 authored by Richard Whatmore
Etienne Dumont became famous in the early nineteenth century for taking Jeremy Bentham's incoherent manuscripts and editing them into readable books which he translated into French. This article focuses on Dumont's earlier life, and specifically his Genevan background, to explain his work for Mirabeau in the first years of the French Revolution and his ultimate sense of the importance of Bentham's system of legislation. The article explains why Dumont's Genevan origins caused him to promote reforms in France intended to establish domestic stability and international peace. Dumont believed that states across Europe needed to combine free government with moral reform, in order to stifle the growth of democracy. The extent of the danger posed by popular government to modern societies was, in Dumont's view, the major lesson of the French Revolution. An alternative reform project to democracy was necessary, but one that did not entail a return to monarchical or aristocratic despotism. The characteristics of Dumont's planned reform became clear by adopting a comparative perspective on events in France. In developing a comparative perspective, Dumont argued that the history of Britain since 1688 needed to be in the foreground. He was perplexed by the French rejection of Britain's political and constitutional model, and explained many major developments at Paris in 1789 by reference to what he considered to be this peculiar fact. After the Terror, Dumont lost his faith in experiments in constitution building as a means of securing the independence of free states like Geneva. Bentham's great achievement was to have provided an alternative system of legislation that would transform national character gradually, making reform politics compatible with domestic and international peace. For Dumont, Bentham established a bulwark against the enthusiasm and democratic excess, and this was the key to utilitarianism as a moral reform project.


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Historical Journal




Cambridge University Press





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