The Dilemma of Sixteenth Century French Constitutionalism

Hotman and Bodin were among those who laid down new lines of political thought in Europe, writes J.H.M. Salmon.

Liberty and authority are the two poles between which most political doctrines oscillate. It was the distinction of two sixteenth-century thinkers, François Hotman and Jean Bodin, to define these limits in a way that seems particularly meaningful to the modern state.

Hotman’s Francogallia (1573) suggests that government should proceed by consent, and that ultimately rulers are responsible to the ruled: Bodin’s Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576) asserts that the criterion of the state is the existence of an indivisible and unchallengeable power to rule by the imposition of law, regardless of consent.

Neither thinker wished to change the hierarchical social structure of their day. Their contrasting opinions were enunciated in response to an intense political crisis in the French wars of religion, and their message was primarily political in its impact. Each represented himself as the discoverer of a basic truth that no one else had descried.

Hotman imagined that he had disinterred from medieval chronicles a pristine constitution, established at the dawn of French history, when the Germanic Franks had freed the Gauls from Roman tyranny and the twin-born Francogallic people had accepted German principles of liberty. Bodin believed that in legislative sovereignty he had hit upon something all his predecessors had missed, a concept that at last could make a science of politics intelligible.

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