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Religious Radicalism and Absolutist Moderation in 16th-Century France

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03/25/2010Murray N. Rothbard

[This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. An audio version of this Mises Daily, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available as a free download.]

Radical Huguenots

Calvin began his own Reformation after Luther, but it rapidly swept through western Europe, triumphing not only in Switzerland but more importantly in the Dutch Netherlands, the main commercial and financial center of Europe in the 17th century, and coming within a hair's breadth of dominating Great Britain and France. In Britain, Scotland was conquered by Calvinism in the form of the Presbyterian Church, and Calvinist Puritanism heavily influenced the Anglican Church and almost conquered England in the mid-17th century. France was rent by religious-political wars during the last four decades of the 16th century, and the Calvinists, known as Huguenots, were not far from triumphing there. Though converting no more than 5 percent of the population, the Huguenots were extremely influential in the nobility, and in pockets in northern and southwestern France.

John Calvin, fully as much as Luther, preached the doctrine of absolute obedience and nonresistance to duly constituted government, regardless of how evil that government may be. But Calvin's embattled followers, enjoying rising aspirations against non-Calvinist rulers, developed justifications for resistance to evil rulers. These were first set forth in the 1550s by the English "Marian exiles" in Switzerland and Germany during the reign of the last Catholic monarch in England, Queen Mary. This radical tradition, including the people's right to tyrannicide, was carried on by the Huguenots in the following decades.

Stimulated by the horror of the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572, the Huguenots promptly developed libertarian theories of radical resistance against the tyranny of the Crown. Some of the most notable writings are the jurist François Hotman's (1524–90) Francogallia, written in the late 1560s but first published in 1573; the anonymous Political Discourses (1574); and the culminating work, at the end of the 1570s, by Philippe Du Plessis Mornay (1549–1623), the Defense of Liberty against Tyrants (Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos) (1579). Defending tyrannicide in particular was the Political Discourses, which bitterly attacked the "so-called theologians and preachers" who asserted that no one may ever lawfully kill a tyrant "without a special revelation from God." The other Huguenot writers, however, were far more cautious on this touchy issue.

Furthermore, three decades before the radical Spanish Scholastic Juan de Mariana, the Huguenots advanced a pre-Lockean theory of popular sovereignty. In particular, Hotman warned that a people's transference of their right to rule to the king can in no way be permanent or irrevocable. On the contrary, the people and their representative bodies have the right of continual surveillance of the king, as well as of taking away his power at any time. Not only that, but the Estates General is supposed to have continuing day-to-day power to rule. Hotman won general Huguenot acceptance of this new creed by cloaking it in terms of Jean Calvin's original, quite contrasting political doctrine.

"Stimulated by the horror of the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572, the Huguenots promptly developed libertarian theories of radical resistance against the tyranny of the Crown."

But Hotman's argument for original popular rule was strictly historical, and the counterattacks of the royalist writers soon riddled the historical account with gross distortions. It was necessary for the Huguenots to abandon the original Calvinist counsel of total civil obedience and construct a natural-law theory of the original sovereignty of the people, preceding the consensual transfer to kingly rule. In short, the Huguenots had to rediscover and reappropriate the Scholastic tradition of their hated Catholic opponents. Thus, in contrast to the preaching style and emphasis on divine will of the Marian exiles, Mornay and other Huguenots wrote in a logical, Scholastic style, and explicitly referred to Aquinas and to codifiers of the Roman law.

In short, as Professor Skinner writes, there was no "Calvinist theory of revolution" in the 16th century. Paradoxically, the French Calvinists pioneered the development of a revolutionary theory of popular rule by grounding themselves in the natural-law tradition of their Catholic adversaries.

Furthermore, Ockhamite Scholastics at Paris — e.g., Jean Gerson in the early 15th century and the Englishman John Major in the early 16th — pioneered specifically the concept of sovereignty that always inheres in the people and that they can therefore take back from the king at any time.

One of the pernicious effects on scholarship of Max Weber's Protestant (actually Calvinist) ethic as the creator of capitalism has already been seen: the neglect of the actual rise of capitalism in Catholic Italy, as well as in Antwerp and southern Germany. Another associated Weberian fallacy is the popular idea of Calvinism as "modern" and revolutionary, as the creator of radical and democratic political thought. But we have seen that Calvinist and Protestant political thought was originally statist and absolutist. Calvinism only became revolutionary and antityrannical under the pressure of opposing Catholic regimes, which drove the Calvinists back to natural-law and popular-sovereignty motifs in Catholic Scholastic thought.

An important strand of popular sovereignty was worked out by Theodore Beza (1519–1605), Calvin's leading disciple and successor at Geneva. The great Beza, influenced by Hotman, published The Right of Magistrates in 1574. Beza insisted that natural law revealed that the people logically and temporally preceded their rulers, so that political power originated in the body of the people. It is "self-evident," Beza declared, that "peoples do not come from rulers" and are not created by them. Hence the people originally decided to transfer governing powers to the rulers. An influential radical Huguenot pamphlet, The Awakener (Le Reveille Matin) (1574) repeated Beza's argument. (The Awakener was probably written by the eminent French jurist, Hugues Doneau.) Man could not be naturally in subjection, The Awakener pointed out, for "assemblies and groups of men existed everywhere before the creation of kings" and "even today it is possible to find a people without a magistrate but never a magistrate without a people." If man is not to be naturally free but naturally enslaved, then we must absurdly conclude that "the people must have been created by their magistrates" when it is obvious, to the contrary, that "magistrates are always created by the people."

As usual Philippe Du Plessis Mornay summed up the position with trenchant clarity. "No one," he observed, "is a king by nature," and, furthermore, and with particular point, "a king cannot rule without a people, while a people can rule itself without a king." Hence, it is evident that the people must have preceded the existence of kings or positive laws, and then later submitted themselves to their dominion. Hence, man's natural condition must be liberty, and we must possess freedom as a natural right, a right that can never be justifiably removed. As Mornay put it, we are all "free by nature, born to hate servitude, and desirous of commanding rather than yielding obedience." Further, continuing this proto-Lockean analysis, the people must have submitted themselves to governmental rule to promote their well-being.

Following John Major, Mornay was clear that the kind of well-being the people advanced in setting up government was to protect their individual natural rights. To Mornay as to Major, a "right" over something was being free to hold and dispose of it, i.e., a right in the object as property. The people retain such rights when they establish polities, which they willingly create in order to ensure greater security for their property. These rights of property include the natural right of everyone in their own persons and their liberties. Governments are supposed to maintain those rights, but often become the main transgressors. Mornay was careful to point out that the people, in establishing governments, cannot alienate their sovereignty. Instead they always "remain in the position of the owner" of their sovereignty, which they merely delegate to the ruler. The "whole" people therefore continues to be "greater than the king and is above him."

On the other hand, Mornay and the other Huguenots were constrained to temper their revolutionary radicalism. First, they made it clear, in a manner wholly consistent with their view that the whole people retain their sovereignty, that the "people" are not really the people as a whole but their "representatives" in the magistrates and the Estates General. The people have necessarily "given their sword" to these institutions, and therefore "when we speak of the people collectively, we mean those who receive authority from the people, that is, the magistrates below the king ... [and] the assembly of the Estates." Moreover, in practice, these alleged representatives keep the enforcement of the king's promises in their hands, since that power of enforcement is a property of "the authorities that have the power of the people in them."

"The Huguenots had to rediscover and reappropriate the scholastic tradition of their hated Catholic opponents."

Furthermore, according to the Huguenots, the sovereign right is only in the people as a whole and not in any individual, so that tyrannicide by one subject is never permissible. The people as a whole are above the king, but the king is above any single individual. More concretely, since sovereignty rests in the institutions of duly constituted assemblies or magistrates, only these institutions embodying the sovereign power of the people can properly resist the tyranny of the king.

In a few short years, the rebellion of the Dutch against Spanish rule reached a climax in 1580–81. An anonymous Calvinist pamphlet, A True Warning, appeared in Antwerp in 1581, asserting that "God has created men free" and that the only power over men is whatever they themselves have granted. If the king breaks the conditions of his rule, then the people's representatives have the right and the duty to depose him and to "resume their original rights." The leader of the Dutch rebellion, William the Silent, Prince of Orange, adopted the same view in these same years, both in his own Apology presented to the Estates General at the end of 1580, and in the official Edict of the Estates General issued the following July. (It should be noted that the Apology was largely written by Mornay and other Huguenot advisors.) The Edict declared that the king of Spain had "forfeited his sovereignty" and that the United Netherlands had at last been obliged, "in conformity with the law of nature" to exercise their unquestioned right to resist tyranny, and "to pursue such means" as necessary to secure their "rights, privileges and liberties."

Leaguers and Politiques

While the Huguenot Monarchomachs have been far more extensively studied than their Catholic counterparts of the late 16th century, the latter are an interesting and neglected group. After the accession of King Henry III in 1574, it began to be clear that the Huguenots were no longer in danger of annihilation, and that, on the contrary, it seemed that Henry was soft on Protestants. This softness became an acute problem for the Catholics of France in 1584, when the death of the heir to the throne, the Duc d'Alençon, brought into the first line of succession Henry of Navarre, a committed Calvinist. This threat brought into being the Catholic League, especially in Paris, then the heartland of French Catholicism. The league, headed throughout France by the Duc de Guise, rebelled against Henry and drove him out of Paris. As we have seen, Henry's treacherous assassination of Guise and his brother the cardinal during a peace parley led to a mighty act of tyrannicide, in which the young Dominican priest, Jacques Clement, on August 1, 1589, avenged the Guises by assassinating Henry III.

Paris under the Catholic League was run by a council of 16, supported by the middle classes, professionals and businessmen, and backed fervently by virtually all the priests and curés in the city. The most radical of the Leaguer thinkers, who flourished during the 1580s and 1590s, was a leading attorney, François LeBreton, who, in his Remonstrance to the Third Estate (1586), bitterly attacked the king as a hypocrite, advocated a French republic, and called for revolution and civil war to attain it. LeBreton was promptly executed by the Parlement, the leading judicial organ in France.

The rebellion of the Catholic League, which culminated in the revolt of Paris and other parts of France, was not only motivated by concern over the possible imposition of a minority Huguenot faith upon the Catholic French. Leaguer grievances were political and economic as well as religious. Henry III, the last Valois king, had imposed upon his country a huge amount of pillage, a very high tax burden, and large amounts of expense, offices and subsidies. Huge taxes were particularly levied upon the city of Paris.

But Father Clement's act, however heroic, proved in the end to be counterproductive. For the first Bourbon, Henry of Navarre, assumed the throne as Henry IV. Realizing that he could scarcely remain a Huguenot and still govern France, Henry, after four years of war, converted to Catholicism, supposedly explaining, in a probably apocryphal phrase, that "Paris is worth a mass." Henry IV had won. With the advent of the new Bourbon king came the rule of the centrist or "moderate" Catholics, the politiques – "the politicals."

Whether one might call Henry IV and the politiques "moderates" depends on one's perspective. As secularists and men of feeble faith, it is true that the politiques were not interested in slaughtering Huguenots, and were anxious to end the religious conflict as soon as possible. Henry did so in his toleration decree, the Edict of Nantes in 1598. In that sense, the politiques were "middle-of-the-roaders" in between the two religious extremes: the Huguenots and the Catholic Leaguers. And that is the light that most historians have shed upon them. But in another important sense the politiques were not "moderate" at all. For they were truly extreme in desiring to give all power to the absolute state and to its embodiment in the king of France. In triumphing over both "extremes," Henry IV and the politiques rode roughshod over the only two groups who had called for resistance against royal tyranny. The victory of Henry also meant the end of French resistance to royal absolutism. Unchecked despotic rule by the Bourbons was now to be France's lot for two centuries, until it was brought to a violent end by the French Revolution. It was a high price indeed to pay for religious concord, especially since Louis XIV — the "Sun King," the embodiment of French royal despotism — revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and thereby drove many Huguenots out of France. In the long run, the religious "peace" of absolutist "moderation" turned out to be the peace of the grave for many Huguenots.


Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.

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