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This article traces the immediate reception of Paine’s Rights of man (Part One) in Germany. It especially focuses on the publication history of the complete translation published in Berlin in 1792, featuring the translator Meta Forkel, her collaborator Georg Forster, and the publisher Christian Friedrich Voß. This reconstruction affords insight into the process of translation as a collaborative enterprise and clearly demonstrates the translator’s agency. When the publisher proved reluctant, publication was dependent on Forkel’s initiative, which highlights the factor of contingency and the willingness to take risks. By detailing the modifications a book might undergo even in the case of a very faithful translation, this article also exemplifies strategies employed in the dissemination of radical works and the adaptation to new cultural and political contexts. Finally, the evidence presented here shows that Paine’s work was considered central by German contemporaries and should be placed alongside the reception of Burke’s in future scholarship on the Revolution debate in Germany.
Just over two hundred years ago, in the autumn of 1820, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel published what subsequently became one of the most contentious books in the history of political thought. This recent anniversary of the Philosophy of Right, together with Hegel’s 250th birthday, is an especially opportune moment to reflect anew on the book and its author. With his name invoked ubiquitously and incessantly, Hegel is more often treated as our own contemporary, or indeed as a kind of philosophical spirit hovering above the tides of time, than an actual human being who lived around the turn of the nineteenth century. My suggestion, in brief, is that we might do well to humanise this towering figure in the history of philosophy in greater measure than tends to happen, and to remember that both form and content of the notorious Philosophy of Right were subject to an indispensable measure of contingency. This study aims to demonstrate how a situated analysis of Hegel’s political thought, drawing on a wide variety of contemporary sources, enables a better understanding of his arguments and what he was trying to do in relation to the issues of his age.
Chapter 2 places Hegel’s views on the nature of constitutions in the context of contemporary discussions of what may be termed constitutional transferability, engaging in particular with the French Revolution and the English constitution. It introduces Hegel’s conception of the constitution as an organism, his denial of the possibility of deriving constitutions ‘a priori’, and his simultaneous support for the introduction of written constitutions and legal codification. Hegel’s account of the nature of constitutions is interpreted as supporting a specific kind of constitutionalism while discrediting another. Through a constitutionalist approach to world history, Hegel sought to resolve the inherent tension between universal demands of reason and local particularity, inscribing the progress of world history with freedom and the representative system. By showing that he could draw on prevailing views in doing so, Hegel’s influential attempt to reconcile organic growth with the demands of reason, history with freedom, and community with the individual is lifted out of isolation. His identification of the representative system with subjective freedom, introduced in this chapter, forms a recurring theme throughout the book.
Chapter 4 analyses Hegel’s reasons for choosing the bicameral system at a time when it was anything but widespread and in fact hotly contested. It reconstructs the arguments advanced then, both in favour of a two-chamber system and in opposition to it, and argues that Hegel’s acceptance of bicameralism must be understood as taking a deliberate stance in the constitutional debate of post-Napoleonic Germany. Essentially, he advances two arguments for the institution of two chambers. First, the division of the Estates Assembly into two chambers will lead to improved decision-making and second, there will be less direct opposition between the Estates and the government. The contextualisation of these two arguments reveals that Hegel distils only the main arguments of one side in a heated controversy while excluding counter-arguments and ideas of alternative mechanisms in circulation at the time. In the process, this chapter especially explores arguments about the role and composition of the first chamber, which corresponds to what is nowadays conventionally called the second chamber and often dubbed a ‘house of review’. Important questions about the social implications of the bicameral system are also raised in this context.
Chapter 1 shows that the discussions which dominated intellectual and public life in the years immediately preceding the publication of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right revolved around the constitutional question as the central and definitive element of political discourse in Germany. It argues that Hegel consciously entered this constitutional debate and that his book constituted a timely intervention in the politics of the immediate post-Napoleonic period. By demonstrating the pan-German and European dimensions of contemporary constitutional concerns, Hegel’s political thought is at the same time lifted out of the exclusively Prussian context to which it has so often been confined.
Chapter 5, in parallel to the preceding one, focuses on the other, elected chamber of the Estates Assembly (or Parliament) and discusses Hegel’s characteristic notion of a representation of interests, along with the broader societal conditions for successful representation. The chapter first reconstructs and contextualises the electoral mechanism as envisioned by Hegel and elucidates the political significance of corporation membership, which connects Hegel’s civil society and state. In this context, special attention is paid to the exclusion of women, while Hegel’s purported negligence of farmers is refuted. The chapter then sets out the conditions Hegel considered necessary for the successful representation of societal interests, which include freedom of the press and trials by jury, notwithstanding his ambivalent attitude towards public opinion. The final section shows that these very preconditions were under siege at the time Hegel was writing, following the politically motivated murder of Kotzebue and the institution of the so-called Karlsbad decrees. The direct bearing of these circumstances on the publication of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right rounds off this contextual study.
Chapter 3 is dedicated to an analysis of the distribution of power within Hegel’s model of constitutional monarchy, or what he calls the rational constitution. By focussing on the arrangement of power in Hegel’s organic political system, it provides a necessary grounding for the analysis in the chapters that follow. First, Hegel’s peculiar separation of powers into a princely, governmental, and lawgiving power, which are all organically interconnected, is addressed, which is of particular interest on account of its variance with the concept of that name which is widely held today. Next, the role played by the monarch is scrutinised, who is hereditary, bound by the law, and embodies subjective freedom. This is followed by a discussion of the exercise of government, which exposes the ultimate restrictedness of the monarch’s field of influence. Lastly, the chapter recovers the various competences that Hegel envisioned for the Assembly of Estates, with which the two subsequent chapters are principally concerned.
Several years after Hegel’s death, an entry on ‘Hegel’s philosophy and school’ appeared in the renowned Staats-Lexikon, or Encyclopedia of the Sciences of State, edited by Carl von Rotteck and Carl Theodor Welcker. With its author Karl Hermann Scheidler a former student of Hegel’s lifelong rival Fries, the article can hardly be described as even-handed and Marx famously referred to it as ‘muck’. For the concerns of this book, Scheidler’s pronouncement that ‘Hegel declares himself generally for the representative constitution indeed’ is of especial interest. He is quick to add, however, that Hegel ‘does this in a manner […] which clearly shows that the true idea of the representative system in no way became clear to him and that he understands next to nothing of constitutional monarchy’. Scheidler especially reprehends Hegel for ignoring ‘the important difference between the estate-based and the representative constitution which more recent theorists of the state […] endeavour to determine so precisely’. That is the point exactly, however. At the time Hegel was writing, such a distinction was far from established.
Hegel and the Representative Constitution provides the first comprehensive historical discussion of the institutional dimension of G. W. F. Hegel's political thought. Elias Buchetmann traces this much-neglected aspect in unprecedented contextual detail and makes the case for reading the Philosophy of Right from 1820 as a contribution to the lively and widespread public debate on the constitutional question in contemporary Central Europe. Drawing on a broad range of primary source material, this volume illuminates the wider political discourse in post-Napoleonic Germany, carefully locates Hegel's institutional commitments within their immediate cultural and political context, and reveals him as something closer to a public intellectual. By exploring this indispensable thinker's demand for the constitutional protection of popular participation in government, it contributes beyond Hegel scholarship to shed new light on the history of democratic theory in early nineteenth-century Europe and encourages critical reflection on questions of representation today.
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