Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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ABSOLUTISM.*1 This word is generally used to describe a form of government in which the head of the state wields power without any regular control, and without any limits imposed to his power by political institutions. Absolutism is found outside of monarchies, as in an aristocracy, a democratic legislature with a single house, or an assembly of the people in a very small state, where the majority unite in themselves all power. These are all examples of absolutism. As a rule, however, when absolutism is mentioned we have almost always a monarchy in view. A distinction is made between absolutism and despotism in this, that an absolute monarch may be naturally well disposed and inclined to remain within the bounds of law, or what is relatively legal, while the despot respects no law, and acts according to his caprice without regard to the interests of the people. There may be partisans of absolutism, but who would confess to any indulgence for despotism?


—If we seek for arguments in favor of absolute monarchy, we can find scarcely anything more solid than sentiment, and a certain distortion of sentiment called mysticism. To speak of a divine gift of paternal authority is mysticism. Who in our day is not convinced that government exists for the good of the nation, and that men were not created that a king may have numerous servants and dependents. If, however, mysticism sometimes favors absolutism, there are other feelings which are shocked at the thought of having a master, and it is these feelings that constitute the dignity of human nature.


—The only rational argument in favor of this form of government is found in the political immaturity or backwardness of certain nations. It is said that barbarous people need a strong hand to restrain them; but why should a barbarous or semi-civilized nation need a stronger government than a people altogether savage, who frequently recognize no authority at all? There is no logical necessity here. Should it happen to a barbarous people to fall into the hands of a man of genius, a monarch in advance of his subjects, of course a great advantage would result; they would be urged forward with vigor and intelligence in the path of progress. This, however, would be but chance, a happy accident, and would furnish no argument in favor of the system. What nation with even a pretense to civilization cares to be called barbarian?


—Let us now see if absolute power is really exercised anywhere in political life. It seems to us that it is not. We find checks and limits to the human will on every side, and the most powerful of these checks comes from the will of others. Sometimes these restraints are evident; again they are occult, and are felt only instinctively; but they always exist.


—According to the degree of civilization of a state, power, unrestricted by law, is limited in various ways. On the one hand, by manners, customs and traditions; on the other, by religion; still again, by the fear of revolt or the vengeance of the injured. In the most enlightened countries, public opinion exercises, at times, an influence which can not be gainsaid. It is so difficult to rise above: "What will they say?"


—Thus far we have discussed absolute power in the hands of a monarch, but it may also be exercised by collective governing bodies, either aristocratic or democratic.


—When absolute power is the attribute of an aristocracy, it becomes odious sooner than in any other form of government. First of all, because it enters more quickly into the period of abuse, and because, if in an absolute monarchy the sovereign with his favorites and devoted servants may commit much wrong, they can not do so much in this direction as aristocratic families with their hangers-on and partisans. It is often the case that these dominant families are descended from conquerors belonging to another nationality and a different religion, that they are distinguished by the color of their skin or other external marks. In this case, these families have, on the one hand, a greater tendency to abuse their power and become tyrants, and on the other, the subject populations are less inclined to give them credit even for the good they receive from their government. An aristocracy as a collective body is less influenced by the restraints which limit the excesses of absolute monarchs; they fear the loss of power less.


—In a democracy, absolute power seems to be the just and natural attribute of government. Is not this government the result of election? Does it not perfectly represent the will of the nation? Is it not theoretically, at least, responsible to the nation?


—Still, absolute power is, in every case, too weighty a burden to be easily borne by men. While a despot may allow the reins of power to drop from his feeble hands to see them picked up by some favorite, a representative assembly may often be led into excess by even a generous sentiment, and thereby still further increase the burden on its shoulders. Absolute power in democratic governments is not altogether rational except when the government is elected unanimously. In that case each man would be the subject of his own will or of the power which he himself created. In practice, this never takes place, for majorities govern and often oppress minorities. They oppress them with the less scruple since they are the majority and have the letter of the law on their side.


—The question may be put whether the nation itself has absolute power over one of its own members. The assertion, pure and simple, of such a principle would seem revolting in our day, although eminent men have upheld a doctrine which favor this view. To admit the absolute power of a nation is to justify religious persecution, slavery, and many other horrors with which humanity has stained its annals.


—From deduction to deduction we have come implicitly to the question whether laws can command absolute obedience. We shall not give a definite answer to this question here, for we are not writing a treatise on casuistry. We have not to seek for the special cases in which a nation uses or abuses its power, nor in what cases the abuse should be submitted to and suffered. We shall say, simply, that we owe some sacrifice to society in exchange for the benefits which we receive from it. But the measure of the sacrifice must be found by each man in his own conscience. (See DESPOTISM, TYRANNY.)


Notes for this chapter

The articles ABSOLUTE POWER, by Bluntschli, and ABSOLUTISM, by Block, cover the same ground, to a great extent; but there are valuable ideas in each not to be found in the other. Therefore, it has been thought best to use both, with the names given them by their authors respectively.—ED.

Footnotes for ACADEMIES

End of Notes

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