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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GOVERNMENT, Provisional. Every political society needs a head; this need must be deeply engraved in human nature, for, since the creation, political societies have never been able to dispense with a head. Thus, the first act of a revolution is to replace the head swept away by the political tempest. And it is this great and indispensable need of having a government that renders people indulgent as to the methods employed at the time of choosing leaders, to whom they give power, or whom they allow to take it; this causes them to close their eyes to the usurpations which these representatives permit themselves to make, while proclaiming aloud the sovereignty of the people which they trample upon, while making laws by their own authority which their limited and provisional mandate would not permit them to make, sometimes while performing definitely acts beyond their mission and competence. But the people abhor anarchy beyond all things.


—Still, "it is an eternal experience," says Montesquieu, "that every man who has power is inclined to abuse it." Now the majority of revolutions have had, as cause and excuse or pretext, the necessity of restraining the abuses of power. Nevertheless powers constituted with a precarious title and following revolutions fall into the same errors. Thus, the provisional government in France of 1814 hastened to create a king, and Talleyrand, while showing his salon of the rue St. Florentin, said, "There is where the restoration was made." The provisional government of 1830 in France acted in the same manner, and the government of July was established in the Hotel de Laffitte. The provisional government of 1848 in France repeated these mistakes, and after deliberating a few hours gave birth to a republic. The dictator of 1851 used and abused his usurped power; and as to the government of "national defense," of Sept. 4, 1870, it kept long enough within just limits with the exception of the delegation of Tours. "But," we repeat, "every man in possession of power is inclined to abuse it." We see, besides, by these examples, that it is the tendency of chiefs of states to usurp rights; this tendency is not peculiar to monarchies; all powers, whether oligarchies, monarchies or republics, tend by their nature to absorb the people as contradistinguished from the governing party, no matter by what name he is called, in the same way as they would if he reigned.


—Where, then, is the remedy for this aggression? It is not found in the continuation of the quotation of Montesquieu: "To prevent the abuse of power it is necessary to dispose things so that one power should check another, otherwise every power advances till it finds limits." Montesquieu's remark applies in fact only to normal conditions, and the existence of a provisional government characterizes a political situation which is pre-eminently abnormal; power in this instance is held by men who are self-elected, that is to say, by men without election, but for this very reason provisional governments should abstain from disposing of the future. Their powers do not reach beyond the term of their office; they are legitimate only for the maintenance of order, and not to issue laws, which the regular authorities will have time to do. They should absolutely take but urgent measures and no other, and they should always hasten to ask a bill of indemnity from the first parliament for each particular measure, and not for all taken together.


—There is a detail upon which we must dwell in closing. In France, as in most other states, a distinction is made between an act which is passed by the legislative power, a law, and that which emanates from the executive power, an order, ordinance, a decree. Now the provisional government being dictatorial in its character it combines the two powers. On this account it is frequently difficult to distinguish the act which is a law from the act which is a decree, and certain persons are disposed to consider all the acts as laws, an interpretation which may have serious inconveniences. It is important, then, to bear well in mind that the nature of the act is not changed by the effect of the signature of a revolutionary dictator, that is to say, a decree remains a decree.


—It is needless to add, that if the government which was overthrown, or rather, whose overthrow was sought, remains in power, it will respect absolutely nothing of what was done by the insurgent government (the word provisional applies only to successful insurrections). The French government recognized nothing done under the commune, not even the record of births, deaths and marriages, and the government at Washington did not recognize for a moment the acts of the secession government, although it lasted three years.


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