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Natural Constitutionalism and American Rights

Natural Constitutionalism and American Rights

February 17, 2017 -
1:15pm to 3:00pm
Encina Hall West, Room 400 (GSL)
Event Speaker: 
Dan Edelstein, William H. Bonsall Professor of French and Professor of History, Stanford University

Rather than asking when human rights were “invented,” in this book project I examine when it became the norm to think about human rights as entitlements that we preserve in political society (what I call the “preservation regime of rights”). Most theorists in the 17th and early 18th centuries widely acknowledged the existence of natural rights, but argued that they had to be abridged or transferred to government, as a condition of political society. When eighteenth-century theorists revived the preservation regime (which Huguenot revolutionaries and English Puritans had already championed), it took very different forms on either side of the Atlantic. In this chapter, I analyze how American rights talk blended English constitutionalism with natural law theory, to produce a discourse of “natural constitutionalism.” I distinguish this discourse from the more common continental theory of “social naturalism,” in which it is assumed that there exists a natural order of society to be discovered and implemented. In this perspective, the revolutionary declarations of rights in the American colonies and in France end up looking like faux amis.


Edelstein works for the most part on eighteenth-century France, with research interests at the crossroads of literature, history, political theory, and digital humanities. His first book, The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2009), examines how "liberal" natural right theories, classical republicanism, and the myth of the golden age became fused in eighteenth-century political culture, only to emerge as a violent ideology during the Terror. This book won the 2009 Oscar Kenshur Book Prize. His second book, entitled The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (University of Chicago Press, 2010), explores how the idea and narrative of "Enlightenment" emerged in French academic circles around the 1720's. He's also edited three volumes of essays, one for Yale French Studies, on Myth and Modernity, another for SVEC (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, now the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment) on The Super-Enlightenment; and a third, with Keith Baker, on Scripting Revolution (Stanford University Press). In addition, he's published articles on such topics as the Encyclopédie, antiquarianism, Orientalism, the Idéologues, revolutionary authority, and structuralism, as well as on writers including Jean-Sylvain Bailly, Balzac, Roland Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, Michelet, Mallarmé, Georges Sorel, Emmerich de Vattel, and Voltaire.