The cover of Hegel and the Representative Constitution features Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s 1813 painting The Morning because it reflects the mood in contemporary ‘Germany’, symbolising the kind of new beginning longed for in the wars against Napoleon. While Renaissance costumes and antique relics in the foreground pay homage to tradition and the past, the breaking sun in the centre (illuminating children’s play) indicates the dawn of a new era. Napoleon’s defeat created a sense of possibility and provided such considerable momentum that in 1815, the Rhenish publicist Benzenberg declared that ‘what moved France in 1789 is now moving Germany’. Public discussion abounded with ideas for societal renewal and political change. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) lived through this period of upheaval in the shadow of the French Revolution and in my book, I locate his writings and lectures in the context of these early nineteenth-century discussions.
The political process initiated by the Congress of Vienna was accompanied by a tremendous amount of journalistic activity and public debate in newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets and books. By the time Hegel’s main work of politics, the Philosophy of Right, was published in 1820, the constitutional question had become central for the German states and large parts of the European continent, which actively sought reorganisation after Napoleon, both internally and collectively. With monarchy taken virtually for granted at the time, the central political issue was popular representation. What commentators expected from the introduction of constitutions was a guarantee for the people’s rights and, above all, popular participation in government. Particulars were hotly disputed and Hegel complained about ‘an endless amount of empty talk about the constitution’. He shared the sense of having reached a historical moment: it offered the opportunity to introduce the kind of representative institutions every modern state needed and establish a political order conducive to human freedom. What I show is that rather than offering a timeless theory of politics, Hegel intervened in the political debate of his day.
Several of the issues addressed by Hegel and his contemporaries in the post-Napoleonic moment are distinctively modern and relevant in any democratic context: electoral politics, the separation of powers and the role of public opinion, for example. The systems of nobility and hereditary monarchy came under pressure, different models for parliamentary assemblies were discussed and the relevance of differing conditions from one country to the next was questioned. In my book, I explore Hegel’s stance on these topics in relation to the ideas of many lesser-known contemporaries. Their knowledge increases our understanding of Hegel’s political thought and demonstrates its contingency while suggesting alternatives. Hegel claimed the philosopher’s point of view, promising to provide the rational (objective) approach to the constitutional question. Yet his was only one, albeit highly enduring, contribution to the debate about how best to ensure government addressed the common good in the changed social and political circumstances of early nineteenth-century Europe. By providing greater intimacy with this debate, this new book encourages us to question Hegel’s choices and think again about the representative constitution.
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