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Enlightened innovation and the ancient constitution : the intellectual justifications of the Brabant Revolution (1787-1790)

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Van den Bossche, Geertrui Maria Magdalena M. H. 


This study is a revisionist history of the Brabant Revolution in its political and intellectual context.

The argument presented here stands in contrast with standard 'whiggish' interpretations of the revolutionary movement in the Austrian Netherlands or the narrowing of its analysis to the continuing debate over the enlightened versus the absolutist/despotic nature of Joseph II's reign. The purpose of this study is to offer a reconstruction of the political cultures and the normative vocabularies of Joseph II and his Belgian adversaries. Through the analysis of their respective assumptions about human nature, society and politics, a framework is presented which allows for a contextual explanation for the ultimately non-interactive discussions on issues such as the form of government, the origins and authority of the constitution and sovereignty.

It is also argued that the conflict in Joseph's political thought and action arose not from the contrast between (enlightened) intentions and (despotic) conseguences, but from the failure of the internal logic of his theory of sovereignty, namely the juxtaposition of a modern principle of indivisible sovereignty versus a traditional conception of personal authority.

On the other hand, the re-evaluation of the Belgian opposition against Joseph's programme of enlightened innovation hinges on the unique fact that the principles of the European discourse of ancient constitutionalism were embedded in the positive law of the Netherlands. The formulation - and implementation - of the right of resistance did not derive from a consistent philosophical or innovative ideology, but from the logic of an historically evolved legal system which expressed an organic concept of civil and political society. The analysis of hitherto neglected political writings thus identifies the Brabant Revolution, not as a reactionary conspiracy against (Joseph's) modernity, but as the political movement that, through its emphasis on the concepts of contractual and impersonal authority and the separation of powers, initiated moves towards democratic politics.


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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge