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Adam Lebovitz

I am a political theorist and a constitutional lawyer. I have a PhD in the history of political thought from Harvard University, a JD from the Harvard Law School, and a BA in political theory from the University of Chicago. Currently, I am the WYNG Research Fellow in Political Theory and Philosophy at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

 

My first book, Colossus: Constitutional theory in America and France, 1776-1799, explores transatlantic connections between the American and French revolutions, and reinterprets the political thought of John Adams, Abbé Sieyès, the Marquis de Condorcet, and other signature writers of the two revolutions. An earlier version of this manuscript received the Leo Strauss Award for the best dissertation in political philosophy by the American Political Science Association, as well as the Robert Noxon Toppan Prize for the best dissertation on a subject of political science at Harvard University.

 

My second book, A Diary of the Terror by Thomas Paine (under contract, Harvard University Press), is a critical edition of an unknown manuscript, likely by Thomas Paine, on the Reign of Terror in France. I found the manuscript in the French National Archives in 2017, while performing doctoral research in Paris.

 

I was a Golieb Fellow in Legal History at New York University Law School in 2014-2015, a Berger-Howe Fellow in Legal History at the Harvard Law School in 2015-2016, and a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for European Legal History in Frankfurt in 2019. My research has been published or is forthcoming in a variety of journals and edited volumes, including Modern Intellectual HistoryHistory of Political Thought, and The William and Mary Quarterly.

 

My research interests revolve around questions of popular sovereignty, constitutional design, and Enlightenment political thought. Future projects will deal with the revolutionary origins of human rights, concepts of "free speech" in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the history and theory of the state of exception.

 

Publications

An Unknown Manuscript on the Terror,

Attributed to Thomas Paine

In the Archives nationales in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, there is a dossier with the following label: “Manuscript for publication of the reflections of Thomas Paine (English member of the Convention) on the French Revolution.” The date is given as 1825. And below the title there is an additional note: “probably never published because unfinished.” What follows is a French-language text of 195 pages, in highly legible script and with a sophisticated editorial apparatus that includes footnotes supplementing and occasionally contradicting the author. It purports to be, and appears to be, an unknown text by Thomas Paine on the French Revolution and the beginnings of the Terror, written in 1793 and recopied in 1825 in preparation for a first printed edition. This article explores the provenance of the manuscript, sketches its contents, and situates it in relation to both Paine’s oeuvre and the volatile political atmosphere of 1793.

An Economy of Violence: Financial Crisis

and Whig Constitutional Thought, 1720-1721

The South Sea bubble of 1720 is widely recognized as an epochal event in economics, the first modern financial crisis, and thus a template for understanding the panics and crashes of our own time. Comparatively neglected is the political and constitutional aftermath of the crash, in which a diverse coalition of politicians and writers pressed for the severe punishment of those thought to be responsible for inflating and then profiting from the bubble, inside the law if possible, outside the law if necessary. This essay reconstructs the intricate constitutional debate which followed the crash in England, focusing on the ubiquitous legal argument that those responsible might be punished by Parliament under laws made ex post facto, on grounds of emergency or state necessity. It demonstrates not only that the survival of the market economy was shadowed from its inception by the potential assertion of “extraordinary” state power, but also that these emergency measures were advocated most strongly by the “radical Whigs” credited with the invention of the Anglophone civil libertarian tradition—John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, and Robert Molesworth. And this curious fact raises a number of difficult questions about the nature of republican liberty.

Franklin Redivivus: the Radical Constitution, 1791-1799

This article focuses on a concerted intellectual and political movement for the reform of the U.S. constitution, led by a constellation of radicals based in Philadelphia and inspired by the constitutional example of the French Republic. In response to what radical journalists like Benjamin Franklin Bache and Thomas Paine perceived to be the monarchial drift of the late Washington administration, they began to press for a drastic reform of the U.S. Constitution, pointing to the more egalitarian French constitution with its powerful unicameral legislature and weak plural executive, as their model. Through a survey of radical newspapers, pamphlets, and letters this paper reconstructs this mostly unknown constitutional polemic, as well as the sharp response it drew from John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and other committed American defenders of the British constitution. A prologue establishes the enduring importance of Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 for philosophes and radicals in both France and America. Part I examines the radical argument for restricting the prerogatives of the upper chamber, which proliferated in the aftermath of the Jay Treaty and pivoted on the supposedly more egalitarian unicameralism of the French constitutions of 1791 and 1793. Part II traces the radical argument for replacing the presidency with a plural

executive committee, modeled on the French Directory of 1795, on the grounds that such an arrangement was not only less warped by monarchism, but also more suited to times of war and exigency, as demonstrated by the astonishing military success of the French Republic. The arguments presented here thus underline the surprising fragility and contingency of the constitutional settlement in the early republic and highlight the powerful Atlantic currents that shaped American constitutional debate in the era of the French Revolution.

The Battlefield of Metaphysics: Perpetual Peace Revisited

Basic questions about Kant’s international theory remain unresolved, in part because the ambiguous language and sketchy blueprints given in Perpetual Peace lend themselves to a wide variety of interpretations. This essay proposes a novel solution for this difficulty: a careful reconsideration of the political concepts embedded in Kant’s first philosophy. In the First Critique, the “Conflict of the Faculties,” and in particular his neglected essay “Perpetual Peace in Philosophy,” Kant repeatedly draws on the language of sovereignty, war, and international law, in order to describe how the critical philosophy will bring peace to what he terms the “battlefield of metaphysics.” The most striking feature of this program for “perpetual peace in philosophy” is that it does not end disagreement over ideas, but rather prevents it from becoming pathological by subjecting it to the “discipline” of critical reason. And I argue that Kant’s proposal for global peace is precisely parallel: a sovereign world court that arbitrates decisively between states, while otherwise leaving them free to clash, compete, and disagree.

Obstruction and Emergency in Late Republican Rome

Over the past decade, Roman institutions of emergency government have attracted the attention of a growing number of scholars. But this outpouring of new scholarship has obscured an equally critical aspect of the late republican constitution: the simultaneous introduction of new forms of executive and legislative obstruction, founded in significant part on the strategic manipulation of Roman religious rituals. But this article seeks to establish that constitutional checks were not deteriorating but proliferating in the late republic. Even as old constitutional barriers to action were swept aside in the increasingly violent contest between optimates and populares, new configurations of checks and balances were being improvised to take their place, often with no clear legal warrant, occasionally drawing on the same idiom of state necessity and salus populi. Far from the antithesis of Roman emergency government, then, the tactics of obstruction and delay that became so prominent in the late republic can be thought of as its second face, and this may carry implications for how we understand the problem of ‘emergency powers’ in our own time.

 
 

Research

My current research addresses the circulation of constitutional ideas in the late eighteenth-century Atlantic world, and introduces a number of novel ideas about the pathways of influence that linked the French and American revolutions. In 1795, after the fall of Robespierre and the suspension of the Terror, the French publicist Adrien Lezay wrote that the choice of constitutional forms could now be reduced to "a parallel between the republics of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania; that is to say, between two constitutions founded, either on the division or on the unity of the legislature." My first book project, Colossus: Constitutional theory in France and America, 1776-1799, vindicates this intuition, arguing that the major constitutional debates that divided French thinkers in the revolutionary era can be traced to an original fracture in American constitutional thought, between the popular constitution established by Benjamin Franklin in Pennsylvania, and the model of bicameralism and executive prerogative advocated most strongly by John Adams in Massachusetts. This basic antithesis oriented French constitutional thinking in the 1780s and structured the high-stakes debates over constitutional design that preoccupied the revolutionaries from 1789 forward. The American revolution, in an important sense, became the French revolution, just as the constitutional forms and ideas of the French revolution were exported back to America in the 1790s. And it was the dueling figures of Franklin and Adams who presided over this extended transatlantic dialogue.

 

In Colossus I register this process of intellectual exchange at three constitutional moments. First, I reframe the initial phase of the French revolution as a reception history of John Adams’s landmark Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, published in 1787 and aimed at the influential French political economist Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. Second, I chart the startling prominence of Adams’s Defence in the Thermidorean Constitution of 1795, and its obvious imprint on the leading writers and thinkers of the Directory, above all Germaine de Staël, who seized on Adams's ideas to argue against the excessive democracy and untrammeled popular sovereignty of the Jacobins. The study ends with a third and final twist: the re-importation of French constitutional ideas into the American republic. Between 1792 and 1799 a constellation of radical writers based in Philadelphia began to press for a drastic reform of the 1787 US Constitution, pointing to the more egalitarian French model as their inspiration. It should not be surprising that the leading exponent of American constitutional reform was Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, and that its chief opponent was President John Adams.

 

This history makes three significant contributions to our understanding of the origins of modern constitutionalism. First, against a tradition that still insists on seeing the two revolutions as distinct historical events, my dissertation makes a case for their fundamental continuity, particularly at the level of their animating ideas. Second, this project restores the American state constitutions to their rightful place at the center of Atlantic political thought. While the Articles of Confederation, the Federal Constitution, and the Bill of Rights all attracted extensive commentary, it was above all the state constitutions that served as the models for imitation (and execration) in the revolutionary era. Finally, it asserts that the crucial American theorist of constitutionalism in the founding era was not James Madison or Thomas Jefferson, but rather John Adams, who provided the template for the 1787 constitution in his Massachusetts frame of 1780, and whose Defence of the same year exercised a vital influence on French debates in the decade that followed.

 

My second book project, under contract with Harvard University Press, will be a translation and critical edition of an unknown manuscript on the reign of terror in France by Thomas Paine, which I discovered in the National Archives last year. I will contribute a critical introduction of 50,000 words, exploring the provenance of the text and the reasons to accept Paine's authorship, as well as lingering reasons for doubt. I will also outline the most important ideas in the manuscript, from its harsh critique of emergency government to its intricate theory of sovereignty and legitimacy, asking how the text alters our perspective on Paine's political thought, and revises the assumptions of the current scholarship that Paine was a thoroughgoing radical and egalitarian.

 

After completing these projects I look forward to initiating my third book, which will also represent an intervention of some scale in the constitutional history of the eighteenth century. I plan to write a monograph titled Fraternité on the genesis of ideas of international government and human rights in the French revolution. It follows the extended network of "Girondins"—encompassing well-known figures like Condorcet and Paine, as well as comparatively obscure writers like Nicholas Bonneville—as they sought to give substance to the revolutionary ideal of a "universal republic." Part I will argue that these authors elaborated three critical ideas for the first time: (1) international government, in the form of plans for a global federation of peoples; (2) "human rights," applicable to all peoples and enforced by international law, as embodied by the Déclaration des droits des gens of the Abbé Grégoire in 1793; and (3) international criminal liability for human rights violators, expressed in plans to place the kings of Europe on trial for the newly-imagined crime of lèse-humanité. Part II will then chronicle the displacement of this cosmopolitan political theory by a more conservative alternative, which imagined only a minimalist international order, and was explicitly premised on French military hegemony.  The locus classicus of this new theory was Kant's essay "Toward Perpetual Peace," and I will trace the ways in which the reception of this work in France, spearheaded by the constitutional theorist Emmanuel Sieyès, narrowed the cosmopolitan horizons that Condorcet and his allies first opened.

 

Courses

Law and Theory After 9/11

Political Thought of the French Revolution

This course combines close legal analysis of court cases and executive orders with readings from history and political theory in order to understand the basic mechanics and theoretical dilemmas posed by the War on Terror. Topics include preventive war, surveillance, and targeted killing. Major themes include the state of exception, the legal definition of "enemy," and the distinction between "war time" and "peace time" in domestic and international law.

Syllabus available on request.

Enlightenment Constitutionalism

This course surveys the major political ideas of the French revolution, beginning with the ideas that inspired it, and moving on to close readings of the writers and politicians who made and unmade it. Authors include Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau, Burke, Condorcet, Saint-Just, and Tocqueville. Major themes include the tension between democracy and republicanism, the relationship between natural rights and state violence, and the meaning of "equality" in modern republics.

Syllabus available on request.

Origins of Human Rights

This course surveys the landmarks of constitutional theory between 1653 and 1804, a body of literature that the philosopher Jeremy Waldron has described as "Enlightenment constitutionalism." It considers thinkers as diverse as James Harrington, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, James Madison, and Jeremy Bentham, alongside constitutional texts from England, Geneva, France, and America. And it inquires into the relationship (or lack thereof) between constitutionalism and allied concepts, such as democracy, equality, and judicial review.

Syllabus available on request.

A central debate in history and political science concerns the "origins" of human rights—whether they first emerged in the ancient world, the early modern world, or late in the twentieth century. This course addresses this question by introducing students to landmarks in the new "history of human rights," and comparing their claims about the eighteenth century to an array of primary sources from the age of revolutions. We will interrogate how to define "human rights," and whether their origins can plausibly be traced to the writings of thinkers from the eighteenth century (Diderot, Paine, Kant, Raynal, and many others).

Syllabus available on request.

 

CV

 
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