The Founding of Modern States

Presented by Richard Bensel, Cornell University, at the Center for Historical Research, Department of History at The Ohio State University on March 27, 2015.

All modern states claim that they rule by popular consent and that this consent arises out of the state’s commitment to a transcendent social purpose demanded by their citizens. They also claim that both popular consent and the state’s transcendent social purpose emerged from a founding moment when the state’s right to rule was created. In this manuscript, I ask: How does the founding meld the metaphysical belief in the “will of the people,” the granting of sovereignty, and the recognition of a transcendent social purpose into a symbolic act that then enables the state to secure political and social order? Although this melding is more complex than commonly acknowledged for traditional democracies, it is even more complicated for otherwise authoritarian regimes. In those foundings that produce non-democratic states, the justification of the new sovereignty originates in a transcendent social purpose that is both clearly articulated in political doctrine and susceptible to misrecognition if subjected to conventional democratic politics. At the founding, the political party that led the revolution utilizes the form of a legislative assembly to craft a constitution but it is the party itself that manifests the popular will and thus melds sovereignty, social purpose, and the will of the people into the creation of a new state.

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