Prizes are a particular pleasure for people who engage in the peculiar metier of writing books, because they are reassuring. Writing in fact involves a great deal of anxiety both before, during, and after; rewards allow one, at least for a time, to put those anxieties to rest. But my gratitude for your prize has more to it than that, for you are awarding it to someone who has spent his whole life working on the French Revolution, which is, after all, a historical subject far from your shores. By demonstrating the international character of knowledge and the intellectual community, you are also bringing me the special satisfaction of being honored by a country other than my own, and in a city where I have been teaching for 15 years.

America is my home away from home, and I am connected to the extraordinary city of Chicago by a sort of local patriotism. That attachment is more than academic, since it was in Hyde Park that I met my wife. But it is also founded upon the admiration that I have for the quality of the University of Chicago and the many things I share with the little intellectual community that is the Committee on Social Thought. Chicago has thus given me both an intellectual family and a family pure and simple. And now, you are crowning this happy story with your gracious recognition for which I am most grateful.

I have spent the majority of my life as a historian working on the period of the past during which France and America traversed the same fundamental experience. They were the first nations in the world to participate in the birth, or rather, the invention of modern democracy. That experience has joined our two nations around a common moral and intellectual heritage. The extraordinarily varied and even contradictory political practices that have grown out of that heritage, however, have also separated us. Think of the very opposite roles played in each of our traditions by such essential concepts as the state, administrative centralization, the relationship between the Constitution and the law, political parties, state regulation of markets, and so forth. For the historian, it is fascinating to see how the principles common to our two countries have managed to give rise to such diverse political civilizations. One result of that diversity has of course been that American politics are as mysterious to a Frenchman as French politics are to an American.

I cannot swear that we are completely on the other side of the age of reciprocal misunderstandings and ignorance, but I would venture that at this moment, in the late 20th century, our democracies are closer and more similar than ever before. On both sides of the Atlantic, we face the same big social questions, rendered more acute each day by the extension of the notion of “rights.” The more wealth our societies produce, the more intense becomes the debate over how it should be distributed. In this realm, America has the same sort of problems as France and Western Europeans in general. The list runs from the urban crisis (which in Europe has taken the form of a suburban crisis) to the problem of how to pay for Social Security. Everywhere, political democracy has become social, and in this domain, America, in spite of its tradition of extreme individualism, has the same problems as the European welfare states.

Today, however, as a way of expressing my gratitude, I would like to make a few remarks about how democratic constitutions of Europe have become closer to the American precedent, as if there has been, in many countries of Europe and Eastern Europe, a critical filtering of the heritage of 1789.

This evolution originated in the defeat of fascism, which was accompanied by progress in the spirit of moderation and prudence. The most spectacular illustration of this new way of thinking was the development of a true democracy in West Germany. Another example would be the intelligent and peaceful way that Franco’s Spain became democratic in the mid-1970’s. But before returning to the European scene, let us consider the recent history of my own country, France.

Heaven knows that France had a great deal of difficulty and took a long time to dominate that heritage and to anchor it in institutions both stable and free. A first “end” to the Revolution may be ascribed to the moment when Napoleon established his dictatorship and founded the modern centralized state with which we still live today. But if that “end” to the Revolution did indeed bequeath a state to contemporary France, it also consecrated the divorce between democracy and political liberty as well as the unrealistic policy of French domination of Europe. The French Revolution resumed its course again in 1815, and 19th-century France had the strange character, perhaps unique in history, of being a people repeating for a second time the repertory of the late 18th century: the return of the legitimate monarchy—soon to be overthrown again, followed by a new 1789-like attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy; then in 1848 came a new revolutionary Republic and even a second Bonaparte when the first had seemed so exceptional both for his genius and for the circumstances that brought him to power. Finally a new neo-Jacobin revolution and a last attempt to restore the Bourbons preceded the formation of the Third Republic, the first durable synthesis of the revolutionary democratic tradition.

If we look at our late 20th-century French Republic, the Fifth Republic, we can see to what extent French democratic institutions—the most consensual we have ever had since 1789—have, on the contrary, integrated elements that come from outside of the revolutionary tradition. The France of today is no longer that Republic where the singular and indivisible sovereignty of the public was exclusively in the hands of a Parliament or even of a single Assembly. Now sovereignty is vested in an autonomous judicial power which issues indirectly from the people while being independent and sometimes even above them: the Conseil constitutionnel, which is responsible for overseeing and verifying the constitutionality of laws. Additionally, the sovereign people voted overwhelmingly in favor of an idea passionately rejected by the French revolutionaries: that of a head of state elected by universal suffrage, something the men of 1789 saw as an embodiment of the ghost of the monarchy. The men of 1989 no longer view this idea as incompatible with French republicanism, for this is their way of adapting something common to almost all modern democracies today, and it constitutes a rediscovery of a strong executive power.

A sweeping glance at today’s democracies would probably lead us to conclude that the ways in which they have resolved the famous 18th-century problem of how to organize the sovereignty of men over themselves are more similar than ever. For example, democracy founded not only upon the sovereignty of the people but upon the division of power is not only a well-known formula for government—well known since the 18th century—but a feature of all states that adopted free institutions. And regardless whether they have parliamentary or presidential systems or, as in France, a combination of the two, almost all—with the exception of Italy—have a strong executive power even when that power is not the direct result of universal suffrage but designated by Parliament. In fact, in democracies of the parliamentary sort, the prime minister’s authority comes from the voters who elect the representatives —those representatives having been chosen according to the chief executive they support. In France’s mixed regime, that unique combination of presidential and parliamentary regimes, the supreme head of the executive—the president—is elected separately from the representatives. Because of this, as in the case in the United States—the classic model of a presidential democracy—the power of the president may be limited by the choice of representatives—as is indeed the dominant trend in the United States. Very recently, in Prance, between 1986 and 1988, the French executive power has split itself in two, with the president and the prime minister coming from different majorities, thus constituting a new separation of power that would have surprised Montesquieu. Nevertheless, in all these cases, new or old, it would seem that strong executive power directly issuing from popular suffrage has become the rule in modern democracies, distancing them from the model of 1789.

To the list of common or at least comparable elements of contemporary Western democracies, we must also add the increased role of the judiciary in determining the constitutionality of laws. After World War II, and as a reaction to totalitarianism, supervision of laws by the judicial courts was established in Western Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and, in 1958, France. Although this is an idea that can be found in Sieves’ writings at the beginning of the Thermidorian period, it is alien to the French revolutionary tradition, which is characterized by what is called “parliamentary absolutism.” It has nonetheless become a common element of 20th-century constitutionalism on both sides of the Atlantic and finds an unprecedented theater in Europe in the newly established European Convention of the Rights of Man, formed by all the member nations of the European Community. Not only do all of its members have constitutional courts, but those courts are linked by a charter of the Rights of Man and by a European Court of those same rights that functions as a supranational court of appeals. The result is the first milestone of the outline of a European state.

And so, even while democracy has encountered great disasters in our century, we are currently witnessing the opening-up of superior horizons—proof that the ideas of the French Revolution have in the end escaped from the malediction that the course of that revolution seemed to foretell. The democratic revolutionary tradition has indeed fostered incredible catastrophes, such as murderous Utopias and the cult of the nationstate, but on the ruins of those tragedies, at the basis of our Western European societies, survive more than ever the principles of 1789, mastered at last and embodied in free institutions, and thereby closer to the American tradition. The guardian angels of the Europe we are trying to construct are neither military glory, the grandeur of the state, nor the end of history; they are more modest and modern spirits: the liberty and wellbeing of individuals.

At least this Europe, born of the ruins of its history and reemerging in prosperity, conserves some of the more significant elements of its exceptional past: the experience of democracy, scientific and technical knowledge, prosperity and all the preconditions for power except for a common will. Once more, it is doing something unprecedented with that heritage. Having once invented the nation-state—that remarkable instrument of civilization which almost proved fatal—Europe is now facing the challenge of inventing a new form of community composed of a collection of peoples who have for so long been in conflict.

Thus, at this moment at the end of the century, I am inclined to believe that while the postcommunist world appears divided and full of present and potential conflicts, modern democracy—its constitutional formulae and the conditions necessary for its stability—is secure. This does not imply that we have entered a period of consensus, since democracy is, by nature, and today more than ever, founded upon conflict and the struggle for power. But now, we understand how to organize those conflicts and struggles, and we know the price of failure. All during this long apprenticeship, the American experience has played a decisive role.