Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter xxxiii.: imperatorial sovereignty, continued.—its origin and character examined. - On Civil Liberty and Self-Government
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chapter xxxiii.: imperatorial sovereignty, continued.—its origin and character examined. - Francis Lieber, On Civil Liberty and Self-Government 
On Civil Liberty and Self-Government, 3rd revised edition, ed. Theodore D. Woolsey (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1883).
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imperatorial sovereignty, continued.—its origin and character examined.
It has been said in the preceding pages that imperatorial sovereignty must be always the most stringent absolutism,1 especially when it rests theoretically on election by the whole people, and that the transition from an uninstitutional popular absolutism to the imperatorial sovereignty is easy and natural. At the time of the so-called French republic of 1848, it was a common way of expressing the idea then prevailing, to call the people le peuple-roi (the king-people,) and an advocate, defending certain persons before the high court of justiciary sitting at Versailles in 1849, for having invaded the chamber of representatives, and consequently having violated the constitution, used this remarkable expression: “the people” (confounding of course a set of people, a gathering of a part of the inhabitants of a single city, with the people) “never violate the constitution.”2
Where such ideas prevail, the question is not about a change of ideas, but simply about the lodgment of power. The minds and souls are already thoroughly familiarized with the idea of absolutism, and destitute of the idea of self-government. This is also one of the reasons why there is so much similarity between monarchical absolutism, such for instance as we see in Russia, and communism, as it was preached in France; and it explains why absolutism, having made rapid strides under the Bourbons before the first revolution, has terminated every successive revolution with a still more compressive absolutism and centralism, except indeed the revolution of 1830. This revolution was undertaken to defend parliamentary government, and may be justly called a counter-revolution on the part of the people against a revolution attempted and partially carried by the government. It explains farther how Louis Napoleon after the second of December, and later when he desired to place the crown of uncompromising absolutism on his head, could appeal to the universal suffrage of all France—he that had previously curtailed it, with the assistance of the chamber of representatives. This phenomenon, however, must be explained also by the system of centralism, which prevails in France. I shall offer a few remarks on this topic after having treated of some more details appertaining to the subject immediately in hand.
The idea of the peuple-roi (it would perhaps have been more correct to say peuple-czar) also tends to explain the otherwise inconceivable hatred against the bourgeoisie, by which the French understand the aggregate of those citizens who inhabit towns and live upon a small amount of property or by traffic. The communists and the French so-called democrats entertained a real hatred against the bourgeoisie; the proclamations, occasionally issued by them, openly avowed it; and the government, when it desired to establish unconditional absolutism in form as well as principle, fanned this hatred. Yet no nation can exist without this essential element of society. In reading the details of French history of the year 1848 and the next succeeding years, the idea is forced upon our mind that a vast multitude of the French were bent on establishing a real and unconditional aristocracy of the ouvrier—the workman.1
If the imperatorial sovereignty is founded upon an actual process of election, whether this consist in a mere form or not, it bears down all opposition, nay all dissent, however lawful it may be, by a reference to the source of its power. It says: “I am the people, and whoever dissents from me is an enemy to the people. Vox Populi vox Dei. My divine right is the voice of God, which spake in the voice of the people. The government is the true representative of the people.”1
The eight millions of votes, more or less, which elevated the present French emperor, first to the decennial presidency and then to the imperial throne, are a ready answer to all objections. If private property is confiscated by a decree; if persons are deported without trial; if the jury trial is shorn of its guarantees, the answer is always the same. The emperor is the unlimited central force of the French democracy; thus the theory goes. He is the incarnation of the popular power, and if any of the political bodies into which the imperatorial power may have subdivided itself, like a Hindoo god, should happen to indicate an opinion of its own, it is readily given to understand that the government is in fact the people. Such bodies cannot, of course, be called institutions; for they are devoid of independence and every element of self-government. The president of the French legislative corps in 1853, found it necessary, on the opening of the session, to assure his colleagues, in an official address, that their body was by no means without some importance in the political system, as many seemed to suppose.
The source of imperatorial power, however, is hardly ever what it is pretended to be, because, if the people have any power left, it is not likely that they will absolutely denude themselves of it, surely not in any modern and advanced nation. The question in these cases is not whether they love liberty, but simply whether they love power—and every one loves power. On the one hand, we have to observe that no case exists in history in which the question, whether imperatorial power shall be conferred upon an individual, is put to the people, except after a successful conspiracy against the existing powers or institutions, or a coup d'état, if the term be preferred, on the part of the imperatorial candidate; and, on the other hand, a state of things in which so great a question is actually left to the people is wholly unimaginable. There may be a so-called interregnum during the conclave, when the cardinals elect a pope, but a country cannot be imagined in a state of perfect interregnum while the question is deciding whether a hereditary empire shall be established. It is idle to feign believing that this is possible, most especially so where the question is to be decided not by representatives, but by universal suffrage, and that, too, in a country where the executive power spreads over every inch of the territory and is characterized by the most consistent centralism. The two last elections of Louis Napoleon prove what is here stated. Ministers, prefects, bishops, were openly and officially influencing the elections; not to speak of the fact that large elections concerning persons in power, which allow to vote only yes or no, have really little meaning, as the history of France abundantly proves.1 But how elections at present are managed in France, even when the question is not so comprehensive, may be seen from a circular addressed by the minister, Mr. de Morny,2 to the prefects, previous to the elections for the first legislative corps. It is an official paper, strikingly characteristic, and I shall give a place to a translation of it in the Appendix. We ought to bear in mind that one of the heaviest charges against Mr. de Polignac, when tried for treason, was that he had allowed Charles X. to influence the elections.
When such a vote is put to the people under circumstances which have been indicated, the first question which presents itself is: And what if the vote turn out No? Will the candidate, already at the head of the army, the executive, and of every other branch; whose initials are paraded everywhere, and whose portrait is in the courts of justice, some of which actually have styled themselves imperial, and who has been addressed Sire; who has an enormous civil list—will he make a polite bow, give the keys to some one else, and walk his way? And to whom was he to give the government? The question was not, as Mr. de Laroche-Jacquelin had proposed, Shall A or B rule us? Essentially this question would not have been better; but there would have been apparently some sense in it. The question simply was: Shall B rule us?—Yes or No. It is surprising that some persons can actually believe reflecting people may thus be duped.
The Cæsar always exists before the imperatorial government is acknowledged and openly established. Whether the praetorians or legions actually proclaim the Cæsar or not, it is always the army that makes him. A succeeding ballot is nothing more than a trimming belonging to more polished or more timid periods, or it may be a tribute to that civilization which does not allow armies to occupy the place they hold in barbarous or relapsing times, at least not openly so.
First to assume the power and then to direct the people to vote, whether they are satisfied with the act or not, leads psychologically to a process similar to that often pursued by Henry VIIL, and according to which it became a common saying: First clap a man into prison for treason, and you will soon have abundance of testimony. It was the same in the witch-trials.
The process of election becomes peculiarly unmeaning, because the power already assumed allows no discussion. There is no free press.1
Although no reliance can be placed on wide-spread elections whose sole object is to ratify the assumption of imperatorial sovereignty, and when therefore it already dictatorially controls all affairs, it is not asserted that the dictator may not at times be supported by large masses, and possibly assume the imperatorial sovereignty with the approbation of a majority. I have repeatedly acknowledged it; but it is unquestionably true that generally in times of commotion, and especially in uninstitutional countries, minorities rule, for it is minorities that actually contend. Yet, even where this is not the case, the popularity of the Cæsar does in no way affect the question. Large, unarticulated masses are swayed by temporary opinions or passions, as much so as individuals, and it requires but a certain skill to seize upon the proper moment to receive their acclamation, if they are willing and consider themselves authorized to give away, by one sudden vote, all power and liberty, not only for their own lifetime, but for future generations. In the institutional government alone, substantial public opinion can be generated and brought to light.
It sometimes happens that arbitrary power or centralism recommends itself to popular favor by showing that it intends to substitute a democratic equality for oligarchic or oppressive, unjust institutions, and the liberal principle may seem to be on the side of the levelling ruler. This was doubtless the case when in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the power of the crown made itself independent on the continent of Europe. Instead of transforming the institutions, or of substituting new ones, the governments levelled them to the ground, and that unhappy centralization was the consequence which now draws every attempt at liberty back into its vortex. At other times, monarchs or governments disguise their plans to destroy liberty in the garb of liberty itself. Thus, James II. endeavored to break through the restraints of the constitution, or perhaps ultimately to establish the Catholic religion in England, by proclaiming liberty of conscience for all, against the established church. Austria at one time urged measures, apparently liberal for the peasants, against the Gallician nobles. In such cases, governments are always sure to find numerous persons that do not look beyond the single measure, or to the means by which it is carried out; yet the legality and constitutionality of these means are of great, and frequently of greater importance than the measure itself. Even historians are frequently captivated by the apparently liberal character of a single measure, forgetting that the dykes of an institutional government once being broken through, the whole country may soon be flooded by an irresistible tide of arbitrary power. We have a parallel in the criminal trial, in which the question how we arrive at the truth is of equal importance with the object of arriving at truth. Nullum bonum nisi bene.
On the other hand, all endeavors to throw more and more unarticulated power into the hands of the primary masses, to deprive a country more and more of a gradually evolving character; in one word, to introduce an ever-increasing, direct, unmodified popular power, amount to an abandonment of self-government, and an approach to imperatorial sovereignty, whether there be actually a Cæsar or not—to popular absolutism, whether the absolutism remain for any length of time in the hands of a sweeping majority, subject, of course, to a skilful leader, as in Athens after the Peloponnesian war, or whether it rapidly pass over into the hands of a broadly named Cæsar. Imperatorial sovereignty may be at a certain period more plausible than the sovereignty founded upon divine right, but they are both equally hostile to self-government, and the only means to resist the inroads of power is, under the guidance of Providence and a liberty-wedded people, the same means which in so many cases have withstood the inroads of the barbarians, namely, the institution—the self-sustaining and organic systems of laws.
[1.]That absolutism and imperatorial sovereignty go hand in hand, was neatly acknowledged by an inscription over the sub-prefecture of Dunkerque, when the imperial couple passed it, in 1855. It was to this effect: À l'héritier de Napoléon, la ville de Louis XIV.
[2.]Mr. Michel, on the 10th of November. I quote from the French papers, which gave detailed reports. Mr. Michel, to judge from his own speech, seems to have been the oldest of the defending advocates.
[1.]This error broke forth into full blaze at the indicated time, but it had of course been long smouldering, and, as is customary, had found some fuel even in our country. In the year 1841, during the presidential canvass, a gentleman—who has since become the editor of a Catholic periodical, and has probably changed his views—published a pamphlet in which he attacked individual property, and fell into the same error which is spoken of in the text above.
[1.]The idea that God speaks through the voice of the people, familiar to the middle ages, is connected with the elections of ruder times by general acclaim. It reminds us also of the Dieu le veut, at Clermont, when Peter the Hermit called on the chivalry and the people to take the sign of the cross. And again it reminds us of the disastrous décrets d'acclamation of the first French revolution. That the government is the true representative of the people has been often asserted in recent times in France, and Napoleon I., in one of his addresses, delivered in the council of state, said: The government, too, is the representative of the people.—Miot de Melito, in his. Memoirs.
[1.]See the Paper on Elections, in the Appendix.
[2.]Mr. de Morny is the frère adultérin of Louis Napoleon, on the mother's side, Queen Hortense. He aided his half-brother very actively in the overthrow of the republic, and the establishment of the empire. Mr. de Morny lost the ministry at the time when L. Bonaparte despoiled the Orleans family of their lawful property, and, it was believed, because the minister could not in his conscience sanction an act at once so unlawful and ungrateful.
[1.]When the question of the new imperial crown was before the people of France, Count Chambord, the Bourbon prince who claims the crown of France on the principle of legitimacy, wrote a letter to his adherents, exhorting them not to vote. The leading government papers stated at the time that government would have permitted the publication of this letter, had it not attacked the principle of the people's sovereignty. The people were acknowledged sovereign, yet the government decides what the sovereign may read!