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The Ideas of Considerations - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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The Ideas of Considerations
The first years of the Bourbon Restoration provided an open arena for vigorous political debates among partisans of the Old Regime, supporters of constitutional monarchy and representative government, and those who wanted to continue the Revolution. The debate over the legitimacy of the principles of 1789 forced the French to come to terms with the violent episodes of the French Revolution. Not surprisingly, most of the historical writings published during the Bourbon Restoration display an unusual degree of political partisanship, as historians sought to use the lessons of the past to justify their own political agendas. Those who wrote history during this time often also tried to make history. Liberal writers such as Guizot, Constant,11 and Madame de Staël insisted that the initial episodes of the Revolution should be seen neither as a prelude to the Terror nor as a complete break with the feudal past, but instead as the inevitable outcome of factors that had been at work for a very long time in the Old Regime. In advancing this argument they were often obliged to resort to a selective reading of the past, one that insisted either on discontinuities or on long-term social, cultural, and political patterns. But regardless of their sophisticated hermeneutical strategies, all French liberals of the time shared two common characteristics: they defended the principles of representative government and constitutional monarchy, and they admired the English model that had successfully blended liberty and order and protected the country against revolutionary turmoil. Staël memorably captured the new liberal catechism in On the Current Circumstances when arguing that, in France, liberty was ancient and despotism modern.12
Considerations aimed at contributing to this rich and intense historical debate, even if in some respects it was fundamentally a composite that added few original points beyond the sometimes exaggerated praise of Necker’s political views and actions.13 Yet, Madame de Staël’s unique perspective, combining firsthand political experience and a subtle intellect with an elegant style and passionate voice, offered a convincing justification of the principles of constitutional monarchy that had inspired the authors of the Charter of 1814. It is important to remember that Madame de Staël did not intend to write a purely historical work retracing step by step the main events and phases of the French Revolution and its aftermath. As she stated in a short foreword to the original edition, her initial goal was to write a book examining the actions and ideas of her beloved father, Jacques Necker, who looms large in the pages of this book. But in the end, Madame de Staël went beyond her original goal and offered a comprehensive view of the main events and actors of the French Revolution. By strongly criticizing Napoléon’s actions and legacy, she put forward a vigorous liberal agenda that championed the principles of constitutionalism and representative government. Thus, Considerations consolidated Madame de Staël’s image as a passionate friend of liberty who feared mob rule and violence and advocated political moderation, the rule of law, and representative government.
The title of Staël’s book was probably a rejoinder to Joseph de Maistre’s Considerations on France, originally published in 1796 (a new edition came out in 1814), while some of Staël’s ideas might have been a response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Although Burke saw the French Revolution as the result of accidental forces that brought forth the sudden collapse of the Old Regime in 1789, Madame de Staël viewed the events of 1789 as the outcome of the general development of European civilization.14 Thus, she challenged not only the ultraroyalist opponents of the Revolution, who wanted to restore the old alliance between throne and altar, but also those who argued that the Revolution had been the mere result of accidental or transitory causes. She saw the events of 1789 as part of a greater historical development that consisted of three eras: the feudal system, despotism, and representative government. According to this interpretation, the same social and political forces that had brought about the Revolutions of 1648 and 1688 in England were also the prime cause of the revolutionary wave in France a century later: “Both belong to the third era in the progress of social order—the establishment of representative government. . . .”15 In other words, far from being fortuitous, the fall of the Old Regime in 1789 was in fact the inevitable outcome of a long historical evolution that could not have been arrested by the efforts of a few individuals.
In this regard Staël’s analysis anticipated Tocqueville’s meticulously researched diagnosis of the internal crisis of the Old Regime. By focusing on the lack of public spirit and the absence of a genuine constitution prior to 1789, she demonstrated that the Revolution was an irreversible phenomenon that arose in response to the deep structural problems of the Old Regime. Although she stopped short of claiming (like Tocqueville) that the real Revolution had actually occurred prior to 1789, Madame de Staël’s account gives the reader a strong sense of the inevitability of the events of that year.
All these ideas loom large in the first two parts of the book in which Staël reflects on the state of public opinion in France at the accession of Louis XVI and discusses Necker’s plans for finance and his famous account of the kingdom’s finances. Other important topics include the plans of the Third Estate in 1788 and 1789, the fall of the Bastille, and the actions of the Constituent Assembly. About the latter, Madame de Staël has many good things to say, in contrast to Burke’s more negative account that highlighted the Assembly’s excesses and limitations. In her view, the achievements of the Assembly ultimately outweighed its shortcomings: “We are indebted to the Constituent Assembly for the suppression of the privileged castes in France, and for civil liberty to all. . . .”16 It was the Constituent Assembly that effaced ancient separations between classes, rendered taxes uniform, proclaimed complete freedom of worship, instituted juries, and removed artificial and ineffective restraints on industry. Above all, the decrees of the Constituent Assembly established provincial assemblies, spreading life, emulation, energy, and intelligence into the provinces. In this regard, it is worth pointing out again the similarity between Staël’s interpretation of the political dynamics of the initial phase of the Revolution and Tocqueville’s. Both believed that the events of the first half of 1789 displayed sincere patriotism and commitment to the public good, combining enthusiasm for ideas with sincere devotion to a noble cause that made a lasting impression on all true friends of liberty in France.17
Yet, Madame de Staël was far from being an unconditional admirer of the Constituent Assembly. In fact, she criticizes it for having displayed an excessive distrust of executive power that eventually triggered insuperable tensions between the King and the representatives of the nation. The Constituent Assembly wrongly considered the executive power as an enemy of liberty rather than as one of its safeguards. The Assembly proceeded to draft the constitution as a treaty between two opposed parties rather than as a compromise between the country’s various social and political interests. It “formed a constitution as a general would form a plan of attack,”18 making a harmonious balance of powers impossible and preventing the import onto French soil of bicameralism. The unfortunate choice of a single chamber was incompatible with the existence of effective checks and balances capable of limiting the growing power of the representatives of the French nation.
Staël’s Considerations also vindicates, albeit in a moderate tone, the principles of 1789 that sought to improve the system of national representation and the right of the Third Estate to full political representation. The boldest claim of this part of the book is that France lacked a true constitution and the rule of law during the Old Regime. The parlements19 were never able to limit the royal authority, which had retained the legal right to impose a lit de justice.20 Moreover, the Estates General were convened only eighteen times in almost five centuries (1302–1789) and did not meet at all between 1614 and 1789. Although the parlements could (and occasionally did) invoke the “fundamental laws of the state” and asserted their right to “register” the laws after they had been “verified,” it was not possible to speak of the existence of a genuine constitution in the proper sense of the word. “France,” Madame de Staël wrote, “has been governed by custom, often by caprice, and never by law. . . . the course of circumstances alone was decisive of what everyone called his right.”21
Staël did not hesitate to list a long series of royal abuses, including arbitrary imprisonments, ordinances, banishments, special commissions, and lits de justice that infringed upon the rights of ordinary citizens and were passed against their will. In her view, the history of France was replete with many attempts on the part of the nation and the nobles to obtain rights and privileges, while the kings aimed at enlarging their prerogatives and consolidating their absolute power. “Who can deny,” Madame de Staël concludes in this important chapter (part I, xi), “that a change was necessary, either to give a free course to a constitution hitherto perpetually infringed; or to introduce those guarantees which might give the laws of the state the means of being maintained and obeyed?”22 On this view, the Revolution of 1789 appeared justified insofar as it sought to put an end to a long reign based on arbitrary power and obsolete and costly privileges.
In other chapters from parts II and III, Staël criticizes the blindness and arrogance of many political actors whose actions and ideas paved the way for the Terror of 1793–95. She also denounces the institutionalization of fear fueled by the perverse passion for equality displayed by the French. “True faith in some abstract ideas,” she argues, “feeds political fanaticism”23 and can be cured only by the sovereignty of law. Her conclusion is remarkable for both its simplicity and its accuracy: liberty alone can effectively cure political fanaticism, and the remedy for popular passion lies above all in the rule of law. The institution that alone can bring forth ordered liberty is representative government; it is the only remedy through which “the torches of the furies can be extinguished” and that can adequately promote limited power, a proper balance of powers in the state as well as the right of people to consent to taxes, and their ordered participation in legislative acts.
Part IV examines the Directory and the rise of Napoléon Bonaparte. Madame de Staël draws an unflattering (and somewhat biased) portrait of the future emperor by emphasizing not only his unbounded egotism and intoxication with power but also his lack of emotion combined with an unsettling air of vulgarity and political shrewdness. Staël pays special attention to analyzing Napoléon’s rise to power in the aftermath of the Terror, believing that he was not only a talented man but also one who represented a whole pernicious system of power. She claimed that this system ought to be examined as a great political problem relevant to many generations. As she memorably puts it, no emotion of the heart could move Napoléon, who regarded his fellow citizens as mere things and means rather than equals worthy of respect. He was “neither good, nor violent, nor gentle, nor cruel. . . . Such a being had no fellow, and therefore could neither feel nor excite sympathy. . . .”24 Intoxicated with the “vile draught of Machiavellianism” and resembling in many respects the Italian tyrants of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Napoléon managed to enslave the French nation by shrewdly using three means. He sought to satisfy men’s interests at the expense of their virtues, he disregarded public opinion, and he gave the French nation war for an object instead of liberty.25 Through these means he managed to dazzle the masses and corrupt individuals by acting upon their imagination and captivating them with a false sense of greatness.
These chapters convincingly illustrate Staël’s hatred of absolute power and shed light on her staunch opposition to the Emperor, for whom she held a deep aversion.26 Anticipating a common topos of Restoration liberal thought, she notes that Napoléon’s absolute power had been made possible by the leveling and atomization of society, and she explains his fall from power by pointing out the influence of public opinion and the inevitable limits of that power. In the end, Madame de Staël argues, Napoléon left a nefarious legacy that strengthened the coercive force of centralization and fueled the atomization of society. The system of egoism, oppression, and corruption he founded derailed the normal political development of the country and wasted countless resources. Being a man who could act naturally only when he commanded others, Napoléon degraded the French nation, which he used to advance his own political ambitions and plans. In Ten Years of Exile, Madame de Staël wrote that since Napoléon’s character was “at war with the rest of creation,” he ought to be compared to “the Greek flame, which no force of nature could extinguish.”27
Parts V and VI of the book contain a vigorous defense of representative government in France and offer a detailed examination of the English political system, culminating in moving praise of political liberty and limited power. The political agenda of Considerations is illustrated by chapters xi and xii of part V, in which Madame de Staël examines the system that the Bourbons and the friends of liberty ought to have followed in 1814. Worth noting here is Madame de Staël’s passionate defense of decentralization and self-government as two effective means of combating Napoléon’s legacy of centralized despotism. Opposing those who believed that the French were not made for liberty, Staël points to the rising force of public opinion and warns that every effort to sail against the new democratic torrent will be futile in the long term. After reminding her readers that hypocrisy in the pursuit of liberty is more revolting than its complete denial, she adds confidently: “Let this torrent enter into channels, and all the country which it laid waste will be fertilized.”28
Part VI contains a detailed account of the main principles undergirding representative government, liberty, and public opinion in England. Madame de Staël did not seek to be a neutral observer of the English scene; her normative approach stemmed from her belief that France must imitate the political institutions of England in order to overcome its legacy of despotism and centralization. “That which is particularly characteristic of England,” she noted in a Burkean vein, “is a mixture of chivalrous spirit with an enthusiasm for liberty”29 fostering a fortunate balance between all social classes, which makes the English nation seem, “if we may say so, one entire body of gentlemen.”30 Unlike the French nobles, the English aristocrats were united to—and identified themselves with—the nation at large and did not form a privileged caste detached from the management of local affairs. Of special interest will be the discussion of the relationship between economic prosperity, legal protection, rule of law, and political freedom, as well as the discussion of the seminal influence of religion and morals on political liberty, anticipating Tocqueville’s analysis of religion as a bulwark of political freedom in America. Referring to the English government, Staël writes: “The government never interferes in what can be equally well done by individuals: respect for personal liberty extends to the exercise of the faculties of every man.”31 Madame de Staël also praises the balance of power between Crown and Parliament, the countless opportunities for improving the political system without any major convulsion, and the fortunate balance between old and new political and legal forms giving liberty both the advantage of an ancient origin and the benefits of prudent innovation. She saw in publicity and freedom of the press the two pillars of representative government that create a strong bond between the governed and their representatives: “Public opinion bears the sway in England, and it is public opinion that constitutes the liberty of a country.”32
The last chapter of the book, “Of the Love of Liberty,” memorably summarizes the reasons why people need freedom and are ready to die for it. Madame de Staël’s vigorous appeal to liberty can still inspire us today: “Liberty! Let us repeat her name with so much the more energy that the men who should pronounce it, at least as an apology, keep it at a distance through flattery: let us repeat it without fear of wounding any power that deserves respect; for all that we love, all that we honor is included in it. Nothing but liberty can arouse the soul to the interests of social order.”33
[11. ] Constant discusses Staël’s Considerations on pp. 840–52 of his essay “De Madame de Staël et de ses ouvrages,” in Benjamin Constant, Oeuvres, ed. Alfred Roulin.
[12. ]Des circonstances actuelles qui peuvent terminer la Révolution et des principes qui doivent fonder la république en France, 273.
[13. ] See Gauchet, “Staël,” in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 1009.
[14. ] This idea also is at the heart of François Guizot’s Histoire de la civilisation en Europe and his Histoire de la civilisation en France.
[15. ]Considerations, pt. I, chap. i, 24–25.
[16. ] Ibid., pt. II, chap. iv, 190.
[17. ] “I have never met,” Tocqueville wrote in The Old Régime, “with a revolution where one could see at the start, in so many men, a more sincere patriotism, more disinterest, more true greatness. . . . This is 1789, a time of inexperience doubtless, but of generosity, of enthusiasm, of virility, and of greatness, a time of immortal memory.” (The Old Régime and the Revolution, vol. I, 208, 244)
[18. ]Considerations, pt. II, chap. viii, 211.
[19. ] The parlements were sovereign courts of law and final courts of appeal for the judicial districts of the country.
[20. ] A special session of the Parlement of Paris called by the monarch to impose the registration of his royal edicts.
[21. ]Considerations, pt. I, chap. xi, 104.
[22. ] Ibid., pt. I, chap. xi, 111.
[23. ] Ibid., pt. III, chap. xv, 354.
[24. ] Ibid., pt. III, chap. xxvi, 409.
[25. ] For more details, see ibid., pt. IV, chap. iv, “Progress of Bonaparte to Absolute Power.”
[26. ] She recollected their first meeting as follows: “Yet nothing could triumph over my invincible aversion for what I perceived in him. I felt in his soul a cold sharp-edged sword, which froze the wound that it inflicted.” (Ibid., pt. III, chap. xxvi, 409–10)
[27. ]Ten Years of Exile, 93.
[28. ]Considerations, pt. V, chap. xi, 606.
[29. ] Ibid., pt. VI, chap. iv, 671.
[30. ] Ibid., pt. VI, chap. iv, 671.
[31. ] Ibid., pt. VI, chap. iii, 653.
[32. ] Ibid., pt. VI, chap. iv, 668.
[33. ] Ibid., pt. VI, chap. xii, 753–54.