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CHAPTER I: General Reflections. - 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 Revolution of France is one of the grand eras of social order. Those who consider it as the result of accidental causes have reflected neither on the past nor on the future; they have mistaken the actors for the drama; and, in seeking a solution agreeable to their prejudices, have attributed to the men of the day that which had been in a course of preparation for ages.1
It would have sufficed, however, to cast a glance on the critical periods of history, to be convinced, that they were all unavoidable when they were connected in any degree with the development of ideas; and that, after a struggle and misfortunes, more or less prolonged, the triumph of knowledge has always been favorable to the greatness and the amelioration of mankind.
My ambition shall be to speak of the age in which we have lived, as if it were already remote. It will belong to the enlightened part of mankind—to those who, in thought, can render themselves contemporary with future ages—to judge if I have been able to attain the complete impartiality at which I have aimed.
In this chapter I shall confine myself to some general remarks on the political progress of European civilization, restricting myself, however, to its connection with the Revolution of France; for it is to this subject, in itself sufficiently extensive, that this work is devoted.
The two nations of antiquity, whose literature and history still form the principal portion of our intellectual treasure, were indebted for their astonishing superiority entirely to the enjoyment of a free country. But slavery existed among them, and, consequently, those rights and those motives to emulation, which ought to be common to all men, were the exclusive lot of a few. The Greek and Roman nations disappeared from the world in consequence of what was barbarous, that is, of what was unjust, in their institutions. The vast regions of Asia are lost in despotism; and, for centuries past, whatever has remained there of civilization is stationary. Thus, then, the great historical revolution, whose results admit of application to the present state of modern nations, begins from the invasion by the northern tribes; for the public law of most countries in Europe is still founded on the law of conquest.
Nevertheless, that circle of men, who alone were allowed to consider themselves as such, was increased under the feudal system. The condition of the serfs was less hard than that of slaves; there were several methods of escaping from it, and from that time various classes have begun to emancipate themselves by degrees from the fate of the vanquished. It is to the gradual increase of this circle of society that our attention ought to be turned.
The absolute government of one is the worst form of political combinations. Aristocracy is better, for in it several at least are of importance; and the moral dignity of man is recovered in the relation of the great lords with their chief. Social order, which admits all our fellow creatures to equality before the law, as before God, is as much in harmony with the Christian religion as with true liberty: both the one and the other, in different spheres, should follow the same principles.
Since the nations of the North and of Germany overthrew the Western Empire, the laws introduced by them have undergone a variety of modifications; for time, as Bacon says, is the greatest of innovators. It would be very difficult to fix with precision the dates of the successive changes; for, in tracing the leading facts, we find that one event encroaches on another. I think, however, that our attention may be fixed on four eras, in which these changes, previously announced, became particularly conspicuous.
The first political period was that in which the nobles, that is to say the conquerors, considered themselves as co-partners in the royal power of their chief, while the nation was divided among the different lords, who disposed of it as they pleased.
There was then neither education, industry, nor trade: landed property was almost the only kind known; and Charlemagne himself was occupied in his capitularia2 with the rural economy of the royal demesnes. The nobles went to war in person, leading their armed force: thus the sovereigns had no occasion to levy taxes, as they supported neither military nor civil establishments. Everything demonstrates that, at this time, the great lords were very independent of kings; they maintained liberty for themselves, if indeed they can be free themselves who impose servitude on others. Hungary in its present state may convey an idea of this form of government, which must be allowed to possess grandeur for those who participate in it.3
The Champs-de-Mai,4 so often referred to in the history of France, might be called the democratic government of the nobility, such as has existed in Poland. Feudality was established later. Hereditary succession to the crown, without which there can be no tranquillity in monarchies, was not regularly established until the third race of the kings of France: during the second, the nation, that is, the barons and clergy, chose a successor among the individuals of the reigning family. Primogeniture was happily recognized with the third race. But up to the consecration of Louis XVI inclusively, the consent of the people has always been laid down as the basis of the rights of the sovereign to the throne.
There was already, under Charlemagne, something which bore a greater resemblance to the English peerage than the institution of the noblesse, such as we have seen it in France for the last two centuries. I make this remark, however, without attaching much importance to it. Doubtless it were better that Reason in politics should be of ancient origin; but although she be but of yesterday, still we should bid her welcome.
The feudal system was much more advantageous to the nobles than the situation of courtiers to which royal despotism has condemned them. It is now merely a speculative question, whether mankind would be the gainers from the independence of one class only, or from the exercise of a gentle, but equal, oppression upon all. We have only to remark that the nobles, in the time of their splendor, enjoyed a species of political independence, and that the absolute power of the kings has been established against them with the support of the people.
In the second political period, that of partial enfranchisements, the bourgeois of the towns laid claim to certain rights; for, when men unite together, they gain by their union, at least as much in wisdom as in power. The republics of Germany and Italy, the municipal privileges of the rest of Europe, date from this time. The walls of each town afforded protection to its inhabitants. We still see, particularly in Italy, remarkable traces of those individual defenses against the collective powers: castles multiplied in each domain; fortified palaces; in short, attempts ill-combined but worthy of esteem, since they were all directed to increase the importance and energy of each citizen. It is impossible, nevertheless, to deny that these attempts of petty states to ensure their independence, being ill-regulated, have often led to anarchy; but Venice, Genoa, the Lombard League, the Tuscan Republics, Switzerland, the Hanse Towns, established at this time their liberty on an honorable basis. The institutions of these republics have ever borne marks of the period in which they were established; and the rights of individual liberty, such as ensure the exercise and development of the faculties of every class of men, were not secured by them. Holland, become a republic at a later period, approached to the true principles of social order, an advantage for which she was more particularly indebted to the Reformation. The period of partial enfranchisements, of which I have treated, is no longer clearly to be traced, except in free towns and in the republics which have subsisted to the present day. In the history of the great modern states, therefore, only three eras, entirely distinct, ought to be admitted: the feudal system, despotism, and representative government.
For about five centuries, independence and the improvement of knowledge have been operating in every way and almost at random; yet regal power has constantly increased from different causes and by different means. Kings, having often much to apprehend from the arrogance of the nobles, sought support in a closer connection with the people. Regular troops rendered the assistance of the nobles less requisite; the necessity of imposts, on the other hand, forced the sovereigns to have recourse to the commons; and, in order to obtain from them direct contributions, it was necessary to disengage them, more or less, from the influence of the barons. The revival of letters, the invention of the art of printing, the Reformation, the discovery of the new world, and the progress of commerce taught mankind that a military power was not the only one which could possibly exist; and they have since learned that the profession of arms is not the exclusive privilege of birth.
In the Middle Ages, learning was exclusively confined to the priests, who, during the Dark Ages, had rendered important services to mankind. But when the clergy found themselves attacked by the Reformation, they opposed instead of promoting the progress of the human mind.5 The second class of society then took possession of the sciences and literature, the study of the law, and of commerce; and thus its importance daily increased. On the other hand, states became more concentrated, the resources of government were increased, and kings, by availing themselves of the lower orders against the barons and the higher clergy, established their own despotism; that is, the union of the executive and legislative powers in the hands of one individual.
Louis XI was the first who made a regular trial of this fatal system in France, and the inventor was truly worthy of the invention. Henry VIII in England, Philip II in Spain, Christian in the North,6 labored, under different circumstances, upon the same plan. But Henry VIII in preparing the Reformation became the involuntary instrument of conferring liberty on his country. Charles the Fifth might perhaps, for a time, have accomplished his project of universal monarchy if, in spite of the fanaticism of his southern states, he had supported himself by the reforming spirit of the time, by accepting the confession of Augsburg. It is said that he had the intention, but this ray of his genius disappeared under the gloomy power of his son; and the stamp of the terrible reign of Philip II still presses with all its force upon the Spanish nation—there the Inquisition has undertaken to preserve the inheritance of despotism.
Christian II attempted to render Sweden and Denmark subject to the same uncontrolled sway; but he was baffled by the independent spirit of the Swedes. The history of that people exhibits several periods similar to those that we have traced in other countries. Charles XI7 struggled hard to triumph over the nobles by means of the people; but Sweden already possessed a constitution, in virtue of which the deputies of the citizens and peasantry composed the half of the Diet: they were sufficiently enlightened to know that privileges are to be relinquished only when rights are to be confirmed and that an aristocracy, with all its faults, is less degrading than despotism.
The Danes have afforded the most scandalous political example which history records. In the year 1660, weary of the power of the nobles, they declared their king, not only sole legislator and sovereign master of their lives and fortunes, but they invested him with every power, except that of repealing the act which constituted him a despot; and, after completing this surrender of themselves, they added that if the king of any other country possessed prerogatives beyond what they had conferred, they granted these to their monarchs in advance, and at all risks; yet this unprecedented decision was nothing more than an open avowal of what in other countries was proceeding with greater reserve. The Protestant religion, and still more the liberty of the press, have since created in Denmark a degree of independence, in point of thinking, which opposes a moral limit to the abuse of prerogative.
Russia, however different from the rest of Europe in its institutions and in its Asiatic manners, underwent, under Peter I, the second crisis of European monarchies, the humiliation of the nobles by the sovereign.
Europe should be summoned before the bar of Poland for the long train of injuries of which that country had been the victim until the reign of the Emperor Alexander. But without dwelling at present on those troubles, which necessarily arose out of the unhappy coincidence of servitude on the part of the peasants and lawless independence on that of the nobles—out of a proud patriotic feeling, on the one hand, and an exposure, on the other, to the pernicious ascendancy of foreign influence—we shall be content with observing that the constitution of 1792, that constitution for which Kosciusko so nobly fought, contained a number of equally wise and liberal provisions.8
Germany, considered as a political body, still belongs, in several respects, to the earliest of the periods of modern history—that of the feudal system; although the spirit of the age has evidently penetrated through her antique institutions. France, Spain, and Britain have, all along, aimed at constituting each a political whole: Germany has maintained her subdivisions, from a spirit partly of independence, partly of aristocratic feeling. The treaty of Westphalia, by acknowledging the Protestant religion throughout half the empire, brought in contact two parts of the same nation who had been taught a mutual awe by their long warfare. This is not the place for enlarging on the political and military advantages that would have resulted from a closer union. Germany now possesses strength enough to maintain her national independence, without relinquishing her federal form; and the interest of enlightened men can never be conquest abroad, but liberty at home.
Poor rich Italy, having constantly been the prey of foreigners, the progress of the human mind is traced with more difficulty in her history than in that of the rest of Europe. Yet the second period, that of the enfranchisement of towns, which we have described as blending itself with the third, was marked more distinctly here than in other countries, because it gave rise to several republics, which claim our admiration, at least by the distinguished individuals whom they produced. Among the Italians arbitrary power has arisen only in consequence of political division; their situation, in this respect, is very different from that of the Germans. Every patriotic feeling in Italy ought to point to the union of its various states. Foreigners being incessantly brought among them by the attractions of the country, the Italians can never form a people without a national consolidation. It has hitherto been prevented by the influence of the papal government: not that the popes have been the partisans of foreigners; on the contrary, they would have wished to repel them; but, from their priestly character, they were incapable of defending the country, while at the same time they prevented any other power from undertaking it.
England is the only great European Empire that has yet attained what, in our present state of political knowledge, appears the perfection of social order. The middling class, or, in other words, the nation (as elsewhere), co-operated with the Crown, under Henry VII, in reducing the influence of the nobles and clergy, and increased its own at their expense. But the nobility of England were, from the beginning, actuated by a more liberal spirit than the nobility of other countries; for so far back as Magna Charta, we find the barons making stipulations in behalf of the people. The revolutionary period of England may be said to have lasted nearly fifty years, if we reckon from the beginning of the civil wars under Charles I to the accession of William III in 1688; and the efforts of these fifty years had no other real and permanent object than the establishment of the existing constitution; that is, of the finest monument of justice and moral greatness existing in Europe.9
The same movement in the minds of men which brought about the revolution in England was the cause of that of France in 1789. Both belong to the third era in the progress of social order—the establishment of representative government—a point toward which the human mind is directing itself from all parts.10
Let us now proceed to examine the circumstances peculiar to France—to a country the scene of those gigantic events which in our days have been the source of so much hope and so much fear.
[1. ] Many historical writings published during the Bourbon Restoration had a covert political agenda that must be placed in the larger context of that epoch. Madame de Staël’s point that the French Revolution had been long in the making was developed a decade later by Guizot in his influential History of Civilization in Europe (1828).
[2. ] Written administrative and legislative commands of the Carolingian kings. They were formally divided into sections called capitula and were seen as the chief written instrument of royal authority.
[3. ] The accuracy of this historical account must be taken with a grain of salt. Here, Madame de Staël follows an older tradition of interpretation that goes back to Fénélon and Boulainvilliers.
[4. ] The same as the Champs-de-Mars. Napoléon I revived these meetings during the “Hundred Days.” Originally the term designated the March meetings held as pageants by Clovis and his followers for the amusement of the freemen who came to offer homage to their lords or to conduct business.
[5. ] It is worth pointing out that Madame de Staël’s views on this issue were undoubtedly influenced by her Protestantism.
[6. ] Christian II, King of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (1481–1523).
[7. ] Charles XI, King of Sweden (1655–97). Crowned in 1660, he became one of the greatest Swedish monarchs.
[8. ] Madame de Staël refers here to the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, which included many liberal provisions.
[9. ] Madame de Staël strongly admired the English constitution, which she considered the best in Europe. It is worth pointing to the similarities between her explanation of the success of liberty in England and Tocqueville’s account of the singularity of England in The Old Régime and the Revolution.
[10. ] This thesis would also play a seminal role in Guizot’s History of Civilization in Europe, lectures XIII and XIV. It is in stark contrast to Burke’s account of the French Revolution.