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CHAPTER II: Considerations on the History of France. - 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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Considerations on the History of France.
Men are seldom familiar with any history but that of their own time; and in reading the declamations so frequent in our days, one would be led to think that the eight centuries of monarchical government which preceded the Revolution had been ages of tranquillity; and that the French nation had reposed during that time on a bed of roses. We forget the burning of the Knights Templars under Philip the Fair; the victories of the English under the kings of the Valois race; the civil war of La Jacquerie;1 the assassination of the Duke of Orléans,2 and of the Duke of Burgundy;3 the treacherous cruelty of Louis XI; the condemnation of the French Protestants to frightful punishments under Francis I, at the very time, too, when he was in alliance with their brethren in Germany;4 the horrors of the league, all surpassed by the massacre of St. Bartholomew;5 the conspiracies against Henri IV and his assassination, that frightful act of the league; the scaffolds raised by the arbitrary Richelieu; the military executions, long remembered under the name of dragonnades;6 the repeal of the Edict of Nantes; the expulsion of the Protestants, and the war of the Cevennes under Louis XIV;7 and, finally, the less terrific but not less important struggles of the parliaments under Louis XV.
Troubles without end have arisen in France to obtain what was considered to be liberty, at different periods, whether feudal, religious, or representative; and, if we except the reigns of those kings who, like Francis I and, above all, Louis XIV, possessed the dangerous art of occupying the nation by war, we shall not find, in the space of eight centuries, an interval of twenty-five years without a conflict of nobles against the sovereign, of peasants against nobles, of Protestants against Catholics, or, finally, of parliaments against the court—all struggles to escape from that arbitrary power which forms the most insupportable of burdens on a people. The civil commotions, as well as the violent measures adopted to stifle them, are an evidence that the French exerted themselves as much as the English to obtain that liberty confirmed by law, which alone can ensure to a people peace, emulation, and prosperity.8
It is of importance to repeat to those who are the advocates of rights founded on the past, that it is liberty which is ancient, and despotism which is modern.9 In all the European states founded at the commencement of the middle age, the power of the king was limited by that of the nobles. The Diets in Germany, in Sweden, in Denmark before its charter of servitude, the Parliaments in England, the Cortes in Spain, the intermediate bodies of all kinds in Italy, prove that the northern tribes brought with them institutions which confined the power to one class, but which were in no respect favorable to despotism. The Franks never acknowledged uncontrolled power in their chiefs; for it is incontrovertible that, under the first two races of their kings, all who had the right of a citizen, that is, the nobles, and the nobles were the Franks, participated in the government. “Every one knows,” says M. de Boulainvilliers,10 who certainly was no philosopher, “that the French were a free people, who elected their chiefs, under the title of kings, to execute the laws which they themselves had enacted, or to command them in war; and that they were very far from considering their kings as legislators who could order everything according to their pleasure. There remains no act of the first two races of the monarchy which is not characterized by the consent of the general assemblies of the Champs de Mars or Champs de Mai, and even no war was then undertaken without their approbation.”
The third race of the kings of France was established on the principles of the feudal system; the two preceding races rested more on the law of conquest. The first princes of the third race styled themselves “kings, by the grace of God, and the consent of the people”; and the form of their coronation oath afterward contained a promise to preserve the laws and rights of the nation. The kings of France, from St. Louis to Louis XI,* did not arrogate to themselves the right of making laws without the consent of the Estates General; but the disputes of the three orders, which could never agree together, obliged them to have recourse to the sovereigns as mediators; and the ministers of the Crown did not fail to profit by this necessity either to avoid the convocation of the Estates General or to render their deliberations ineffectual. At the time of the invasion of France by Edward III of England,11 that prince declared, in his proclamation, that he “came to restore to the French the rights of which they had been deprived.”
The four best kings of France, Saint Louis (Louis IX),12 Charles V, Louis XII, and above all Henri IV, endeavored to establish the empire of the laws, each according to the prevailing ideas of his age. The Crusades prevented Louis IX from devoting his whole time to the welfare of his subjects. The war with England and the captivity of John13 absorbed those resources which would have been turned to account by the wisdom of his son Charles V.14 The unfortunate invasion of Italy, ill begun by Charles VIII15 and ill continued by Louis XII,16 deprived France of a part of the advantages which the latter intended for her; and the League, the atrocious League, composed of foreigners and fanatics, bereaved the world of Henri IV, the best of men and the greatest and most enlightened prince that France ever produced.17 Yet in spite of the singular obstacles which obstructed the progress of these four sovereigns, far superior to all the others, they were occupied during their reigns in acknowledging the existence of rights which limited their own.
Louis IX (St. Louis) continued the enfranchising of the boroughs begun by Louis le Gros;18 he made laws for the independence and regular attendance of the judges; and, what deserves to be recorded, when chosen by the English barons to arbitrate between them and their king Henry III, he censured the rebel lords, but declared that their prince ought to be faithful to the charter for which he had pledged his oath. Could any other conduct be expected from him who consented to remain prisoner in Africa19 rather than break his oaths? “I would rather,” said he, “that a foreigner from the extremest point of Europe, even from Scotland, should obtain the throne of France than my son, if he is not to be wise and good.” Charles V, when only regent, convoked in 1355 the Estates General, and that Assembly proved the most remarkable in the history of France, for the demands which they made in favor of the people. The same Charles V, after succeeding to the throne, convoked that Assembly in 1369 to obtain their sanction to the gabelles, or salt tax, then imposed for the first time; he granted a power to the inhabitants of Paris to become the purchasers of fiefs. But, as foreign troops were in possession of a considerable part of the kingdom, his first object was to expel them, and the hardship of his situation caused him to levy certain imposts without the consent of the nation. But, at his dying hour, this prince declared that he regretted the act and acknowledged that he had gone beyond his powers.
The continuance of intestine troubles, and of invasions from England, made for a long time the regular functioning of government very difficult. Charles VII20 was the first who kept on foot a standing force—a fatal era in the history of nations! Louis XI,21 whose name recalls the same impressions as those of Tiberius or Nero, attempted to invest himself with absolute power. He made a certain progress in that track which Cardinal Richelieu afterward knew so well how to follow; but he encountered a spirited opposition from his parliaments. These bodies have in general labored to give consistence to the laws in France, and their records scarcely exhibit a remonstrance in which they do not remind the kings of their engagements with the nation. But Louis XI was far from considering himself an unlimited ruler; and in the instructions which he dictated on his deathbed to his son Charles VIII, he said, “When kings or princes cease to respect the laws, they bring their people to servitude, and strip themselves of the name of king; for he only is king who reigns over freemen. It is the nature of freemen to love their rulers;22 but men in servitude must hate them, as a slave hates his oppressor.” So true is it that, in a testamentary disposition, at least, even tyrants cannot refrain from affixing a stigma upon despotism.
Louis XII, surnamed the “father of his people,” submitted to the decision of the Estates General the marriage of his daughter Claude with the Count of Angoulême (afterward Francis I), and the nomination of that prince as his successor. The continuation of the war in Italy was not a good political decision for Louis, but as he lessened the pressure of taxation by the order introduced in his finances, and as he sold his own demesnes to provide a fund for the public wants, the people suffered less from the expense of this expedition than they would have done under any other prince. In the council assembled at Tours, the clergy of France made, at his desire, a declaration “that they did not owe implicit obedience to the pope.” And when certain comedians presumed to act a play in ridicule of the king’s meritorious parsimony, he would not allow them to be punished, but made use of these remarkable words, “These men may teach us some useful truths; let them proceed in their amusement so long as they respect female honor. I shall not regret its being known that, under my reign, they took this liberty with impunity.” Do not these words amount to an acknowledgment of the liberty of the press in all its extent? For in these days the publicity of a theatrical performance was much greater than the publicity of a printed work. Never did a truly virtuous prince find himself in the possession of sovereign power without desiring rather to moderate his own authority than encroach on the rights of the people. Every enlightened king has a wish to limit the power of his ministers and his successors. A spirit of enlightenment, according to the nature of the age, must find its way to all public men of the first rank by the influence either of reason or of feeling.
The early part of the sixteenth century witnessed the progress of the Reformation in the most enlightened states of Europe: in Germany, in England, and, soon after, in France. Far from concealing that liberty of conscience is closely linked to political liberty, the Protestants ought, in my opinion, to make a boast of the alliance. They always have been, and always will be, friends of liberty;23 the spirit of inquiry in religious points leads necessarily to the representative government and its political institutions. The proscription of Reason is always conducive to despotism, and always subservient to hypocrisy.
France was on the point of adopting the Reformation at the time that it was established in England; the principal nobility of the country, Condé, Coligni, Rohan, and Lesdiguieres, professed the Protestant faith. The Spaniards, guided by the diabolical spirit of Philip II, supported the League in France in conjunction with Catherine of Médicis. A woman of her character must have desired boundless command, and Philip II wanted to make his daughter queen of France, to the exclusion of Henri IV—a proof that despotism does not always respect legitimacy. In the interval from 1562 to 1589, the parliaments refused their sanction to a hundred royal edicts; yet the Chancellor de l’Hôpital found a greater disposition to support religious toleration in such of the Estates General as he could get together, than in the parliament. This body of magistracy, like all corporate establishments, firm in the maintenance of ancient laws, did not partake of the enlightenment of the age. None but deputies elected by the nation can enter into all its wants and desires at every different period.
Henri IV, after being long the head of the Protestants, found himself at last obliged to yield to the prevailing opinion, notwithstanding its being that of his adversaries. Such, however, was the wisdom and magnanimity of his sway, that the impression of that short reign is, at the present day, more fresh in the hearts of Frenchmen than that of the two centuries which have since elapsed.
The Edict of Nantes, promulgated in 1598, founded that religious toleration, the struggle for which is not yet at a close. This edict opposed a potent barrier to arbitrary power; for when a government is obliged to keep the balance even between two rival parties, it can do so only by a continued exercise of reason and justice. Besides, how could such a character as Henri IV have been ambitious of absolute power? he who had taken up arms against the tyranny of Medicis and Guise; he who had fought to deliver his country from them; he whose generous nature was so much more gratified by the free gift of admiration than by a servile obedience. Sully brought his finances into a state which might have rendered the royal authority entirely independent of the people, but Henry did not make this culpable use of the virtue of economy. He convoked the Assembly of the Notables at Rouen,24 and declared that the elections should be wholly uninfluenced by the Crown. The civil commotions were still recent, and he might have availed himself of them as a pretext for absorbing all power in his own hands; but true liberty carries with it the most effectual remedy for anarchy. Every Frenchman knows by heart the noble expressions of Henry on opening the Assembly. His conduct was in conformity with his declaration; he acquiesced in their demands, however imperious, because he had given his promise to comply with the desires of the delegates of the people. Finally, in his caution against flattery, expressed to Matthieu, the writer of his history, he gave a proof of the same solicitude for the dissemination of truth which had been already shown by Louis XII.
In the age of Henri IV, religious liberty was the only object which occupied the public mind; he flattered himself with having ensured it by the Edict of Nantes; but that edict owed its origin to him personally, and might be overthrown by a successor. How strange that Grotius,25 in one of his works published in the reign of Louis XIII, should have predicted that the Edict of Nantes being a royal concession and not a mutual compact, a succeeding sovereign might take on him to annul the work of Henri IV. Had that great prince lived in our days, he would not have allowed the boon conferred on France to rest on a foundation so precarious as his life; he would have strengthened, by the aid of political guarantees, that toleration, of which, after his death, France was so cruelly deprived.
Henry is said to have conceived, shortly before his death, the grand idea of consolidating the independence of the different states of Europe by a Congress. Be this as it may, his principal object certainly was to support the Protestants in Germany; and the fanaticism which led to his assassination was not mistaken in regard to his intentions.
Thus fell the king the most truly French who ever reigned over France. Often have our sovereigns derived a tinge of foreign habits from their maternal parentage; but Henri IV was in every respect the countryman of his subjects. When Louis XIII evinced that he inherited the habit of dissimulation from his Italian mother, the people no longer recognized the blood of the father in the son. Who would have thought it possible that Madame d’Ancre26 could have been burned on a charge of sorcery in the presence of that nation who, twenty years before, had received the Edict of Nantes with applause? There are eras in history when the course of national feeling is dependent on a single man—but unfortunate are such times, for nothing durable can be accomplished without the impulse of general concurrence.
Cardinal Richelieu27 aimed at oversetting the independence of the great nobles, and induced them to reside at Paris that he might convert the lords of the provinces into courtiers. Louis XI had formed the same plan; but in his days the capital offered few attractions in point of society, and the court still fewer. Several men of rare talents and high spirit, such as d’Ossat, Mornay, Sully,28 had become conspicuous under Henri IV; but after his time, we look in vain for those chivalrous characters whose names form still the heroic traditions of the history of France. The despotic sway of Cardinal Richelieu destroyed entirely the originality of the French character—its loyalty, its candor, its independence. That priestly minister has been the object of much encomium because he upheld the political greatness of France, and in this respect we cannot deny his superior talents; but Henri IV accomplished the same object by governing in the spirit of truth and justice. Superiority of mind is displayed not only in the triumph obtained, but in the means employed to accomplish it. The moral degradation impressed on a people accustomed to crime will, sooner or later, prove to be more harmful to it than the effect of temporary success.
Cardinal Richelieu caused a poor innocent curate of the name of Urbain Grandier to be burned on a charge of sorcery, and thus yielded a mean and perfidious acquiescence to that blind superstition from which he was personally exempt. He confined, in his own country house at Ruelle, Marshal de Marillac, whom he hated, that he might with greater certainty be sentenced to death under his own eyes. M. de Thou was brought to the scaffold because he had not denounced his friend. No political crime was legally judged under the ministry of Cardinal Richelieu, and special commissions were always nominated to decide the fate of the victims. And yet the memory of this man has been applauded even in our days! He died indeed in the fullness of power; a safeguard of the first importance to those tyrannical rulers who hope to have a great name in history. The French may in several respects consider this cardinal as a foreigner; his clerical profession, and his Italian education, separate him from the true French character. The magnitude of his influence admits thus of an easier explanation, for history affords various examples of foreigners who have ruled over Frenchmen. That nation has, in general, too much vivacity to counteract the perseverance which is necessary to arrive at arbitrary power; but the man who possesses this perseverance is doubly formidable in a country where, law having never been properly established, the people judge of things only by the event.
Cardinal Richelieu, by inducing the grandees to live in Paris, deprived them of their weight in the country and created that influence of the capital over the rest of France which has never ceased since that day. A court has naturally much ascendancy over the city where it resides, and nothing can be more convenient than to govern an empire by means of a small assemblage of men; I mean convenient for the purposes of despotism.
Many persons are of the opinion that Richelieu laid the foundation of the wonders of the age of Louis XIV, an age which has been often compared to those of Pericles and Augustus. But periods similar to these brilliant eras are found in the histories of several nations under different combinations of circumstances—at the moment when literature and the fine arts appear for the first time, after a long continuance of war, or after the close of civil dissensions. The great phases of the human mind are much less the work of an individual than of the age; for they are all found to bear a resemblance to each other, however different may be the character of the contemporary chiefs.
After the death of Richelieu, and during the minority of Louis XIV, we find some serious political ideas intermixed with the general frivolity of the days of the Fronde. We find, for instance, parliament demanding of the Crown that no subject of the realm should be liable to imprisonment without being brought before his natural judges. There was also an attempt made to limit the power of ministers, and the odium against Mazarin29 might perhaps have led to the acquisition of a certain degree of liberty. But the time soon came when Louis XIV displayed the manners of a court in all their dangerous splendor; flattering the pride of his subjects by the success of his armies, and repelling, by his Spanish gravity, that familiarity which would presume to pass judgment on him. But he made the nobles descend still lower than in the preceding reign. For under Richelieu they were at least important enough to be persecuted, while under Louis XIV they were distinguished from the rest of the nation only by bearing the yoke nearer the presence of their master.
This king, who thought that the property of his subjects was his own, and who committed arbitrary acts of all descriptions; in short, he who (can we venture to say it, and is it possible to forget it?) came, whip in hand, to prohibit, as an offense, the exercise of the slender remnant of a right—the remonstrances by parliament; this king felt respect for no one but himself, and was never able to conceive what a nation is and ought to be. All the errors that he has been charged with were the natural result of that superstitious idea of his power, in which he had been nurtured from his infancy. How can despotism fail to produce flattery, and how can flattery do otherwise than pervert the ideas of every human being who is exposed to it? What outstanding man has ever been heard to utter the hundredth part of the praises lavished on the weakest princes? And yet these princes, for the very reason that they deserve not those praises, are the more easily intoxicated by them.
Had Louis XIV been a private individual, he would probably never have been noticed, as he possessed no exceptional talents; but he perfectly understood how to cultivate that artificial dignity which imposes an uncomfortable awe on the mind of others. Henri IV was in the habit of familiar intercourse with his subjects, from the highest to the lowest; Louis XIV was the founder of that extreme etiquette which removed the kings of his family, in France as well as in Spain, from a free and natural communication with their subjects: he was in consequence a stranger to their feelings whenever public affairs assumed a threatening aspect. One minister (Louvois) engaged him in a sanguinary contest, from having been vexed by him about the windows of a castle; and, of the sixty-eight years of his reign, Louis XIV, without possessing any military talent, passed fifty-six in a state of war. It was under him that the Palatinate30 was desolated and that atrocious executions took place in Brittany. The expulsion of 200,000 Protestants from France, the dragonnades, and the war of the Cevennes are yet not equal to the cold-blooded horrors to be found in the various ordonnances passed after the repeal of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685. The code enacted at that time against the Protestants may be, in all respects, compared to the laws of the Convention against the emigrants, and bears the same characteristics. The enjoyment of civil rights was refused to them; for their children were not legitimate, in the eye of the law, until the year 1787, when the Assembly of Notables obtained that point from the justice of Louis XVI. Not only was their property confiscated, but it was bestowed on those who informed against them; and their children were forcibly taken from them to be educated in the Catholic faith. Persons officiating as Protestant clergymen, or those who incurred the charge of “relapsing” into heresy, were liable to be sent to the galleys or to the scaffold; and, as it had been at last declared by authority that there were no more Protestants in France, it was easy to consider any of them as relapsed, when there was an object in such treatment.
Injustice of every kind marked that reign of Louis XIV, which has been the object of so many fulsome effusions; and no one remonstrated against the abuses of that authority which was itself a continual abuse. Fénélon alone dared to raise his voice against it,31 and an appeal from him is conclusive in the eyes of posterity. Besides, this King, who was so scrupulous in regard to the dogmas of religion, was very different in point of morals; and it was only in the day of adversity that he displayed any real virtues. We have no sympathy with him until he was forsaken by fortune; his soul at that time displayed its native grandeur.
Everybody praises the beautiful edifices erected by Louis XIV; but we know, by experience, that in countries where the national representatives do not control the public expenditure, it is easy to have money for any purpose. The pyramids of Memphis cost more labor than the embellishments of Paris; yet the despots of Egypt found no difficulty in employing their slaves to build them.
Had Louis XIV the merit of drawing forth the great writers of his age? He persecuted the seminary of Port Royal, of which Pascal was the head; he made Racine die of grief; he exiled Fénélon; he constantly opposed the honors which others were desirous of conferring on La Fontaine; and confined his admiration to Boileau alone. Literature, in extolling him to the skies, has done much more for him than he had done for it. Pensions granted to a few men of letters will never have much influence over men of real talents. Genius aims only at fame, and fame is the offspring of public opinion alone.
Literature shone with equal luster in the succeeding century, although it had a more philosophic tendency; but that tendency began not until the latter part of the reign of Louis XIV. A reign of more than sixty years was the cause of giving his name to the age; but the ideas of the period had no connection with him; and, if we except Bossuet, who, unfortunately for us and for himself, allowed his talents to be subservient to fanaticism and despotism, almost all the writers of the seventeenth century made very striking advancement in that path in which those of the eighteenth have made such progress. Fénélon, the most respectable of men, showed himself, in one of his works, capable of appreciating the excellence of the English constitution only a few years after its establishment; and, toward the end of Louis XIV’s reign, the human mind was visibly advancing in all directions.
Louis XIV extended France by the conquests of his generals; and, as a certain extent of territory is necessary to the independence of a country, he had, in this respect, a title to the national gratitude. But he left the interior of the country in a state of disorder, which continued not only during the regency, but during the reign of Louis XV. At the death of Henri IV the finances, and all the branches of administration, were left in the most perfect order, and France maintained herself for a number of years merely by the strength which she owed to him. At the death of Louis XIV the finances were exhausted to such a degree that they could not be restored until the accession of Louis XVI. The people insulted the funeral procession of Louis XIV and the parliament canceled his will. The blind superstition under which he had bent in his latter years, had so wearied the public that even the licentious practices of the regency were excused, as forming a relief to the burden of an intolerant court. Compare the death of Louis with that of Henri IV—of him who was so unaffected although a sovereign, so mild although a warrior, so intelligent, so cheerful, so wise—of him who knew so well that to cultivate familiarity with men is the means, when one is truly great, of rising in their esteem, that every Frenchman seemed to feel at his heart the stroke of the poignard which cut short his splendid life.
We ought never to form an opinion of absolute princes by those temporary successes which proceed frequently from the intense exercise of their authority. It is the condition in which they leave their country at their death, or at their fall; it is the part of their reign which survives them, that discloses their real character. The political ascendancy of the nobles and the clergy ended in France with Louis XIV; he had made them mere instruments of his power; at his death they found themselves without a connecting link with the people, whose political importance was increasing every day.32
Louis XV, or, to speak more properly, his ministers, were in a state of perpetual contention with the parlements, who acquired popularity by refusing their sanction to taxes; these parlements belonged to the Third Estate, at least in a great degree. The writers of the age, most of whom also belonged to this class, conquered by their talents that liberty of the press which was not accorded by statute. The example of England acquired more and more influence on the public mind; and people were at a loss to comprehend that a narrow channel of only seven leagues sufficed to separate a country where the people were everything, from one in which they were nothing.
Public opinion and public credit, which is nothing more than public opinion applied to financial questions, became daily more essential to government. The bankers33 have more influence in this respect than the great landholders themselves, and the bankers live in Paris, where they are in the habit of discussing freely all the public questions which affect their personal calculations.
The weak character of Louis XV, and the endless errors resulting from that character, naturally strengthened the spirit of resistance. People saw on the one hand Lord Chatham34 at the head of England, surrounded by parliamentary speakers of talent, all ready to acknowledge his pre-eminence, while, in France, the meanest of the royal mistresses obtained the appointment and removal of ministers. Public spirit was the ruling principle in England; accident and miserable intrigues decided the fate of France. Yet Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Buffon, profound thinkers and superior writers, belonged to the country that was thus governed; and how could the French avoid envying England, when they might say with truth, that it was to her political institutions that she owed her superiority?35 For they saw among themselves as many men of talent as their neighbors, although the nature of their government prevented them from turning these talents to so much account.
It has been justly said by a man of ability, that the literature of the age is an expression of the feelings of society; if that be true, the censures cast on the writers of the eighteenth century ought to be pointed at the society in which they lived. The writers of that day were not desirous of flattering government; therefore they must have aimed at pleasing the public; for the majority of literary men must follow one or the other of these paths: they stand too much in need of encouragement to bid defiance to both government and the public. The majority of the French in the eighteenth century began to desire the suppression of feudal rights, the imitation of the institutions of England, and, above all, toleration in religion. The influence of the clergy in temporal matters was generally revolting; and, as the spirit of true religion is foreign to intrigue and political ambition, all confidence was withdrawn from those who made use of it as an instrument for temporal purposes. Several writers, above all Voltaire, were highly reprehensible in not respecting Christianity when they attacked superstition; but some allowance is to be made on account of the circumstances under which Voltaire lived. He was born in the latter part of the age of Louis XIV, and the atrocious injustice inflicted on the Protestants had impressed his imagination from his earliest years.
The antiquated superstitions of Cardinal Fleuri,36 the ridiculous contests between the parlement and the archbishop of Paris in regard to billets de confession, the convulsionnaires,37 the Jansenists and Jesuits; all puerile in themselves but capable of leading to the effusion of blood, naturally impressed Voltaire with the dread of the renewal of religious persecution. The trials of Calas, of Sirven, of the Chevalier de la Barre, etc. confirmed him in this impression, and the existing laws against the Protestants were still allowed to remain in the barbarous state in which they had been plunged after the repeal of the Edict of Nantes.
I must not, however, be understood as attempting the justification of Voltaire, or of the writers of the age who followed his steps; but it must be admitted that irritable characters (and all men of talents are irritable) feel almost always a desire to attack the stronger party: it is in such attacks only that we recognize the impulse of a bold and ardent mind. In the Revolution we have been exposed only to the evils of unbelief, and to the atrocious violence with which it was propagated. But the same generous feelings which made people detest the proscription of the clergy toward the end of the eighteenth century had inspired, fifty years earlier, the hatred of its intolerance. Both actions and writings should be estimated according to the time of their occurrence.
We shall treat elsewhere the great question of the state of national feeling in France on the subject of religion. In regard to this, as in regard to politics, we must beware of bringing charges against a population of twenty-five million, for that would be little else than quarreling with mankind at large. Let us examine how it has happened that this nation has not been molded according to the will of some individuals, by ancient usages, which certainly lasted a sufficient time to exercise their influence. Let us examine also what sentiments are at present in harmony with the hearts of men; for the sacred fire is not and never will be extinct; but it can re-appear only by the full light of truth.
[1. ] Rural uprising in the regions of Island-of-France, Picardy, Champagne, Artois, and Normandy in May–June 1358.
[2. ] The Duke of Orléans was assassinated in 1407 at the order of the Duke of Burgundy, known as John the Fearless.
[3. ] The Duke of Burgundy was assassinated in September 1419 at Montereau, where he was to attend a meeting with the dauphin (the future Charles VII). He first distinguished himself in the battle at Nicopolis, where he led a French army that helped the besieged King of Hungary to battle the Turkish forces under Bajazet (the Thunderbolt). After he became duke, he clashed with his father’s brothers, particularly Louis, Duke of Orléans. Tensions mounted between Burgundy and Orléans, and the Duke took the initiative and planned the assassination of Louis in 1407.
[4. ] Francis I (1494–1547), crowned King of France in 1515, distinguished himself as a devoted patron of the arts, although his reign was clouded by rifts and tensions within the Christian church. Martin Luther’s denunciation of the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church in 1519 triggered the Protestant movement. At first, Francis tolerated the new movement, since many German Protestant princes were turning against his sworn enemy, Charles V, but his later approval of persecutions against the Protestants led to the beginning of a long civil war.
[5. ] The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre unleashed a wave of Catholic mob violence against the Huguenots. The violence started on August 24, 1572, with the assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the most respected Huguenot leader, and quickly spread throughout France, lasting for several months.
[6. ] The dragonnades were a form of persecution of French Protestants (Huguenots) before and after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The Edict of Nantes of 1598, promulgated by King Henri IV to restore internal peace in a France torn by the Wars of Religion, defined and secured the rights of the French Protestants. In 1685 Louis XIV declared that the majority of Protestants had converted to Catholicism and annulled the edict of 1598, which, he claimed, had become superfluous.
[7. ] The revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV renewed the persecution of Protestants and triggered the so-called War of Camisards in the region of Cevennes from 1702 to 1705; the war ended with a large fire.
[8. ] Madame de Staël offers here an interpretation of the history of France through liberal lenses. Her emphasis on the struggle against arbitrary power is meant to highlight the antecedents of representative institutions and principles in France that found their guarantees in Louis XVIII’s Charter of 1814.
[9. ] Madame de Staël had already made this claim in her book Des circonstances actuelles qui peuvent terminer la Révolution française, written in 1797–98 (the complete text was first published in 1979 by Lucia Omacini).
[10. ] Henri de Boulainvilliers (1658–1722), French historian and author of Histoire de l’ancien gouvernement de la France; Etat de la France, avec des memoires sur l’ancien gouvernement; Histoire de la pairie de France; and Essais sur la noblesse de France, contenans une dissertation sur son origine & abaissement. All these books were published posthumously in Holland and England.
[* ] From 1270 to 1461.
[11. ] Edward III (1312–77), among the most famous kings of England, consolidated England’s military power during his long reign by asserting its sovereignty over Scotland. He declared himself rightful heir to the French throne in 1337 as the only living male descendant of his grandfather Philip IV and thereby started the Hundred Years’ War.
[12. ] Louis IX (1215–70), King of France 1226–70, also known as St. Louis, canonized in 1297 by Pope Boniface VIII. He was a great patron of the arts and built the famous Saint Chapelle in Paris. A devout Christian, he was seen as the model of the Christian monarch and participated in two crusades (1248 and 1270). He died in 1270 near Tunis.
[13. ] John II of France (1319–64), known as John the Good. In 1356, after losing the battle at Poitiers, he was captured and taken to London. Four years later, the Treaty of Brétigny released the French king from captivity on the condition that France pay a hefty ransom and that two of his sons, John and Louis, take his place in London to guarantee the payment of the ransom. After Louis escaped in 1363, John the Good, obeying the laws of honor, turned himself over to the English; he died in London in 1364.
[14. ] Charles V, King of France 1364–80, son of John the Good. His reign marked the end of the Hundred Years’ War.
[15. ] Charles VIII, King of France 1483–98, son and successor of Louis XI. He invaded Italy in 1494 and reached as far south as Naples but was forced to retreat when Milan, Venice, Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and Pope Alexander VI formed a powerful league against him. Eventually, the French troops were defeated.
[16. ] Louis XII, King of France 1498–1515, son of Charles, Duke of Orléans, and cousin of Charles VIII, whom he succeeded on the throne of France. He attempted to impose French domination over Italy. By the treaties of Blois (1504), Louis attempted a compromise with Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Ultimately, the compromise did not work out and he had to fight the armies of Maximilian, Pope Julius II, and Henry VIII of England.
[17. ] Henri IV (1553–1610), the first Bourbon monarch in France and one of the most popular French kings. He was born into a Catholic family but was raised as a Huguenot. Before ascending to the throne in 1589 he was involved in the Wars of Religion. His marriage to Marguerite de Valois, sister of King Charles IX, was instrumental in bringing much-needed peace between Catholics and Protestants. He restored prosperity to his country, which had been ravaged by religious and civil wars. In 1598, Henri IV enacted the Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed religious liberty to Protestants.
[18. ] Louis VI of France, known as Louis the Large One (1081–1137), reigned as King of France from 1108 until his death. He encouraged the communal movements and the development of social or religious trade associations by granting the inhabitants of various cities tax advantages and the right to govern their local affairs.
[19. ] Allusion to the captivity of St. Louis following his participation in the seventh crusade. He was taken prisoner in Egypt in 1250.
[20. ] Charles VII (1403–61), King of France 1422–61. When he became monarch, France had no organized army. The English strengthened their grip over France until 1429, when Joan of Arc urged Charles to raise an army to liberate France from the English.
[21. ] Louis XI (1423–83), King of France 1461–83. A skillful administrator, Louis set up an efficient central administration and used commissions and the Estates General to give his acts the appearance of popular approval. He also diminished the prestige of the courts.
[22. ] The original French text reads as follows: “Car nul ne doit être roi fors celui qui règne et a seigneurie sur les Francs. Les Francs de nature aiment leur seigneur” (72). The use of the word “Francs” was meant to emphasize the contrast between serfs and freemen.
[23. ] Madame de Staël’s Protestantism is again visible in her strong emphasis on the connection between Reformation and liberty. Guizot, himself a Protestant, also highlighted this connection in his History of Civilization in Europe, lecture XI.
[24. ] The Assembly was convoked in 1596. It is possible that the King made a number of promises to the nobles because he needed their approval for royal subsidies.
[25. ] Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), eminent Dutch jurist, humanist, and author. Among his major works was the highly influential Concerning the Law of War and Peace, originally published in 1625 and considered the first major text on international law.
[26. ] Reference to Léonora Dori (1568–1617), the wife of Marshal d’Ancre. Of modest origin, she was the foster sister of Marie de Médicis and became one of the most powerful and richest women in France. Accused of practicing exorcism and exercising a nefarious influence on Marie de Médicis, she was decapitated in 1617.
[27. ] Richelieu (1585–1642), famous cardinal and prominent French statesman, represented the clergy of Poitou in the Estates General of 1614, where his political career began. A famous patron of arts and letters, Richelieu became secretary of state in 1616 and consolidated royal authority and centralization. In so doing, he aimed at limiting the power of the nobles and suppressing political opposition. During the Thirty Years’ War, Richelieu allied France with Protestant powers, thus causing problems in the relations with Rome. He died in 1642 and was succeeded by Mazarin.
[28. ] Arnaud d’Ossat (1536–1604) was instrumental in bringing about the reconciliation between Henri IV and the Holy See. Philippe Duplessis-Mornay (1549–1623), whose nickname was “the Pope of the Huguenots,” was a favorite adviser to Henri IV.
[29. ] Cardinal Mazarin (1602–61), born in southern Italy and educated in Rome, gained rich military and diplomatic experience serving the papal court before becoming papal vice-legate at Avignon (1632) and nuncio extraordinary in France (1634). Eight years later he succeeded his mentor, Cardinal Richelieu, and became chief minister of France, a position he retained until his death. His policy aimed at strengthening royal power eventually led to the civil war known as la Fronde (1648–53).
[30. ] In September 1688, Louis XIV invaded the Palatinate (in Germany) and occupied Cologne. A nine-year war ensued that ended with the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), by which Louis gave up all lands, including the Palatinate, that he had seized except Strasbourg.
[31. ] François Fénélon (1651–1715), famous French bishop and writer, best remembered as the author of Les aventures de Télémaque, Examen de conscience d’un roi, and Tables de Chaulnes.
[32. ] Madame de Staël describes here the process of social atomization that led to what Tocqueville called in The Old Régime and the Revolution collective (group) individualism. The growth of royal absolutism fueled the separation between classes and fostered political apathy. She makes the same critique against Napoléon in parts IV and V of Considerations.
[33. ] The original word, “capitalistes,” can be translated as bankers, creditors, capitalists, those who use capital. The old English translation used the archaic phrase “monied interests.”
[34. ] William Pitt, First Earl of Chatham (1708–78), was an eminent Whig statesman who became prime minister of England toward the end of his life.
[35. ] For an analysis of the image (and symbol) of England in modern French political thought, see Jennings, “Conceptions of England and Its Constitution in Nineteenth-Century French Political Thought,” Historical Journal 29, no. 1, 65–85.
[36. ] André-Hercule Cardinal de Fleuri, Bishop of Fréjus (1653–1743), chief minister of Louis XV.
[37. ] Reference to the group who claimed to possess paranormal qualities and gathered around the tomb of François de Pâris, in the cemetery of the Saint Médard’s Day Church in Paris, between 1727 and 1732. Miraculous cures occurred, along with moments of intense devotion resulting in body convulsions.