Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IV: Of the Character of M. Necker as a Public Man. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER IV: Of the Character of M. Necker as a Public Man. - 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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Of the Character of M. Necker as a Public Man.
M. Necker, a citizen of the republic of Geneva, had cultivated literature from his earliest years with great attention; and, when called by circumstances to dedicate himself to business and financial transactions, his earlier taste for literature mixed dignified sentiments and philosophical views with the positive interests of life. Madame Necker, certainly one of the most enlightened women of her day, was in the habit of receiving at her house all the eminent men of the eighteenth century, so rich in distinguished and eminently talented individuals.1 At the same time her extreme strictness in point of religion rendered her inaccessible to every doctrine at variance with the enlightened creed in which she had happily been born. Those who knew her are unanimous in declaring that she passed over all the opinions and all the passions of her age, without ceasing to be a Protestant in the true Christian spirit, equally remote from irreligion and intolerance. M. Necker was actuated by similar impressions: in fact, no exclusive system could be acceptable to his mind, of which prudence was one of the distinguishing features. He took no pleasure in changes, as far as regarded their novelty; but he was a stranger to those prejudices of habit to which a superior mind can never subject itself.
His first literary essay was a “Eulogy on Colbert,” which obtained the prize from the French Academy. He was blamed by the philosophers of the day for not applying, in all its extent, to commerce and finances the system which they wished to impose on the mind. The philosophic fanaticism2 which proved one of the evils of the Revolution had already begun to show itself. These men were desirous of attributing to a few principles that absolute power which had hitherto been absorbed by a few individuals; as if the domain of inquiry admitted of restriction or exclusion.
M. Necker, in his second work, On the Corn Trade and Corn Laws, admitted the necessity of certain restrictions on the export of corn: restrictions required by the daily and pressing wants of the indigent classes. It was on this occasion that M. Turgot and his friends came to a rupture with M. Necker: a popular commotion caused by the high price of bread took place in the year 1775,3 when his book was published, and, from his having dwelt on the bad decisions which led to the tumult, the more enthusiastic part of the “Economistes” threw the blame of it on his publication. But the blame was evidently absurd; for a tract founded on purely general views can influence, at least in the outset, none but the upper classes.
M. Necker, having been, during life, accustomed to real transactions, was capable of accommodating himself to the modifications which they required. This, however, by no means led him to disdainfully reject general principles, for none but inferior minds place theory and practice in opposition to each other. The one ought to be the result of the other; both are found to aid and extend each other.
A few months before his appointment to the cabinet, M. Necker made a journey to England. He came back with a profound admiration of most of the institutions of that country; but what particularly fixed his attention was the great influence of publicity on national credit and the immense means conferred by the mere existence of a representative assembly for renewing the financial resources of the state. He had not, however, at that time, the slightest idea of proposing a change in the political organization of France. And had not imperious circumstances afterward driven the King to such a change, M. Necker would never have thought himself authorized to take part in it. His rule was to apply, above all things, to the direct and special duty of his situation; and, though amply convinced of the advantages of a representative body, he would never have conceived that a minister, named by the King, ought to make such a proposal without the positive authorization of his sovereign. It was, moreover, in his character to await the course of circumstances and to avoid proposing measures which might be brought forward by the operation of time. Though a decided opponent of such privileges as the feudal rights and exemption from taxes, his plan was to treat with the possessors of such privileges on the principle of never sacrificing, without an equivalent, a present right for a prospective advantage. He induced the King to abolish, throughout the royal demesnes, the remains of feudal servitude, the mortmain,4 &c.; but the act which enforced this contained no injunction of a similar conduct on the part of the great nobles. He trusted entirely to the influence of his example.5
M. Necker disapproved highly of the existing inequality in the mode of paying taxes; he felt that the higher ranks ought not to bear a smaller proportion of the burden than the other citizens of the state; yet he avoided pressing any measure in that respect on the King. The appointment of the provincial councils was, as we shall see in a subsequent chapter, the best method, in his opinion, for obtaining the voluntary assent of the clergy and nobility to the sacrifice of this inequality of taxation, which was more revolting to the mass of the nation than any other distinction. It was not till his second ministry, in 1788, when the King had already promised to assemble the Estates General, and when financial disorders, caused by a bad choice of ministers, had reached such a height as to put the Crown again in a state of dependence on the parlements—it was not, I say, till then that M. Necker tackled the fundamental questions regarding the political organization of France: so long as he had the means of governing by prudent measures, he recommended no other.
The defenders of despotism, who would gladly have seen a Richelieu in the person of the King’s prime minister, were much dissatisfied with M. Necker; while, on the other hand, the ardent advocates of liberty have complained of his perseverance in defending not only the royal authority, but even the undue advantages of the privileged classes, when he proposed to redeem them by compromise instead of extinguishing them without an equivalent. M. Necker found himself placed, by a concurrence of circumstances, like the Chancellor de l’Hôpital6 between the Catholics and Protestants; for the political contests in France, in the eighteenth century, have many points in common with the religious dissensions of the sixteenth; and M. Necker, like de l’Hôpital, endeavored to unite all parties at that altar of reason which was at the bottom of his heart. Never did anyone combine, in a more striking manner, prudence in the means with ardor for the end.
M. Necker never adopted a measure of importance without long and serious consideration, in which he consulted alternately his conscience and his judgment, but never his personal interest. To meditate was for him to make an abstraction from himself, and whatever opinion may be formed on his different measures, their origin is to be sought in motives different from those that actuate most men. Scruples were as predominant with him as passions are with others. The extent of his mind and of his imagination sometimes exposed him to the evil of hesitation; and he was particularly alive to self-reproach, to such a degree, indeed, as often to blame himself unjustly. These two noble inconveniences strengthened his attachment to morality: it was in that only that he found decision for the present, and tranquillity for the past. Every impartial man who examines the public conduct of M. Necker in the smallest details will always find it actuated by an impulse of virtue. I do not know whether that is called being no statesman; but, if he is to be blamed on this ground, let the blame be cast on the delicacy of his consciousness: for it was a rule with him that morality is still more necessary in a public than in a private capacity, because the management of extensive and durable interests is more evidently subjected, than that of lighter matters, to the principles of probity implanted in us by the Creator.
During his first administration, when public opinion was not yet perverted by party spirit, and when the business of government proceeded on a regular plan, the admiration inspired by his character was general, and his retirement from office was regarded by all France as a public calamity. Let us stop awhile to examine him in this first ministry, before we proceed to those hard and cruel circumstances which created enmity and ingratitude in the judgment of the people.7
[1. ] Madame Necker married Jacques Necker in November 1764. She received, among others, Voltaire, Diderot, Holbach, Helvétius, Grimm, d’Alembert, Gibbon, Hume, and Walpole.
[2. ] On this issue Madame de Staël is in agreement with Burke’s critique of the philosophical radicalism of the French Revolution and its inclination to abstract thought.
[3. ] The revolt, known as la guerre des farines, developed and manifested itself mostly in the region of Paris.
[4. ] The term, which originally denoted tenure by a religious corporation, derives from medieval French (literal meaning, “dead hand”). Mortmain refers to the “sterilization” of ownership of property by vesting it perpetually in a corporation.
[5. ] This edict was passed in 1779.
[6. ] Michel de l’Hôpital (1505–73), chancellor of France under Catherine de Médicis, 1560–68, was instrumental in promoting a number of important judicial reforms and religious toleration.
[7. ] Needless to say, the portrait of Necker drawn by Madame de Staël is far from objective.