Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVII: Of the Resistance of the Privileged Orders to the Demands of the Third Estate in 1789. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XVII: Of the Resistance of the Privileged Orders to the Demands of the Third Estate in 1789. - 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 Resistance of the Privileged Orders to the Demands of the Third Estate in 1789.
M. de la Luzerne, Bishop of Langres, one of the soundest minds in France, wrote, on the opening of the Estates General, a pamphlet to propose that the three orders should form themselves into two chambers, the higher clergy uniting with the Peers, and the lower with the Commons.1 The Marquiss of Montesquiou, afterward a general, made a motion to this effect in the Chamber of the nobility, but in vain. In short, all enlightened men felt the necessity of putting an end to this manner of deliberating in three bodies, each of which could impose a veto upon the other; for, to say nothing of its injustice, it rendered the public business interminable.
In social, as in natural order, there are certain principles from which we cannot depart without creating confusion. The three powers, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, are in the essence of things; they exist in all governments, as action, preservation, and renewal exist in the course of nature.2 If you introduce into the political organization a fourth power, the clergy, who are all or nothing, according as they are considered, you can no longer establish definite reasoning on the laws necessary for the public welfare, because you are embarrassed by secret authorities, where you ought to admit no guidance but the public interest.
France, at the time the Estates General were assembled, was threatened by two great dangers, financial bankruptcy and famine; and both required speedy relief. How would it have been possible to adopt expeditious measures while each order had its veto? The two first would not consent to an unconditional equality of taxes, while the nation at large demanded that this measure should be employed, before any other, for the re-establishment of the finances. The privileged classes had indeed said that they would accede to this equality, but they had taken no formal resolution to that effect; and they had still the power of deciding on what concerned them, according to the ancient plan of deliberating. The mass of the nation had thus no decisive influence, although it bore the great proportion of the burdens. This made the deputies of the Third Estate insist on voting individually, while the nobility and clergy argued for voting by the order.3 The dispute on this point began from the moment that the powers were verified; and from that moment also, M. Necker proposed a plan of reconciliation which, though very favorable to the higher orders, might have been accepted by the Third Estate, as the question was still under negotiation.4 To all the obstacles inherent in the plan of deliberating in three orders, we are to add the imperative orders (mandats imperatifs), that is, instructions from the electors, imposing on the deputies the necessity of conforming their opinions to the will of their constituents on the principal subjects discussed in the Assembly.5 This antiquated usage was suitable only to the infancy of a representative government. Public opinion had hardly any weight in an age when the communication between one province and another was a matter of difficulty, and particularly when there were no newspapers, either to suggest ideas or communicate intelligence. But to oblige deputies in our days to adhere strictly to provincial instructions would have been to make the Estates General an assembly with little other power than that of laying petitions on the table. The information acquired in debate would have been fruitless, since they would have had no power to deviate from their previous instructions. Yet it was on these imperative orders that the nobles rested their chief arguments for refusing to vote individually. But one part of them, those of Dauphiny, had brought a positive instruction never to deliberate by order.
A minority of the nobility, that is, more than sixty members, whose families were most illustrious, but who, by their information, were fully on a level with the spirit of the age, were desirous that, as far as regarded the plan of a constitution, the mode of voting should be individually; but the majority of their order, supported by a portion of the clergy (although the latter were comparatively moderate), showed an inveterate objection to any mode of conciliation. They declared themselves ready to give up their privilege of exemption from taxes; but instead of taking a formal resolution to that effect on the opening of the meetings, they wanted to make that an object of negotiation which the nation regarded as a right. Time was thus lost in caviling, in polite refusals, and in new difficulties. When the Third Estate raised their tone and showed their strength, supported by the wish of the nation, the nobles of the court gave way, accustomed, as they were, to yield to power; but no sooner did the crisis appear to be solved than they resumed their arrogance and seemed to despise the Third Estate, as in the days when vassals solicited enfranchisement from their lords.
The provincial nobility was still less tractable than the nobility of the first rank. The latter were certain of preserving their existence—they were guaranteed by historical recollections; but the petty nobles, whose titles were known only to themselves, saw themselves in danger of losing distinctions which no longer obtained respect from anyone. These personages spoke about their rank with as much presumption as if it had existed before the creation of the world, although it had been only lately acquired. They considered their privileges, which were of no use but to themselves, like that right of property which forms the basis of general security. Privileges are sacred only when conducive to the general advantage; it requires, then, some argument to support them, and they cannot be said to be truly solid, except when sanctioned by public utility. But the chief part of the noblesse entrenched themselves in the assertion, “So it was heretofore”—“C’étoit ainsi jadis.” Nonetheless, they were told, particular circumstances produced that state of things, and these circumstances are entirely changed: in vain—nothing could operate conviction on them. They were actuated by a certain aristocratic foppery, of which an idea can be formed only in France; a mixture of frivolity in manner and of pedantry in opinion; the whole united to a profound disdain for knowledge and spirit, unless enlisted in the ranks of folly, that is, employed in giving a retrograde course to reason.
In England, the eldest son of a peer is generally a member of the House of Commons, until at his father’s death he enters the upper house; the younger sons remain in the body of the nation and form a part of it. An English peer said ingeniously, “I cannot become an aristocrat, for I have constantly beside me representatives of the popular party; these are my younger sons.” The ordered arrangement of the different ranks of society is one of the admirable beauties of the English constitution. But in France the effect of custom had been to introduce two things directly contradictory—one, ascribing such a respect to antiquity that a member of the nobility could not step into one of the king’s carriages without proofs verified by the court genealogist, and prior in date to the year 1400, that is, prior to the time the kings began to grant nobility by letters patent; while, on the other hand, the greatest importance was attached to the royal prerogative of ennobling by patent. No human power can make a true noble, in the sense implied by that epithet in France; it would imply the power of disposing of the past, which seems impossible even to the Divinity. Yet nothing was easier in France than to become a privileged person, although it was entering into a separate caste, and acquiring, if I may say so, a right to injure the rest of the nation by swelling the number of those who escaped the public burdens, and who thought themselves particularly entitled to government favors. Had the French nobility continued strictly military, the public might long have submitted, from a sentiment of admiration and gratitude, to the continuance of its privileges; but for a century back a tabouret at court had been the object of as much solicitation as a regiment in the army. The French nobles were neither members of the legislature as in England, nor sovereign lords as in Germany.6 What were they, then? They unluckily resembled the noblesse of Spain and Italy, and they escaped from the mortifying comparison only by the elegant manners and the information of a certain part of their number; but these persons, in general, renounced the doctrine of their order, and ignorance alone remained to watch over prejudice.
What orators could support this party, abandoned by its most distinguished members? The Abbé Maury, who was far from occupying a conspicuous rank among the French clergy, defended his abbeys under the name of the public good; and M. de Casalès, a captain of cavalry, whose nobility was dated only twenty-five years back, was the champion of the privileges of the nobility in the Constituent Assembly. This man was subsequently one of the first to attach himself to the dynasty of Bonaparte; and Cardinal Maury seemed to do the same with no little readiness.7 We are thus led to conclude, from these as from other examples, that in our days the advocates of prejudice are by no means slow in bargaining for their personal interest. The majority of the nobles finding themselves abandoned in 1789 by men of talents and information, proclaimed indiscreetly the necessity of employing force against the popular party. We shall soon see if that force was in existence; but we may venture to say at once, that if it was not in existence, the menace was extremely imprudent.
[1. ] A reference to Forme d’opiner aux États généraux (Paris, 1789), to which Mirabeau responded.
[2. ] For a history of the concept of mixed government, see Blythe, Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages. Blythe pointed out that “a mixed government in its broadest sense is any one in which power is shared by at least two of these groups, or one in which there is a combination of two or more simple forms of government. The sharing or combination may be accomplished institutionally or by incorporating procedures thought to characterize various forms” (11).
[3. ] For more details on voting procedures in the Estates General, see Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 96–111. Mousnier’s Les institutions de la France sous la monarchie absolue also contains valuable information.
[4. ] On June 4, 1789, Necker proposed that the verification of powers be done by each order and that results be communicated by each order to the two others. The contested deputies were supposed to be examined by a committee consisting of members of all three orders and, if necessary, by the King himself.
[5. ] For more information on the debate on imperative mandates, see Carré de Malberg, Contribution à la théorie générale de l’État. It will be recalled that in Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne, Rousseau acknowledged the need for a mandate-based system of representation and made an important distinction between representatives and deputies. He insisted that the deputies of the people ought to be subject to imperative mandates. In his political writings, Sieyès opposed imperative mandates in categorical terms: “For the deputy there is, and can be, no imperative mandate, or indeed no positive will, except that of the national will. He needs to defer to the councils of those who directly elect him only in so far as these councils are in conformity with the national will. And where else can this will exist, where else can it be recognized except in the National Assembly itself?” (Sieyès as quoted in Forsyth, Reason and Revolution, 138)
[6. ] It would be worth comparing Madame de Staël’s ideas on the decline of the French nobility with the thesis of Guizot as outlined in his History of Civilization in France, which had an important impact on his famous disciple Tocqueville.
[7. ] Abbé Maury (1746–1817), a member of the French Academy (elected in 1785), served as deputy of the clergy in the Estates General. He went into exile in 1792 and was appointed cardinal two years later. In 1810 Napoléon appointed him Archbishop of Paris. Cazalès (1758–1805) represented the nobility in the Estates General. He went into exile in 1792 and returned to France eleven years later.