Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XX: The Royal Session of 23d June, 1789. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XX: The Royal Session of 23d June, 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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The Royal Session of 23d June, 1789.
The secret council of the King was altogether different from his ostensible ministry; a few of the latter shared the opinion of the former; but the acknowledged head of administration, M. Necker, was the very person against whom the privileged classes directed their efforts.
In England the responsibility of ministers is a bar to this double government, by official agents and secret advisers. No act of the royal power being executed without the signature of a minister, and that signature involving a capital punishment to whoever abuses it, even were the king surrounded by chamberlains preaching the doctrine of absolute power, there is no danger that any of them would run the risk of performing as a minister what he might support as a courtier. In France the case was different. Orders were given, without the knowledge of the prime minister, to bring forward regiments of Germans, because dependence could not be placed on the French regiments; it was expected that, with this foreign band, public opinion could be controlled in such a country as was then illustrious France.
The Baron de Breteuil,1 who aspired to succeed to M. Necker’s station, was incapable of understanding anything but the old form of government; and, even in the old form, his ideas had never extended beyond the precincts of a court, either in France or in the foreign countries where he had been sent as ambassador. He cloaked his ambition under an aspect of good nature; he was in the habit of shaking hands in the English manner with all he met, as if he would say, “I should like to be minister; what harm will that do you?” By dint of repeating that he wished to be minister, he had been introduced into the cabinet, and he had governed as well as another so long as there was nothing to do but subscribe his name to the official papers brought to the minister in a finished state by the clerks. But in the great national crisis on which we are about to enter, his councils caused terrible harm to the cause of the King. His rough voice conveyed an idea of energy; in walking he pressed the ground with a ponderous step, as if he would call an army from below—and his imposing presence deluded those who put all their hopes in their own desires.
When M. Necker asked the King and Queen, “Are you certain of the obedience of the army?” some interpreted the doubt implied in the question as the sign of a factious disposition; for one of the characteristics of the aristocratic party in France is to look with a suspicious eye on a knowledge of facts. These facts are obstinate, and have in vain risen up ten times against the hopes of the privileged classes: they have always attributed them to those who foresaw them, and never to the nature of things. A fortnight after the opening of the Estates General, and before the Third Estate had constituted itself the National Assembly, while the two parties were ignorant of their mutual strength, and while each was looking to government for support, M. Necker laid before the King a sketch of the situation of the kingdom. “Sire,” he said,
I am afraid that you are led into error in regard to the temper of the army: our correspondence with the country makes us conclude that it will not act against the Estates General. Do not then make it draw near to Versailles, as if you intended to make a hostile use of it against the deputies. The popular party does not know yet with certainty the disposition of this army. Make use of this very uncertainty to keep up your authority with the public; for, if the fatal secret of the insubordination of the troops were known, how would it be possible to restrain the factious? The point at present, Sire, is to accede to the reasonable wishes of France; deign to resign yourself to the English constitution; you, personally, will not experience any restraint by the empire of law, for never will it impose on you such barriers as your own scruples; and in thus volunteering to meet the wish of your people, you will grant today as a boon, what they may exact tomorrow as a right.
After making these observations, M. Necker transmitted the sketch of a declaration, which was to have been made by the King a month before the 23d June; that is, long before the Third Estate had declared itself the National Assembly, before the oath at the tennis court, in short, before the deputies had embraced any hostile measure. Concessions on the part of the King would then have had more dignity. The declaration, as composed by M. Necker, was almost word for word similar to the one issued by Louis XVIII at St. Ouen,2 on the 2d May, 1814, twenty-five years after the opening of the Estates General.* May we not be allowed to believe that the bloody cycle of the last twenty-five years would have been avoided if the executive power had from the first day consented to what the nation then wished, and will always continue to wish?
The success of M. Necker’s proposition was to have been secured by an ingenious plan. The King was to order the deputies to vote individually in what related to taxes, while in regard to the privileges, interests, or other matters peculiar to each order, they should continue to deliberate separately, until the settlement of the constitution. The Third Estate, being not sure of carrying the point of individual voting, would have been grateful for obtaining it, in regard to taxes; and this was what justice required, for what Estates General would those be in which a majority, that is, the two orders, who paid comparatively little or nothing, should have decided on burdens to be borne almost entirely by the minority, the Third Estate? The project of M. Necker contained, further, a declaration that the King would, in future, sanction the Estates General in no other shape than as a legislative body in two chambers. This was followed by several popular propositions in regard to legislation and finance, which would have entirely gained the public favor to the declaration. The King adopted it in all its extent, and it is certain that at the first moment it had his approbation. M. Necker was now at the summit of his hopes; for he flattered himself with prevailing on the majority of the deputies of the Third Estate to accept this well-combined plan, although the more ardent of them were inclined to reject whatever proceeded from the court.3
While M. Necker was willingly risking his popularity by coming forward as the defender of an Upper House of Parliament,4 the aristocratic body, on the other hand, thought themselves robbed of their rights by such a proposition. Each party, during twenty-five years, has, in its turn, rejected and desired the English constitution, according as it was victor or vanquished. In 1792, the Queen said to the Chevalier de Coigny, “I would that I had lost an arm, and that the English constitution had been established in France.” The nobility unceasingly wished for it after they had been stripped of their power and property; and under Bonaparte the popular party would, no doubt, have been very well satisfied to have obtained it. It may be said that the English constitution, or, in other words, reason in France, is like the fair Angelica in the comedy of the “Gambler”—he implores her in his distress and neglects her when he is fortunate.5
M. Necker was extremely anxious that the King should not lose an instant in interposing his mediation in the debates of the three orders. But the King rested tranquil in the popularity of his minister, and believed that if the proposed interference were necessary, any time might suffice for it. This was a great error. M. Necker had the power of going a certain length; he could put a limit to the claims of the deputies of the Third Estate by granting them a particular point which they were not otherwise sure of obtaining; but if he had renounced that which constituted his strength, I mean the essence of his opinions, his influence with them would have sunk lower than that of any other man.
One party among the deputies of the Third Estate, that of which Mounier and Malouet were the leaders, was in concurrence with M. Necker: but the other party aimed at a revolution, and was not contented to accept what it preferred to conquer. While M. Necker was contending with the court for the cause of liberty, he defended the royal authority, and even the nobility, against the Third Estate! All his hours, and all his faculties, were employed to guard the King against the courtiers, and the deputies against the factious.
All this, some will say, does not matter since M. Necker was not successful; the inference is that he lacked ability. For the space of thirteen years, five passed in office and eight in retirement, M. Necker had stood at the summit of popular favor; he still possessed it to such a degree that all France was indignant at the news of his banishment.6 What, then, can he be said to have lost by his fault? and how, I must repeat it, is a man to be made answerable for misfortunes that occurred because his advice was not followed? If monarchy was overturned in consequence of the adoption of a system contrary to his, is it not likely that it would have been preserved if the King had adhered to the path followed for some time after the return of M. Necker to the ministry?
Not long after that, a day had been fixed for holding a royal session when the secret enemies of M. Necker induced the King to make a journey to Marly, a residence where the voice of the public was heard still less than at Versailles. Courtiers generally place themselves between the prince and the nation, like a deceitful echo, which alters what it repeats. M. Necker relates that, in the evening of the cabinet meeting at which the royal session was to be fixed for the next day, a note from the Queen induced the King to quit the council room; the deliberation was adjourned till next day. By that time two other members were admitted to the council, as well as the King’s two brothers.7 The two members knew no forms but the ancient; and the princes, who were then young, confided too much in the army.
The party which came forward to defend the throne spoke with much disdain of the nature of royal authority in England; they wished to affix something criminal to the idea of reducing a king of France to the hard condition of a British monarch. This view of things was not only erroneous, but the result, perhaps, of selfish calculation; for, in truth, it was not the King, but the nobles, and particularly the nobles of the second class, who were likely, according to their mode of thinking, to lose by becoming the citizens of a free country.
The adoption of the English institutions would neither have lessened the enjoyments of the King, nor the authority which he would and could have exerted. Nor would these institutions have at all lessened the dignity of the great and ancient families of France; so far from that, placing them in the House of Peers, they received a more assured prerogative and were more clearly discriminated from the rest of their order. It was then only the privileges of the second class of nobility and the political influence of the higher clergy which it was necessary to sacrifice. The parlements also were apprehensive of losing those long-contested powers, which they had of themselves renounced, but which they still regretted; they perhaps saw, by anticipation, the institution of juries, that safeguard of humanity in the administration of justice. But, once for all, the interest of these orders was not identified with that of the Crown, and, by wishing to make them inseparable, the privileged classes involved the throne in their own fall. Not that their intention was to overturn monarchy; but they desired that monarchy should triumph with them and by them; while matters had come to such a pass that it was unavoidable to sacrifice, sincerely and unequivocally, that which it was impossible to defend, for the sake of preserving the remainder.
Such was the opinion of M. Necker; but it was not that of the new members of the King’s council. They proposed various changes, all in conformity with the passions of the majority of the privileged classes. M. Necker combated these new adversaries, during several days, with an energy surprising in a minister who was certainly desirous of pleasing the King and the royal family. But he was so fully persuaded of the truth of what he affirmed that he discovered in this point a resolution not to be shaken. He foretold the defection of the army if it were employed against the popular party; he predicted that the King would lose all his ascendancy over the Third Estate, by the tone in which it was proposed to compose the declaration; finally, he signified, in respectful terms, that he could not give his support to a plan which was not his, and the consequence of which would, in his opinion, be disastrous.
The court was not disposed to listen to this advice; but they desired M. Necker’s attendance at the royal session, for the sake of persuading the deputies of the people that the declaration had his approbation. This M. Necker refused, and sent in his resignation. Yet, said the aristocrats, a part of his plan was retained; true, there remained in the declaration of the 23d June, several of the concessions desired by the nation, such as the suppression of the personal tax (taille), the abolition of privileges in regard to taxes, the admission of all citizens to civil and military employments, &c. But things had changed greatly in the course of a month; the Third Estate had acquired a degree of importance which prevented it from feeling grateful for concessions which it was sure of obtaining. M. Necker wished the King to grant the right of individual voting in regard to taxes, in the very outset of his speech; the Third Estate would then have concluded that the object of the royal session was to support its interest, and that would have gained their confidence. But, in the newly modeled plan pressed on the King, the first article invalidated all the resolutions which the Third Estate had taken in its character of National Assembly, and which it had rendered sacred by the oath at the tennis court. M. Necker had proposed the royal session before the deputies had come under such engagements to public opinion. Was it prudent to offer them so much less after their power had become still greater in the interval which the court had lost in vacillation?
Acting in an appropriate and timely manner is the nymph Egeria8 of all statesmen, generals, and all those who have to do with the ever-changing character of human nature. An authoritative measure against the Third Estate was no longer practicable on the 23d of June; and it was rather the nobles whom the King should have aimed at commanding: for obedience may be a point of honor with them, since it is one of the statutes of ancient chivalry to submit to kings as to military commanders; but implicit obedience on the part of the people is nothing short of subjection, and the spirit of the age ran no longer in that direction. In our days the throne cannot be solidly established but on the power of law.
The King ought by no means to have sacrificed the popularity which he had lately acquired by granting a double number of deputies to the Third Estate. This popularity was of more consequence to him than all the promises of his courtiers. He lost it, however, by his address to the Assembly on the 23d of June; and, although that address contained some very good points, it failed entirely in its effect. Its very outset was repulsive to the Third Estate, and, from that moment forward, that body refused to listen to things which it would have received favorably, could it have been persuaded that the King was inclined to defend the nation against the claims of the privileged classes, and not the latter against the nation.9
[1. ] Baron Louis Auguste Le Tonnelier de Breteuil (1730–1807). After his fall from power in 1789, he emigrated and served as the King’s emissary abroad. He returned to France in 1802.
[2. ] In the Declaration of St. Ouen (a suburb of Paris) on May 2, 1814, Louis XVIII endorsed the principles of constitutional monarchy and promised to grant a new constitution. The Charter of 1814 was made public a month later.
[* ] On this spot, St. Ouen, my father passed a great part of his life; and puerile as it may seem, I cannot help being struck with the singular coincidence.
[3. ] Necker gave a full account of the June 23, 1789, royal council in De la Révolution française, pt. I, 175–215. Necker emphasized time and again the errors committed by some of Louis XVI’s advisers, who convinced the monarch to reject the necessary compromises demanded by the configuration of political forces in May and June 1789. The King’s greatest error was his refusal to accept the reunion of the three orders and his injunction to continue the deliberations separately. This course of action, Necker pointed out, was both imprudent and unwise, because the legitimate demands of the Third Estate, backed by public opinion, were accepted a few days later by a monarch whose authority and power were severely diminished by his inability to make timely concessions.
[4. ] The monarchiens also favored an upper house based on the English model, but such a proposal had no chance of swaying public opinion in 1789.
[5. ] Comedy in five acts in verses by Regnard (1696).
[6. ] The King dismissed Necker on July 11, 1789, and recalled him a few days later.
[7. ] Reference to the future monarchs Louis XVIII and Charles X. Meetings were held at Marly and Versailles, but Necker attended only the first one; his plans were criticized by Chaumont de la Galasière during the second meeting. Necker’s account of the royal councils held at Marly and Versailles can be found in De la Révolution française, pt. I, 198–201.
[8. ] Egeria was a fountain nymph who advised Numa Pompilius, one of the founders of Rome, in their frequent secret meetings. She subsequently became a byword for wise secret counsel.
[9. ] The King’s declaration of June 23, 1789, endorsed the old division in three orders and declared void the decisions previously taken by the representatives of the Third Estate. According to Necker, this was an unwise and imprudent decision on the part of the monarch and his closest advisers.