Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXIII: Return of M. Necker. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER XXIII: Return of M. Necker. - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
Return of M. Necker.
M. Necker, on arriving at Brussels, remained two days to take rest before proceeding to Switzerland by way of Germany. His greatest subject of disquietude at this time was the scarcity that threatened Paris. In the preceding winter his indefatigable exertions had preserved the capital from the misfortune of famine; but the bad harvest rendered it more and more necessary to have recourse to foreign arrivals and to the credit of the great mercantile houses of Europe. He had consequently written in the beginning of July to Messrs. Hope, the celebrated Amsterdam merchants; and apprehensive that, in the existing posture of affairs, they might be averse to undertake the purchase of corn for France, unless he personally guaranteed the payment, he had offered them security to the extent of a million livres on his private fortune. On arriving at Brussels, M. Necker recalled this guarantee to his mind. He had reason to fear that, in the crisis of a revolution, the duties of government might be neglected, or that the news of his departure might be prejudicial to the public credit. Messrs. Hope, in particular, might presume that, under such circumstances, M. Necker would withdraw his security; but he even wrote to them from Brussels that he was exiled from France, but that they were to consider the personal engagement he had taken as unaltered.
The Baron de Breteuil, during the few days that he was minister, received the answer of Messrs. Hope to M. Necker’s first letter, which contained an offer to guarantee their purchases by his private fortune. M. Dufresne de Saint-Léon,1 chief clerk in the finance department, a man of penetration and decision, gave this letter to the Baron de Breteuil, who treated the whole as folly: “What,” said he, “can the private fortune of a minister have to do with the public interest?” He might as well have added, “Why does this foreigner interfere at all with the affairs of France?”
During the interval that M. Necker was traveling along the German frontier, the Revolution of the 14th of July took place at Paris. Madame de Polignac,2 whom he had left at Versailles all powerful by the Queen’s favor, sent for him to his great surprise in an inn at Basel and apprised him that she had fled in consequence of the events that had occurred. M. Necker could not conceive the possibility of proscriptions, and he was long in comprehending the motives that had led to the departure of Madame de Polignac. Letters brought by couriers, orders from the King, and invitations from the Assembly, all pressed him to resume his situation. “M. Necker,” says Burke, in one of his writings, “was recalled, like Pompey, to his misfortune, and, like Marius, he sat down on ruins.”3 M. and Madame Necker saw the matter in this light, and it will appear from the details that I have given in the private life of my father,4 how much it cost him to take the determination of returning.
All the flattering circumstances attending his recall could not blind him in regard to the actual state of things. Murders had been committed by the people on the 14th of July, and M. Necker, at once religious and philosophic in his manner of viewing things, abandoned all hope of the success of a cause already marked by bloodshed. Nor could he flatter himself with possessing the confidence of the King, since Louis recalled him only from dread of the danger to which his absence exposed him. Had he been actuated merely by ambition, nothing was easier than to return in triumph, supporting himself on the strength of the National Assembly; but it was only to sacrifice himself to the King, and to France, that M. Necker consented to resume his position after the Revolution of the 14th of July. He thought to serve the country by lavishing his popularity in the defense of the royal authority, now too much weakened. He hoped that a man exiled by the aristocratic party would be heard with the same favor when he pleaded their cause. A distinguished citizen in whom twenty-seven years of revolution daily discovered new virtues, an admirable orator whose eloquence has defended the cause of his father, of his country, and of his King, Lally Tollendal,5 combining both reason and emotion—one who is never led away from truth by enthusiasm, expressed himself thus on M. Necker’s character and conduct, at the time of his removal:
We have just learned, Gentlemen, the deception practiced on the confidence of a King whom we love, and the wound given to the hopes of the nation whom we represent.
I will not now repeat all that has been said to you, with as much justice as energy; I will lay before you a plain sketch, and ask of you to accompany me back to the month of August of last year.
The King was deceived.
The laws were without administrators, and a population of twenty-five million without judges;
The treasury without money, without credit, without the means of preventing a general bankruptcy, which in fact would have taken place in the course of a few days;
Those in power had neither respect for the liberty of individuals, nor strength to maintain public order; the people without any resource but the convocation of the Estates General, yet hopeless of obtaining it, and distrustful even of the promise of a King whose probity they revered, because they persisted in believing that the ministers of the day would elude compliance.
To these political afflictions Providence, in its anger, had joined others; ravage and desolation was spread through the country; famine appeared in the distance, threatening a part of the kingdom.
The cry of truth reached the King’s ears; his eye fixed itself on this distressing picture; his pure and upright heart was moved; he yielded to the wish of the people; he recalled the minister whom the people demanded.
Justice resumed its course.
The public treasury was filled; credit reappeared as in times of the greatest prosperity; the infamous name of bankruptcy was no longer pronounced.
The prisons were opened, and restored to society the victims whom they contained.
The insurrections, of which the seeds had been sown in several provinces, and which were likely to lead to the most dreadful results, were confined to troubles certainly afflicting in their nature, but temporary, and soon appeased by wisdom and leniency.
The Estates General were once more promised: no one was now doubtful of their meeting, when they saw a virtuous King confide the execution of his promise to a virtuous minister. The King’s name was covered with benedictions.
The season of scarcity came. Immense exertions, the sea covered with ships, all the powers of Europe applied to, the two hemispheres put under contribution for our subsistence, more than fourteen hundred thousand quintals of corn and flour imported among us, more than twenty-five million taken out of the royal treasury, an active, efficacious, unremitted concern applied every day, every hour, in every place succeeded in warding off this calamity; and the paternal disquietude, the generous sacrifices of the King, published by his minister, excited in the hearts of all his subjects new feelings of love and gratitude.
Finally, in spite of numberless obstacles, the Estates General were assembled. The Estates General assembled! How many things, Gentlemen, are comprised in these few words! how many benefits do they suggest! to what a degree ought the gratitude of Frenchmen to be fixed on them! Certain divisions appeared at the outset of this memorable assembly; let us beware of reproaching each other with it, and let none of us pretend to be wholly innocent. Let us rather say for the sake of peace, that every one of us may have allowed himself to fall into some venial errors; let us say that the last moment of prejudice is like the last moment of him whom it torments—that at the instant it is about to expire, it acquires a temporary animation and shows a final gleam of existence. Let us acknowledge that, as far as human exertions could go, there was not one conciliating measure which the minister did not attempt with the most strict impartiality, and that where he did not succeed, the fault lay in the force of circumstances. But amidst diversity of opinion a patriotic feeling animated every heart; the pacifying efforts of the minister, the reiterated invitations of the King, were at last successful. A reunion took place: every day removed some principle of division; every day produced a motive for reconciliation: a plan of a constitution, sketched by an experienced hand, conceived by an intelligent mind and an upright heart [by Mounier], rallied all our minds and all our hearts. We were now making a real progress: we now entered effectually on our task, and France was beginning to respire.
It is at this instant, after overcoming so many obstacles, in the midst of so many hopes and so many wants, that perfidious advisers removed from the most just of kings, his most faithful servant, and, from the nation, the citizen minister in whom she had placed her confidence.
Who then are his accusers before the throne? certainly not the parliaments, whom he recalled; certainly not the people, whom he saved from famine; nor the public creditors, whom he paid; nor the upright citizens, whose wishes he has seconded. Who are they then? I do not know, but some there must be; the justice, the well-known goodness of the King do not allow me to doubt it—whoever they are, their guilt is serious.
If we cannot trace the accusers, let us endeavor to find the crimes which they may have laid to his charge. This minister, whom the King had granted to his people as a gift of his love, in what manner has he become all at once the object of ill will? what has he done for the last year? we have just seen it, I have said it, and I now repeat it: when there was no money in the treasury, he paid us; when we had no bread, he fed us; when there was no authority left, he calmed those who revolted. I have heard him accused alternately of shaking the throne, and of rendering the King despotic; of sacrificing the people to the nobility, and the nobility to the people. I considered these accusations the ordinary lot of the just and impartial, and the double censure appeared to me a double homage.
I recollect further having heard him called a factious man; I asked myself the meaning of this expression. I asked what other minister had ever been more devoted to the master whom he served, what other had been more eager to publish the virtues and good actions of the King, what other had given or procured to him a larger share of benedictions, of testimonies of love, and of respect.
Members of the Commons! whose noble sympathy made you rush before him on the day of his last triumph; that day, when after fearing you would lose him, you believed that he was restored to you for a longer time; when you surrounded him, when in the name of the people, of whom you are the august representatives, in the name of the King, whose faithful subjects you are, you entreated him to remain the minister of both, while you were shedding your virtuous tears on him; ah! say if it was with a factious look, or with the insolence of the leader of a party, that he received all these testimonies of your affection? Did he say to you, or did he ask you anything but to put your confidence in the King, to love the King, and to render this assembly dear to the King? Members of the Commons, answer me, I entreat you, and if my voice presumes to give publicity to a falsehood, let yours arise to confound me.
And his manner of retiring, Gentlemen, did it bear in any respect the appearance of a factious mind? His most trusted servants, his most affectionate friends, even his family, remained ignorant of his departure. He professed that he was going to the country; he left a prey to anxiety all who were connected with him, all who were attached to him; a night was passed in seeking him in all directions. Such behavior would be perfectly natural in the case of a prevaricator eager to escape the public indignation; but when you consider that he did it to withdraw from its homage, from expressions of regret which would have followed him along his way, and which might have soothed his misfortunes; that he should have deprived himself of this consolation, and suffered in the persons of all whom he loved, rather than be the cause of a moment’s disorder or popular commotion; that in short the last feeling that he experienced, the last duty that he prescribed to himself in quitting that France from which he was banished, consisted in giving the King and the nation this proof of respect and attachment—we must either not believe in the existence of virtue, or confess that virtue is here displayed in as pure a form as she ever exhibited on earth.
All that I had hitherto seen—the transports of the people which I had witnessed, my father’s carriage drawn by the citizens of the towns through which we passed—women on their knees when they saw him pass along the road—nothing made me experience so lively an emotion as such an opinion pronounced by such a man.
In less than a fortnight two million national guards were under arms in France. The arming of this militia was, no doubt, quickened by the dexterous circulation of a rumor in every town and village that the arrival of the brigands was imminent;6 but the unanimous feeling that drew the people from a state of tutelage was inspired by no artifice and directed by no party; the ascendency of the privileged bodies, and the strength of regular troops, disappeared in an instant. The nation took the place of all; it said, like the Cid, “We now arise”; and to show itself was to accomplish the victory. But alas! it also, in a short time, was depraved by flatterers, because it had become a power.
In the journey from Basel to Paris, the newly constituted authorities came out to address M. Necker as he passed through the towns; he recommended to them respect for property, attention to the clergy and nobility, and love for the King. He prevailed on them to grant passports to several persons who were quitting France. The Baron de Besenval, who had commanded a part of the German troops, was arrested at the distance of ten leagues from Paris, and the municipality of the capital had ordered him to be brought thither. M. Necker took on himself to suspend the execution of this order, in the dread, for which there were but too strong reasons, that the populace of Paris would have massacred him in its rage. But M. Necker felt all the danger that he incurred, in acting thus on the mere ground of his popularity. Accordingly, the day after his return to Versailles, he repaired to the Hotel de Ville of Paris to give an explanation of his conduct.
Let me be permitted to dwell once more on this day, the last of pure happiness in my life, which, however, had hardly begun its course. The whole population of Paris rushed in crowds into the streets; men and women were seen at the windows, and on the roofs, calling out Vive M. Necker. As he drew near the Hotel de Ville the acclamations redoubled, the square was filled with a multitude animated by one feeling, and pressing forward to receive a single man, and that man was my father. He entered the hall of the Hotel de Ville, explained to the newly elected magistrates the order that he had given to save M. de Besenval; and urging to them, with his accustomed delicacy, all that pleaded in favor of those who had acted in obedience to their sovereign, and in defense of a state of things that had existed during several centuries, he asked an amnesty for the past, whatever it might be, and reconciliation for the future. The confederates of Rutli,7 in the beginning of the fourteenth century, when they swore to deliver Switzerland, swore at the same time to be just toward their adversaries; and it was doubtless to this noble resolution that they were indebted for their triumph. Hardly had M. Necker pronounced the word amnesty, than it came home to every heart; the people collected in the square were eager to participate in it. M. Necker then came forward on the balcony, and proclaiming in a loud voice the sacred words of peace among Frenchmen of all parties, the whole multitude answered him with transport. As for me, I saw nothing after this instant, for I was bereft of my senses by joy.
Amiable and generous France, adieu! Adieu, France, which desired liberty, and which might then so easily have obtained it! I am now doomed to relate first your faults, next your crimes, and lastly your misfortunes: gleams of your virtues will still appear; but the light which they cast will serve only to show more clearly the depth of your miseries. Yet you have ever possessed such titles to be loved, that the mind still cherishes the hope of finding you what you were in the earliest days of national union. A friend returning after a long absence would be welcomed more kindly for the separation.
[1. ] Dufresne de Saint-Léon had collaborated with Necker on the publication of the Compte rendu in 1781. On July 17, 1789, he was charged with the mission of bringing Necker back to Paris. They met in Basel six days later.
[2. ] Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchess of Polignac, was a close friend of the Queen. The duchess went into exile and died in Vienna in 1793.
[3. ] Staël does not indicate the exact source. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke refers favorably to Necker and draws heavily upon Necker’s De l’administration des finances de la France (1784).
[4. ] The title of the original text edited by Madame de Staël was Manuscrits de M. Necker publiés par sa fille (Geneva, 1795). A second edition was published two decades later under the title Mémoires sur la vie privée de mon père par Mme la baronne de Staël-Holstein, suivies des mélanges de M. Necker (Paris and London, 1818).
[5. ] Trophime-Gérard de Lally-Tollendal (1751–1830) was a follower of Montesquieu and a prominent member of the French monarchiens. During the Revolution, he emerged as one of the most eloquent defenders of constitutional monarchy and was one of forty-seven nobles who joined the National Assembly a few days after the Royal Council of June 23, 1789. On August 31, 1789, Lally gave a famous speech on the relationship between the executive and legislative powers and the royal veto (republished in Orateurs de la Révolution française, 364–92). He had an interesting correspondence with Burke and spent some time in England, where he fled after being imprisoned briefly in August 1792. He returned to France under the Consulate and became active in politics again under the Restoration, when he was also elected to the French Academy.
[6. ] A reference to the Great Fear (July 20–August 6, 1789).
[7. ] A reference to an important moment in the history of Switzerland. In 1291 people from Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden feared that the counts of Habsburg would try to regain influence in their territories. As a result, they met and swore to help each other against anyone attempting to subject them. This is the historical background of the legend of the Oath on Rütli (a meadow on the western shore of Lake Lucerne).