Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II: Of the Constituent Assembly After the 14th of July. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER II: Of the Constituent Assembly After the 14th of July. - 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 Constituent Assembly After the 14th of July.
The Third Estate, and the minority of the nobility and clergy, formed the majority of the Constituent Assembly; and this Assembly disposed of the fate of France. After the 14th of July, nothing could be more striking than the sight of twelve hundred deputies, listened to by numerous spectators, and stirred up at the very name of those great truths which have occupied the human mind since the origin of society on earth. This Assembly partook of the passions of the people; but no collection of men could present such an imposing mass of information.1 Thoughts were communicated there with electric rapidity, because the action of man on man is irresistible, and because nothing appealed more strongly to the imagination than that unarmed will bursting the ancient chains, forged originally by conquest and now suddenly disappearing before the simplicity of reason. We must carry ourselves back to 1789, when prejudice had been the only cause of mischief, and when unsullied liberty was the idol of enlightened minds. With what enthusiasm did one contemplate such a number of persons of different classes, some coming to make sacrifices, others to enter on the possession of their rights. Yet there were symptoms of a certain arrogance of power among those sovereigns of a new kind, who considered themselves depositories of a power without limits, the power of the people. The English had proceeded slowly in forming a new political constitution; the French, seeing it had stood its ground firmly for more than a century, ought to have been satisfied with its imitation.
Mounier, Lally, Malouet, Clermont-Tonnerre, came forward in support of the royal prerogative as soon as the Revolution had disarmed the partisans of the Old Regime.2 This course was dictated not only by reflection, but by that involuntary sympathy which we feel for the powerful in a state of misfortune, particularly when surrounded by august recollections. This generous feeling would have been that of the French at large, if the necessity of applause did not with them rise pre-eminent to every other impulse; and the spirit of the time inspired the maxims of demagogues into those very persons who were afterward to become the apologists of despotism.
A man of talent said some time ago, “Whoever may be named finance minister, may consider me beforehand as his friend, and even as, in some degree, his relative.” In France, on the other hand, it is a duty to befriend the vanquished party, be it what it may; for the possession of power produces a more depraving effect on the French than on any other nation. The habit of living at court, or the desire of getting there, forms their minds to vanity; and in an arbitrary government, people have no idea of any doctrine but that of success. It was the faults generated and brought forth by servility which were the cause of the excesses of licentiousness.
Every town, every village, sent its congratulations to the Assembly; and whoever had composed one of these forty thousand addresses began to think himself a rival to Montesquieu.
The crowd of spectators admitted into the galleries stimulated the speakers to such a degree that each endeavored to obtain a share in those peals of applause, which were so new and so seductive to the self-love of the individual. In the British Parliament it is a rule not to read a speech, it must be spoken; so that the number of persons capable of addressing the house with effect is necessarily very small. But, as soon as permission is given to read either what we have written for ourselves or what others have written for us, men of eminence are no longer the permanent leaders of an assembly, and we thus lose one of the great advantages of a free government—that of giving talent its place and, consequently, prompting all men to the improvement of their faculties. When one can become a courtier of the people with as little exertion as makes one a courtier of a prince, the cause of mankind gains nothing by the change.
The democratic declamations which obtained success in the assembly were transformed into actual outrage in the country; country-seats were burned in fulfillment of the epigrams pronounced by the popular speakers, and the kingdom was thrown into confusion by a war of words.
The Assembly was seized with a philosophic enthusiasm, proceeding, in part, from the example of America. That country, new as yet to history, had nothing in the shape of ancient usage to preserve, if we except the excellent regulations of English jurisprudence, which, long ago adopted in America, had there implanted a feeling of justice and reason. The French flattered themselves with the power of adopting for the basis of their government the principles that suited a new people; but, situated in the midst of Europe, and having a privileged caste, whose claims it was necessary to quiet, the plan was impracticable; besides, how were they to conciliate the institutions of a republic with the existence of a monarchy? The English constitution offered the only example of the solution of this problem. But a mania of vanity, something like that of a man of letters, prompted the French to innovate in this respect; they had all the fastidious apprehension of an author who refuses to borrow either character or situations from existing works. Now, as far as fiction goes, we do well to aim at originality; but when real institutions are in question, we are fortunate in having before us a practical proof of their utility.3 I should certainly be ashamed at this time,4 more than any other, to take part in declamations against the first representative assembly of France: it contained men of the greatest merit, and it is to the reforms introduced by it that the nation is still indebted for the stock of reason and liberty which it will, and ought to, preserve, at whatever sacrifice. But if this assembly had added to its shining talents a more scrupulous regard to morality, it would have found the happy medium between the two parties, who, if we may use the expression, contested with each other the theory of politics.
[1. ] The reader might find it interesting to compare Madame de Staël’s views on this issue with Burke’s. Staël opposed the idea that the representatives of the people are depositories of a power without limits. Burke argued: “That Assembly, since the destruction of the orders, has no fundamental law, no strict convention, no respected usage to restrain it. . . . Nothing in heaven or upon earth can serve as a control on them.” (Reflections, 135) Benjamin Constant insisted that since “no authority upon earth is unlimited,” even the authority of the democratically elected representatives of the people must be properly limited. He added: “The abstract limitation of sovereignty is not sufficient. We must find for political institutions which combine the interest of the different holders of power.” (Principles of Politics, 180, 182) Taine’s judgment on this issue can be found in Taine, The French Revolution, vol. I, 159–216.
[2. ] According to Acton, “Mounier, with some of his friends, deserves to be remembered among the men, not so common as they say, who loved liberty sincerely; I mean, who desired it, not for any good it might do them, but for itself, however arduous, or costly, or perilous its approach might be.” (Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution, 98)
[3. ] Burke made a similar point in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
[4. ] During the first years of the Bourbon Restoration.