Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IV: Of the Good Effected by the Constituent Assembly. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER IV: Of the Good Effected by the Constituent Assembly. - 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 Good Effected by the Constituent Assembly.
Before entering on the distressing events which have disfigured the French Revolution, and lost, perhaps for a considerable time, the cause of reason and liberty in Europe, let us examine the principles proclaimed by the Constituent Assembly and exhibit a sketch of the advantages which their application has produced, and still produces in France, in spite of all the misfortunes that have pressed on that country.
The use of torture still subsisted in 1789; the King had abolished only the rack before trial; punishments, such as straining on the wheel, and torments similar to those which during three days were inflicted on Damiens, were, in certain cases, still admitted. The Constituent Assembly abolished even the name of these judicial barbarities. The penal laws against the Protestants, already modified in 1787 by the predecessors of the Estates General, were replaced by the most complete liberty of public worship.
Criminal processes were not carried on in public, and not only were a number of irreparable mistakes committed, but a much greater number were supposed; for whatever is not public in the administration of justice is always accounted unfair.
The Constituent Assembly introduced into France all the criminal jurisprudence of England, and perhaps improved it in several respects, as they were not checked in their labors by ancient usages. M. de la Fayette, from the time that he was placed at the head of the armed force of Paris, declared to the magistrates of that city that he could not take upon himself to arrest anyone unless the accused were to be provided with counsel, a copy of the charge, the power of confronting witnesses, and publicity given to the whole procedure. In consequence of this demand, equally liberal and rare on the part of a military man, the magistrates asked and obtained from the Constituent Assembly that those precious securities should be in force till the establishment of juries should prevent all anxiety about the equity of the decisions.
The parlements of France were, as is apparent from their history, bodies possessing certain privileges and acting frequently as the instruments of political passions; but from their having a certain independence in their constitution, and preserving a strict respect for forms, the King’s ministers were almost always in a state of altercation with them. Since the commencement of the French monarchy there has, as we have already remarked, hardly existed a state offense, the knowledge of which has not been withdrawn from the ordinary courts, or in the decision of which the forms enjoined by law were preserved. In examining the endless list of ministers, noblemen, and citizens condemned to death on political grounds during several centuries, we see, and it is to the honor of the established judges that we say it, that government was obliged to commit the trials to extraordinary commissions when it wished to secure a conviction.1 These commissions were, it is true, usually composed of men who had been judges, but they were not formed on the established plan; and yet government had but too much reason to reckon with confidence on the spirit of the courts. Criminal jurisprudence in France was entirely adapted to avenge the wrongs of government, and did not protect individuals at all. In consequence of the aristocratic abuses which oppressed the nation, civil actions were conducted with much more equity than the criminal, because the higher ranks were more interested in them. In France, even at present, very little difference is made between a man brought to trial and a man found guilty; while in England, the judge himself apprises the accused of the importance of the questions he is about to put to him, and of the danger to which he may expose himself by his answers. To begin with the commissaries of police and end with the application of torture, we find that there scarcely exists a method that has not been employed by the old jurisprudence, and by the tribunals of the Revolution, to ensnare the man brought to trial; the man for whom society ought to provide the means of defense because it considers itself to have the sad right of taking away his life.
Had the Constituent Assembly abolished the punishment of death, at least for political offenses, perhaps the judicial assassinations which we have witnessed would not have taken place.2 The Emperor Leopold II, in his capacity of Grand Duke of Tuscany, abolished the punishment of death in his territories, and so far from increasing offenses by the mildness of his legislation, the prisons were empty during several months successively, a thing never before known in that country. The National Assembly substituted for the parliaments, composed of men who had purchased their places, the admirable institutions of juries, which will be daily more venerated as the public becomes more sensible of its advantages.3 Particular circumstances of rare occurrence may intimidate jurymen when both government and the people unite to alarm them; but we have seen most of the factions which have succeeded to power distrust these equitable tribunals and replace them by military commissions, and by prevôtal or by special courts,4 which are merely so many names to disguise political murders. The Constituent Assembly, on the other hand, limited, as much as it possibly could, the competency of courts-martial, confining their jurisdiction to trespasses committed by soldiers in time of war, and out of the territory of France; it deprived the prevôtal courts of those powers which it has since unluckily attempted to renew and even to extend.
Lettres de cachet enabled the King, and consequently his ministers, to exile, transport, or imprison for life any man without even the form of trial. A power of this nature, wherever it exists, is equivalent to despotism: it ought to have fallen from the first day that the deputies of the French nation were assembled.
The Constituent Assembly, by proclaiming complete liberty of worship, replaced religion in its sanctuary—the conscience; and twelve centuries of superstition, hypocrisy, and massacre, no longer left any traces, thanks to the short interval in which the power of legislation was placed in the hands of enlightened men.
Religious vows were no longer deemed obligatory in law; every individual, of either sex, was left at liberty to impose on themselves the most singular privations if they thought that such was the mode of pleasing the author of all pure and virtuous enjoyments; but society no longer took on itself to force either monks or nuns to remain in their secluded abodes if they repented the unfortunate promises made in a moment of enthusiasm. The younger sons of families, frequently obliged to enter the ecclesiastical state, were now freed from their chains, and were afterward set still more at liberty when the property of the clergy became the property of the country.5
A hundred thousand nobles were exempt from the payment of taxes.6 They were not accountable for an insult committed on a citizen or on a soldier of the Third Estate, because they were considered as of a different race. Officers could be appointed only from among those privileged persons, with the exception of the artillery and engineer departments, in which there was required a larger share of information than was in general possessed by the provincial nobles.7 Regiments were, however, given to young men of rank incapable of commanding them, because, their birth preventing them from following any other than the military profession, it became incumbent on government to provide for their support. The consequence was that, with the exception of personal courage, the French army under the Old Regime was becoming daily less and less respectable in the eyes of foreigners. What emulation, and what military talents, has not the equality of the citizens drawn forth in France! It is thus that we owe to the Constituent Assembly that glory of our arms of which we had reason to be proud, so long as it did not become the property of one man.8
The unlimited power of the King enabled him, by a lettre de cachet, to shield a man of rank from prosecution when he had been guilty of a crime. Of this the Comte de Charalois9 was a striking example in the last century, and many others of the same nature might be quoted. Yet, by a singular contrast the relatives of the nobility lost none of their respectability when one of their number underwent a capital punishment, while the family of a man of the Third Estate was dishonored if he was condemned to the infamous death of hanging, from which the nobles alone were exempt.
All these prejudices vanished in a day. The power of reason is immense, as soon as it can show itself without obstruction. The efforts made in the last fifteen years have been in vain: it will be impossible to bring back the nation to the endurance of those abuses which force alone had maintained.
We are indebted to the Constituent Assembly for the suppression of the privileged castes in France, and for civil liberty to all; at least, we owe to them liberty, such as it exists in their decrees; for it has been always found necessary to deviate from these decrees when attempts were made to re-establish suppressed abuses either under new or old names.
Law in France was so varied and multiform that not only were the different orders of the state governed by different laws, but almost each province, as we have already remarked, had its distinct privileges. The Constituent Assembly, by dividing France into eighty-three departments, effaced these ancient separations: it suppressed the taxes on salt and tobacco, taxes equally expensive and vexatious, which exposed to the severest punishment a number of fathers of families who were tempted, by the facility of contraband, to violate unjust laws. The taxes were rendered uniform, and this advantage, at least, is secured forever.
Distinctions of all kinds were invented by the nobles of the second order to protect them from that equality with which they are in truth very closely threatened. The privileged of yesterday aimed, above all things, to escape being confounded with the people of whom they were so lately a part. The tithes and feudal services pressed heavily on the poor; compulsory service, such as that of the corvée, and other relicts of feudal barbarism were still general. The game laws contained provisions ruinous to the farmers, and the insolent tone of these laws was at least as revolting as the actual evil that resulted from them.
If we are surprised that France should still have so many resources in spite of her misfortunes; if, notwithstanding the loss of her colonies, commerce has opened new paths; if the progress of agriculture is wonderful in spite of the conscription and the invasion of foreign troops, it is to the decrees of the Constituent Assembly that we are to attribute it. France under the old form would have sunk under the thousandth part of the disasters which France of the present day has supported.
The division of properties, by the sale of the church lands, has relieved a very numerous class of society from a state of misery. It is to the suppression of the rights of corporations and wardenships, and to the removal of all restraints on industry, that we are to attribute the increase of manufactures and the spirit of enterprise which has shown itself in all directions. In short, a nation long fixed to the soil has come forth in a manner from underground; and we are astonished, after all the scourges of civil discord, at the store of talent, wealth, and emulation in a country delivered from the threefold fetters of an intolerant church, a feudal nobility, and an unlimited monarchy.10
The finances, which seemed so complicated a labor, assumed regularity almost of themselves as soon as it was decided that the taxes should await the sanction of the representatives of the people, and that publicity should be given to the accounts of revenue and expenditure. The Constituent Assembly is perhaps the only one in France that fully represented the national wish; and it is on that account that its strength was incalculable.
Another aristocracy, that of the capital, had also an imperious sway. Everything was done at Paris, or rather at Versailles; for all power was concentrated in the ministers and in the court. The Constituent Assembly easily accomplished what M. Necker had attempted in vain, the establishment of provincial assemblies. One was constituted in each department,11 and municipalities were appointed for each town. Local business was thus committed to magistrates who took a real interest in it, and who were personally known to those whose affairs they administered. On all sides were diffused life, emulation, and intelligence: there was a France instead of a capital, a capital instead of a court. The voice of the people, so long called the voice of God, was at last consulted by government; and it would have supplied a wise rule of guidance had not, as we are condemned to remember, the Constituent Assembly proceeded with too much precipitation in its reform, from the very commencement of its power; and had it not soon after fallen into the hands of factious men, who, having nothing more to reap in the field of beneficence, endeavored to excite mischief, that they might enter on a new career.
The establishment of a national guard is another very great benefit derived from the Constituent Assembly. No liberty can exist in that country where arms are borne only by soldiers, and not by citizens. Finally, this Assembly, in proclaiming the renunciation of conquests, seemed inspired by prophetic dread; wishing to turn the vivacity of the French toward internal improvement and raise the dominion of thought above that of arms. All inferior men are ready to call the bayonet to their assistance against the arguments of reason, that they may act by means just as mechanical as their own understanding; but superior minds desire nothing but the free exercise of thought, and are aware how much a state of war is unfavorable to it.12 The good produced by the Constituent Assembly in France doubtless inspired the nation with that energetic feeling which made it defend by arms the rights it had acquired; but we are bound, in justice, to say that the principles of this Assembly were perfectly pacific. It felt no envy toward any portion of Europe; and if it had been shown, in a magic mirror, France losing her liberty by her victories, it would have endeavored to combat this impulse of the blood by the more lofty impulse of the understanding.
[1. ] Reference to the special commissions instituted for the punishment of those involved in black market or various political activities.
[2. ] Robespierre proposed the elimination of the death penalty in May 1791. It was finally abolished in February 1848, but the decree was not implemented before 1871.
[3. ] Judgment by jury was a major topic in the political debates of the Bourbon Restoration, when it was defended by all French liberals from Constant to Royer-Collard. In volume 1 of Democracy in America, Tocqueville drew a long list of the advantages of juries for the democratic education of citizens, insisting on the seminal role played by the juries in the apprenticeship of civil and political liberties.
[4. ] This occurred during the Consulate and the Empire. On prevotal and martial courts in France, see Jacques Godechot, Les institutions de la France sous la révolution et l’empire.
[5. ] On this issue, see Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution, 143–50. In August 1789, it was decided that the clergy, once a powerful and privileged order, would become salaried functionaries of the state. On November 26, 1789, the majority of the representatives (568 to 346) voted to place the possessions of the clergy at the disposal of the French state. After the property of the church became the property of the state, the Constituent Assembly passed the so-called Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 12, 1790), which regulated the relations between church and state under the new political circumstances. Pope Pius VI condemned the document as heretical in the spring of 1791. The text of the Civil Constitution can be found in Baker, ed., The Old Regime and the French Revolution, vol. 7, 239–42. For more information, see A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 449–57.
[6. ] The nobles were exempt from the payment of the taille. At the same time they did not pay the other direct taxes according to their wealth.
[7. ] After the changes introduced by Count de Saint-Germain and the Marshal de Ségur in 1776–77 and 1781, all the officers were required to prove that they had a certain noble origin.
[8. ] Reference to Napoléon, the archenemy of Madame de Staël.
[9. ] The brother of the Duke of Bourbon, the Count of Charalois, was known for his extravagant behavior and numerous conflicts with the authorities (he was arrested and freed). His land was annexed by France after his death in 1761.
[10. ] In spite of their many political affinities, Madame de Staël and Burke differed significantly in their views on the Constituent Assembly. Burke ended up rejecting the entire work of the Assembly, while Staël espoused a much more nuanced position in line with that of other French liberals.
[11. ] As Godechot pointed out, the Assembly was instrumental in the creation of conseils généraux des departements, whose attributions were different from those of the provincial assemblies.
[12. ] An indirect critique of Napoléon, who shrewdly used the army and censorship to strengthen his personal power.