Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER V: Liberty of the Press, and State of the Police, During the Time of the Constituent Assembly. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER V: Liberty of the Press, and State of the Police, During the Time of 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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Liberty of the Press, and State of the Police, During the Time of the Constituent Assembly.
Not only does the Constituent Assembly claim the gratitude of the French people for the reform of the abuses by which they were oppressed; but we must render it the further praise of being the only one of the authorities which have governed France before and since the Revolution which allowed, freely and unequivocally, the liberty of the press. This it no doubt did more willingly from the certainty of its having public opinion in its favor; but there can be no free government except on that condition. Moreover, although the great majority of publications were in favor of the principles of the Revolution, the newspapers on the aristocratic side attacked, with the greatest bitterness, individuals of the popular party, who could not fail to be irritated by it.1
Previous to 1789, Holland and England were the only countries in Europe that enjoyed the liberty of the press secured by law. Political discussions in periodical journals began at the same time with representative governments; and these governments are inseparable from them. In absolute monarchies, a court gazette suffices for the publication of official news; but that a whole nation may read daily discussions on public affairs, it is necessary that it should consider public affairs as its own. The liberty of the press is then quite a different matter in countries where there are assemblies whose debates may be printed every morning in the newspapers, and under the silent government of unlimited power. The censure préalable, or examination before printing, may, under the latter government, either deprive us of a good work or preserve us from a bad one. But the case is not the same with newspapers, the interest of which is momentary: these, if subjected to previous examination, are necessarily dependent on ministers; and there is no longer a national representation from the time that the executive power has in its hands, by means of newspapers, the daily molding of facts and reasonings: this makes it as much master of the public opinion as of the troops in its pay.
All persons are agreed on the necessity of repressing by law the abuses of the liberty of the press; but if the executive power alone has the right of giving a tone to the newspapers, which convey to constituents the speeches of their delegates, the censorship is no longer defensive, it is imperative; for it must prescribe the spirit in which the public papers are to be composed. It is not then a negative but a positive power, that is conferred on the ministers of a country when they are invested with the correction, or rather the composition of newspapers. They can thus circulate whatever they want about an individual, and prevent that individual from publishing his justification. At the time of the revolution of England, in 1688, it was by sermons delivered in the churches that public opinion was formed. The case is similar in regard to newspapers in France: had the Constituent Assembly forbidden the reading of “the Acts of the Apostles,”2 and permitted only the periodical publications adverse to the aristocratic party, the public, suspecting some mystery because it witnessed constraint, would not have so cordially attached itself to deputies whose conduct it could not follow nor appreciate with certainty.
Absolute silence on the part of newspapers would, in that case, be infinitely preferable, since the few letters that would reach the country would convey, at least, some pure truths. The art of printing would bring back mankind to the darkness of sophistry were it wholly under the management of the executive power, and were governments thus enabled to counterfeit the public voice. Every discovery for the improvement of society is instrumental to a despotic purpose if it is not conducive to liberty.
But the troubles of France were caused, it will be alleged, by the licentiousness of the press. Who does not now admit that the Constituent Assembly ought to have left seditious publications, like every other public offense, to the judgment of the courts? But if for the purpose of maintaining its power it had silenced its adversaries, and confined the command of the press only to its adherents, the representative government would have been extinguished. A national representation on an imperfect plan is but an additional instrument in the hands of tyranny. The history of England shows how far obsequious parliaments go beyond even ministers themselves in the adulation of power. Responsibility has no terrors to a collective body; besides, the more admirable a thing is in itself, whether we speak of national representation, oratory, or the talent of composition, the more despicable it becomes when perverted from its natural destination; in that case, that which is naturally bad proves the less exceptionable of the two.
Representatives form by no means a separate caste; they do not possess the gift of miracles; they are of importance only when supported by the nation; but as soon as that support fails them, a battalion of grenadiers is stronger than an assembly of three hundred deputies. It is then a moral power which enables them to balance the physical power of that authority which soldiers obey; and this moral power consists entirely in the action of the liberty of the press on the public mind. The power which distributes patronage becomes everything as soon as the public opinion, which awards reputation, is reduced to nothing.
But cannot this right, some persons may say, be suspended for some time? And by what means should we then be apprised of the necessity of re-establishing it? The liberty of the press is the single right on which all other rights depend; the security of an army is in its sentinels. When you wish to write against the suspension of that liberty, your arguments on such a subject are exactly what government does not permit you to publish.
There is, however, one circumstance that may necessitate the submitting of newspapers to examination, that is, to the authority of the government which they ought to enlighten: I mean, when foreigners happen to be masters of a country. But in that case, there is nothing in the country, do what you will, that can be compared to regular government. The only interest of the oppressed nation is then to recover, if possible, its independence; and, as in a prison, silence is more likely to soften the jailor than complaint, we should be silent so long as chains are imposed at once on our thoughts and our feelings.
A merit of the highest kind which belonged, beyond dispute, to the Constituent Assembly was that of always respecting the principles of freedom, which it proclaimed. Often have I seen sold at the door of an assembly more powerful than ever was a king of France, the most bitter insults to the members of the majority, their friends, and their principles. The Assembly forebore likewise to have recourse to any of the secret expedients of power, and looked to no other support than the general adherence of the country. The secrecy of private correspondence was inviolate, and the invention of a ministry of police did not then figure in the list of possible calamities.3 The case in regard to the police is the same as in regard to the restraint on newspapers: the actual state of France, occupied by foreign troops,4 can alone give a proper conception of its cruel necessity.
When the Constituent Assembly, removed from Versailles to Paris, was, in many respects, no longer mistress of its deliberations, one of its committees thought proper to take the name of Committee of Inquiries, appointed to examine into the existence of some alleged conspiracies denounced in the Assembly. This committee was without power, as it had no spies or agents under its orders, and the freedom of speech was besides wholly unlimited. But the mere name of Committee of Inquiries, analogous to that of the inquisitorial institutions adopted by tyrants in church and state, inspired general aversion;5 and poor Voydel, who happened to be president of this committee, although perfectly inoffensive, was not admitted into any party.
The dreadful sect of Jacobins pretended, in the sequel, to found liberty on despotism, and from that system arose all the crimes of the Revolution. But the Constituent Assembly was far from adopting that course; its measures were strictly conformable to its object, and it was in liberty itself that it sought the strength necessary to establish liberty. Had it combined with this noble indifference to the attacks of its adversaries, for which public opinion avenged it, a proper severity against all publications and meetings which stimulated the populace to disorder; had it considered that the moment any party becomes powerful, its first duty is to repress its own adherents, this Assembly would have governed with so much energy and wisdom that the work of ages might have been accomplished, perhaps, in two years. One can scarcely refrain from believing that that fatality, which so often punishes the pride of man, was here the only obstacle: for, at that time, everything appeared easy, so great was the union of the public and so fortunate the combination of circumstances.
[1. ] Madame de Staël’s statement must be interpreted in the historical context of the first years of the Bourbon Restoration, during which time the issue of the liberty of the press, one of the pillars of representative government, was widely debated in the Chamber of Deputies. Staël’s friend Benjamin Constant was one of the most important and eloquent defenders of liberty of the press against its critics. Staël favored absolute liberty for books but defended the need for censorship of journals. For more information, see Hatin, Histoire politique et littéraire de la presse en France, vol. 8. For more information about freedom of the press in France since 1789, also see Avenel, Histoire de la presse française depuis 1789 à nos jours; and Livois, Histoire de la presse française. I: Des origins à 1881.
[2. ] The main authors were Rivarol and Peltier. Also see Belanger et al., Histoire générale de la presse française, vol. 1, 475–79.
[3. ] Such a ministry of police was created under the Directory in 1796.
[4. ] Humiliated by its defeat at Waterloo in 1814, France was placed under the supervision of the League of the Holy Alliance represented by Russia, Austria, and Prussia, which had the right to interfere in the domestic affairs of all other European countries. The Allies demanded that France surrender a considerable piece of its territory (including three key cities: Lille, Metz, and Strasbourg), pay an indemnity of 700 million francs, and accept a five-year military occupation (later reduced to three years). As a result of the Treaty of November 1815, France lost at least 500,000 inhabitants and was required to accommodate some 800,000 foreign soldiers, who had to be supplied by means of requisitions.
[5. ] The formation of the Committee of Inquiries was followed by the creation of a Committee of General Security in 1792.