Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI: Of the Different Parties Conspicuous in the Constituent Assembly. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER VI: Of the Different Parties Conspicuous in 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 Different Parties Conspicuous in the Constituent Assembly.
There was one general disposition among all the popular party, for all aimed at liberty; but there were particular divisions in the majority as in the minority of the Assembly, and most of these divisions were founded on the personal interests which now began to prevail. When the influence of an assembly ceases to be confined within the limits of legislating, and when a great share of the public patronage falls into its hands, the danger in any country, but particularly in France, is that general views and principles generate only sophisms, which make general truths dexterously subservient to the purposes of individuals.
The aristocratic part of the Assembly, called the right side (coté droit), was composed almost entirely of nobles, prelates, and members of the old parliament: scarcely thirty members of the Third Estate had joined them. This party, which had protested against all the resolutions of the Assembly, continued to attend it only from motives of prudence: all that passed there appeared to it insolent and unimportant; so ridiculous did they think that discovery of the eighteenth century—a nation—while, till then, nothing had been heard of but nobility, priests, and people. When the members of the right side condescended to drop their ironical strain, it was to treat as impious every encroachment made on old institutions; as if the social order alone, in the course of nature, ought to be doomed to the double infirmity of infancy and old age, and to pass from the formlessness of youth to the decrepitude of old age without receiving any real strength from the knowledge acquired over time. The privileged orders made use of religion as a safeguard for the interest of their caste; and it was by thus confounding privileges and dogmas that they greatly impaired the influence of true Christianity in France.
The orator of the nobles, as I have already remarked, was M. de Casalès, who had been ennobled within the last twenty-five years; for most of the men of talent among the families of real antiquity had sided with the popular party. The Abbé Maury, the orator of the clergy, often supported the good cause, because he was on the side of the vanquished, a circumstance which contributed more to his success than even his talents. The Archbishop of Aix, the Abbé de Montesquiou, and other acute defenders of their orders sometimes endeavored, like Casalès, to win the favor of their adversaries, that they might obtain, not an acquiescence in their opinions but a vote of confidence on their talents. The other aristocrats were in the habit of using abusive language to the deputies of the people; and, always unwilling to yield to circumstances, imagined that they were doing good when they were only aggravating the evil. Wholly occupied in justifying their reputation as prophets, they even desired misfortune, that they might enjoy the satisfaction of having predicted truly.1
The two extreme parties in the assembly were in the habit of placing themselves as at the two ends of an amphitheater, and of occupying the highest seats on each side. On the right side,2 coming down, were the party called la plaine, or le marais; that is, the moderates, for the most part advocates of the English constitution. I have already named their chiefs, Malouet, Lally, and Mounier;3 they were the most conscientious men in the Assembly. But although Lally possessed the most impressive eloquence, though Mounier was a political writer of the greatest judgment, and Malouet a practical man of first rate energy; although out of doors they were supported by ministers, with M. Necker at their head, and although in the Assembly several men of talent rallied under their opinions, the two extreme parties threw in the background those voices, the most pure and courageous of all. They were still heard in the midst of a misled multitude; but the proud aristocrats could not have patience with men desirous of establishing a wise, free, and, consequently, durable constitution; and they were often seen to prefer joining the violent democrats, whose folly threatened France and themselves with a frightful anarchy. Such are the characteristics of party spirit, or rather of that extreme self-love which does not allow men to tolerate any other ideas than their own.
Next to the moderate or impartial members were the popular party, which, although united on questions of great importance, were divided into four sections, each marked by clear shades of distinction. M. de la Fayette, as commander of the National Guard, and the most disinterested and ardent friend of liberty, was much esteemed by the Assembly; but his scrupulous opinions did not allow him to influence the deliberations of the representatives of the people; and it was, perhaps, too great a sacrifice to him to risk his popularity out of the Assembly by debates, in which he would have had to support the royal prerogative against democratic principles. He preferred the passive course that is suitable to a military man.4 At a subsequent time he made a courageous sacrifice of this love of popularity, the favorite passion of his soul; but in the time of the Constituent Assembly he lost part of his credit with the deputies because he made use of it too seldom.
Mirabeau, who was known to be corruptible, had with him personally only those who aimed at sharing the chances of his fortune. But although he had not what can be called a party, he exercised ascendancy over all when he made use of the admirable power of his mind. The men of influence on the popular side, with the exception of a few Jacobins, were Duport,5 Barnave, and some young men of the court who had become democrats; men perfectly pure in a pecuniary sense, but very desirous of acting a part of consequence. Duport, a counselor of parlement, had been during his whole life impressed with the defects of the institution to which he belonged; his profound knowledge of the jurisprudence of different countries gave him a claim, in that respect, to the confidence of the Assembly.
Barnave,6 a young counselor from Dauphiny of the greatest merit, was more fitted by his talents than almost any other deputy to figure as a speaker in the English manner. He lost himself with the aristocratic party by one unlucky expression. After the 14th of July, great and just indignation was expressed at the death of three victims assassinated in the tumult. Barnave, elated by the triumph of that day, could not hear with patience charges which seemed directed against the people at large. In speaking of those who had been massacred, he called out, “Was then their blood so pure?” An unfortunate apostrophe, wholly unsuited to his upright, delicate, and even feeling character: but his career was forever marred by these reprehensible expressions. All the newspapers, all the speakers on the right, stamped them on his forehead, and irritated his pride to such a point as to make it impossible for him to recant without humiliation.
The leaders of the côté gauche, or left side of the Assembly, would have succeeded in introducing the English constitution if they had formed a union for this purpose with M. Necker, among the ministers, and with his friends in the Assembly. But, in that case, they would have been but secondary agents in the course of events, while they wished to hold the first rank; they consequently committed the great imprudence of seeking support from the crowds out of doors, which were beginning to prepare a subterraneous explosion. They gained an ascendancy in the Assembly by ridiculing the moderates, as if moderation were weakness, and they the only men of energy. They were seen, both in the halls and in the seats of the deputies, turning into ridicule whoever ventured to assert that, before their day, there had been such a thing as society, that writers had been capable of thinking, or that England had possessed any share of liberty. One would have said that they were called to hear nursery tales, so impatiently did they listen to them, and so disdainfully did they pronounce certain phrases, extremely exaggerated and emphatic, on the impossibility of admitting a hereditary senate, a senate even for life, an absolute veto, property qualifications, in short, anything that, according to them, infringed on the sovereignty of the people. They carried all the foppery of a court into the cause of democracy, and many deputies of the Third Estate were at once dazzled by their manners as fine gentlemen and captivated by their democratic doctrines.
These elegant leaders of the popular party aimed at entering into the government. They were desirous of pushing matters to the point where their assistance would be necessary; but in this rapid descent the chariot did not stop at the stages they intended. They were by no means conspirators, but they were too confident of their influence with the Assembly, and thought themselves capable of restoring the authority of the throne as soon as they had made it come within their reach; but when they became sincerely disposed to repair the mischief already committed, the time was past. How many distresses would have been saved to France if this party of young men had united its forces with the moderates! for, before the events of the 6th of October (1789), when the King had not been removed from Versailles, and while the army, quartered throughout the different provinces, still preserved some respect for the throne, circumstances were such as to admit of establishing in France a reasonable monarchy.7 Ordinary thinkers are in the habit of believing that whatever has taken place was unavoidable: but of what use would be the reason and the liberty of man if his will were not able to prevent that which that will has so visibly accomplished?
In the first rank on the popular side was seen the Abbé Sieyès, insulated by his peculiar temper, although surrounded by admirers of his mind. Till the age of forty he had led a solitary life, reflecting on political questions and carrying great powers of abstraction into that study; but he was ill qualified to hold communication with other men, so easily was he hurt by their caprices, and so ready was he to irritate them in his turn. But as he possessed a superior mind, with a keen and laconic manner of expressing himself, it was the fashion in the Assembly to show him an almost superstitious respect. Mirabeau had no objection to hear the silence of the Abbé Sieyès extolled above his own eloquence, for rivalship of such a kind is not to be dreaded. People imagined that Sieyès, that mysterious man, possessed secrets in government, from which surprising effects were expected whenever he should reveal them. Some young men, and even some minds of great compass, professed the highest admiration for him; and there was a general disposition to praise him at the expense of everybody because he on no occasion allowed the world to form a complete estimate of him.8
One thing, however, was known with certainty—he detested the distinctions of nobility; and yet he retained, from his professional habits, an attachment to the clerical order, which he showed in the clearest way possible at the time of the suppression of the tithes. “They wish to be free and do not know how to be just,” was his remark on that occasion; and all the faults of the Assembly were comprised in these words. But they ought to have been applied equally to those various classes of the community who had a right to pecuniary indemnities. The attachment of the Abbé Sieyès to the clergy would have ruined any other man in the opinion of the popular party; but, in consideration of his hatred of the nobles, the party of the Mountain forgave him his partiality to the priests.
The Mountain formed the fourth party on the left side of the Assembly. Robespierre was already in its ranks, and Jacobinism was preparing itself in the clubs. The leaders of the majority of the popular party were in the habit of ridiculing the exaggerations of the Jacobins, and of congratulating themselves on the appearance of wisdom which they could assume when compared with factious conspirators. One would have said that the pretended moderates made the most violent democrats follow them, as a huntsman leads his pack, boasting that he knows how to restrain them.
It may naturally be asked what part of the Assembly could be called the Orléans party. Perhaps there was no such party; for no one acknowledged the Duke of Orléans as a leader, and he did not at all come forward in that capacity. The court had, in 1788, exiled him for six weeks to one of his estates; it had at times opposed his frequent journeys to England: it is to such contradictions that we are to attribute his irritation. His mind was more actuated by discontent than by projects, more by whims than by real ambition. What gave rise to the belief in the existence of an Orléans party was the idea current at that time among political writers that a deviation from the line of hereditary succession, such as took place in England in 1688,9 could be favorable to the establishment of liberty, by placing at the head of the constitution a king who should be indebted to it for his throne, instead of one who should look on himself as humiliated by it. But the Duke of Orléans was in all possible points the man the least fitted to act in France the part of William III in England; and without taking into the account the respect entertained for Louis XVI, and so well merited by him, the Duke of Orléans was incapable either of supporting himself or of proving a support to anyone. He had grace, noble manners, and was a spirited presence in society; but his worldly successes made him prone to take principles lightly; and when agitated by the convulsions of the Revolution, he found himself without restraint as without power.10 Mirabeau probed his moral value in several conversations, and became convinced, after the examination, that no political enterprise could be founded on such a character.
The Duke of Orléans voted always with the popular party in the Constituent Assembly, perhaps in a vague expectation of obtaining the highest prize; but this hope never gained consistency in any other head. He lavished money, it is said, to gain the populace; but whether he did so or not, one can have no just conception of the Revolution to imagine that money so given could be productive of any influence. A whole people is not to be put in motion by such means. The great error of the adherents of the court always lay in seeking in matters of detail for the cause of the sentiments expressed by the nation at large.
[1. ] On the role of Maury and Casalès in the constitutional debates of 1789, see Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution, 95. Acton rightly reproached the conservatives for their refusal of bicameralism out of fear that an upper chamber would be used as a reward for those who defected their ranks (106).
[2. ] This is the origin of the terms “left” and “right,” which originally designated the progressive and conservative groups, respectively, in the Assembly.
[3. ] Acton held a similar view; see, especially, Lectures on the French Revolution, 98–103.
[4. ] On La Fayette as commander of the National Guard, see ibid., 75–76.
[5. ] Adrien Duport (1759–98) represented the nobles in the Estates General and joined the Third Estate in June 1789. He was one of the founders of the Feuillants, the Revolution’s last moderates. For more information on the latter, see A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 343–50.
[6. ] Barnave (1761–93) was a representative of the Third Estate in the Estates General of 1789 and a prominent orator in the Constituent Assembly. The discovery of his secret correspondence with Marie Antoinette was the pretext for his imprisonment and execution in November 1793. On Barnave, see Furet’s entry in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 186–96. For an English selection from his writings, see Chill, ed., Power, Property, and History: Barnave’s Introduction to the French Revolution and Other Writings.
[7. ] In the French text: “une monarchie raisonnable,” in other words, a constitutional monarchy.
[8. ] For more information about Sieyès and his political activity, see M. Sonnencher’s preface to Sieyès, Political Writings, vii–lxiv.
[9. ] Reference to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 that led to the peaceful replacement of the Stuart dynasty with William of Orange and Mary, daughter of James II. The key to William’s success lay in the fact that the new king paid due respect to the constitution and customs of the country while promoting the necessary political changes that brought social and political peace.
[10. ] Philippe d’Orléans, also known as Philippe-Égalité, father of the future King Louis-Philippe (1830–48), voted for the death sentence for Louis XVI before being himself executed in November 1793.