Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VII: Of the Errors of the Constituent Assembly in Matters of Administration. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER VII: Of the Errors of the Constituent Assembly in Matters of Administration. - 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 Errors of the Constituent Assembly in Matters of Administration.
The whole power of government had fallen into the hands of the Assembly, which, however, should have possessed only legislative functions; but the division of parties was the unfortunate cause of confusion in the distribution of power. The distrust excited by the intentions of the King, or rather of the court, prevented him from being invested with the means necessary to re-establish order; and the leaders of the Assembly took no trouble to counteract this distrust, that they might have a pretext for exercising a close inspection on ministers. M. Necker was the natural intermediary between the royal authority and the Assembly. It was well known that he would betray the rights of neither; but the deputies, who continued attached to him notwithstanding his political moderation, believed that the aristocrats were deceiving him and pitied him for being their dupe. This, however, was by no means the case: M. Necker had as much penetration of mind as rectitude of conduct, and he perfectly knew that the privileged orders would be less backward in reconciling themselves to any party than to that of the early friends of liberty. But he performed his duty by endeavoring to restore strength to the government, for a free constitution can never be the result of a general relaxation of ties: the probable consequence is despotism.
The action of the executive power being stopped by several decrees of the Assembly, the ministers could do nothing without being authorized by it. The taxes were no longer discharged, because the people imagined that the Revolution so joyously welcomed was to bring with it the gratification of paying nothing. Public credit, even wiser than public opinion, although apparently dependent on it, was shaken by the faults committed by the Assembly. That body had much more strength than was necessary to bring the finances into order and to facilitate the purchase of corn, rendered necessary by the scarcity with which France was again threatened. But it replied with indifference to the reiterated applications of M. Necker on these points, because it did not wish to be considered, like the old Estates General, assembled merely for financial purposes; it was to constitutional discussions that it attached the highest interest. So far the Assembly was right; but by neglecting the objects of administration it caused disorder throughout the kingdom, and by that disorder all the misfortunes of which it bore itself the pressure.
At a time when France had both famine and bankruptcy to dread, the deputies used to make speeches in which they asserted that “every man has from nature a right and a wish to enjoy happiness; that society began by the father and the son,” with other philosophic truths much fitter for discussion in books than in the midst of an assembly. But if the people stood in need of bread, the speakers stood in need of applause, and a scarcity in that respect would have seemed to them very hard to bear.
The Assembly, by a solemn decree, placed the public debt under the safeguard of the honor and loyalty of Frenchmen; but still it took no step to give a substantial effect to these fine words. M. Necker proposed a loan, at an interest of five percent; the Assembly discovered that four and a half was less than five: it reduced the interest accordingly; and the loan failed, for the plain reason that an assembly cannot, like a minister, possess the tact which shows how far the confidence of capitalists may be carried. Credit, in money matters, is almost as delicate as style in literary productions; a single word may disfigure a sentence, as a slight circumstance may overturn a speculation. The matter, it will be said, is in substance the same; but in the one way you captivate the imagination of men, and in the other it escapes from your hold.
M. Necker proposed voluntary gifts, and was the first to pour, by way of example, 100,000 francs of his own fortune into the treasury, although he had been already obliged to dispose of a million of his property in annuities to meet, by increased income, his expense as minister; for in his second, as in his first ministry, he refused all salary. The Constituent Assembly praised his disinterestedness but still declined to take financial matters into its serious consideration. The secret motive of such conduct in the popular party was, perhaps, a wish to find itself forced, by want of money, to a step which it had much at heart, the appropriation of the church property. M. Necker, on the other hand, wished to make the country independent of this resource, and to let its appropriation depend not on the wants of the treasury, but on justice. Mirabeau, who aimed at succeeding M. Necker as minister, availed himself of the jealousy natural to every assembly in regard to its power, to make it take umbrage at the attachment still shown by the nation to the minister of finance. He had an insidious manner of praising M. Necker. “I do not approve his plans,” he used to say; “but since public opinion grants him the dictatorship, we must take them on trust.” M. Necker’s friends were aware with how much art Mirabeau sought to deprive him of the public favor by exhibiting that favor in exaggerated coloring; for nations, like individuals, are less prone to love when they are too often reminded of their affection.
The day when Mirabeau was most eloquent was that in which, in artfully defending a finance decree proposed by M. Necker, he delineated all the horrors of bankruptcy. Three times did he rise to excite terror by this picture; the provincial deputies were not at first much alive to it; but as they did not then know what they have been since so severely taught, to what a degree a nation can support bankruptcy, famine, massacre, executions, civil war, foreign war, and tyranny, they shuddered at the idea of the sufferings portrayed by the orator.1 I was at a short distance from Mirabeau when he addressed the assembly with so much éclat; and, although very distrustful of his intentions, he captivated my admiration during two hours. Nothing could be more impressive than his voice; the gestures and the biting sarcasm which he knew so well how to use did not, perhaps, proceed from the soul, that is, from the inward emotion, but there was in his speech a life and power of which the effect was amazing. “What would it have been had you seen the prodigy (monstre),” said Garat, in his lively Journal de Paris. The remark of Eschines on Demosthenes2 could not be more happily applied, and the uncertain meaning of the word (monstre) which denotes a prodigy, either in good or evil, added not a little to the point.
It would, however, be unjust to see nothing but faults in Mirabeau; with so much true talent, there always is a portion of good sentiments. But he had no conscience in politics; and this is the great defect which in France may be often charged on individuals as on assemblies. Some aim at popularity, others at honors, several at fortune; while some, and these are the best, at the triumph of their opinions. But where are those who ask themselves conscientiously in what their duty consists, without taking account of the sacrifice, whatever it may be, which the performance of that duty may require at their hands?
[1. ] A reference to Mirabeau’s speeches on finances and bankruptcy given on September 26, 1789. Necker had two days earlier provided an account of the kingdom’s finances, to which Mirabeau responded. Mirabeau intervened four times in the September 26, 1789, debates and managed to convince the Assembly to pass a vote of no confidence on Necker’s plan. His interventions can be found in Chaussinand-Nogaret, ed., Mirabeau entre le roi et la Révolution, 286–95.
[2. ] Eschines (390–314 bc), prominent Greek orator and rival of Demosthenes.