Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXII: Revision of the Constitution. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XXII: Revision of the Constitution. - 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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Revision of the Constitution.
The Assembly was constrained, by the popular ferment, to declare that the King should be kept prisoner in the palace of the Tuileries until the constitution had been presented for his acceptance. M. de la Fayette, as commander of the National Guards, had the misfortune of being doomed to carry this decree into effect. But if, on the one hand, he placed sentinels at the gates of the palace, he opposed, on the other, with conscientious energy, the party which endeavored to pronounce the King fallen from the throne.1 He employed against those who pressed that measure the armed force in the Champ de Mars;2 and he thus proved, at least, that it was not from views of ambition that he exposed himself to the displeasure of the King, as he drew on himself at the same time the hatred of the enemies of the throne. The only equitable manner, in my opinion, of judging the character of a man is to examine if there are no personal calculations in his conduct; if there are not, we may blame his manner of judging; but we are not the less bound to esteem him.
The republican party was the only one that came openly forward at the time of the arrest of the King. The name of the Duke of Orléans was not even mentioned; no one presumed to think of another king than Louis XVI, and he received at least the homage of having nothing but institutions opposed to him. Finally, the person of the monarch was declared inviolable; a specification was made of the cases in which a deprivation of the Crown should be incurred;3 but if the illusion which should surround the royal person were thus destroyed, engagements proportionally stronger were taken to respect the law which guaranteed the inviolability of the sovereign in every possible supposition.
The Constituent Assembly always thought, but very erroneously, that its decrees possessed something of magic power, and that the people would stop in everything exactly at the line which it had traced. Its authority in this respect may be compared to that of the ribband suspended in the garden of the Tuileries to prevent the people from approaching the palace: so long as public opinion was in favor of those who had caused this ribband to be strung, it was respected by everyone; but as soon as the people would no longer have a barrier, it was not of the slightest use.
We find in some modern constitutions, as a constitutional article: “the government shall be just, and the people obedient.” Were it possible to command such a result, the balance of powers would be altogether superfluous; but to succeed in putting good maxims in execution, it is necessary to combine institutions in such a way that everyone shall find his interest in maintaining them. Religious doctrines stand in no need of appealing to personal interest to acquire command over men, and it is in that, above all, that they are of a superior order; but legislators, invested with the interests of this world, fall into a kind of self-deception when they introduce patriotic sentiments as a necessary spring in the machine of society. To reckon on consequences for organizing a cause is to mistake the natural order of events. Nations become free not from their being virtuous but because fortunate circumstances, or rather a strong will, having put them in possession of liberty, they acquire the virtues which arise from it.
The laws on which civil and political liberty depend are reducible to a very small number, and it is this political decalogue alone that merits the title of constitutional articles. But the National Assembly gave that title to almost all its decrees; whether it thus aimed at keeping itself independent of the royal sanction or, like an author, acted under a degree of illusion in regard to the perfection and durability of its own work.
However, the intelligent men in the Assembly succeeded in reducing the number of constitutional articles;4 but a discussion arose to ascertain whether it should not be decided that every twenty years a new Constituent Assembly should be formed to revise the constitution which they had just established, taking for granted that, in this interval, no change should be made in it. What confidence did this show in the stability of such a work, and how greatly has it been deceived?
At last it was decreed that no constitutional article should be modified, except on the demand of three succeeding assemblies. This was forming an extraordinary idea of human patience on subjects of such great importance.
The French, in general, look only at the reality of the things of this life, and are sufficiently ready to turn principles into ridicule if they appear to them an obstacle to the immediate success of their wishes. But the Constituent Assembly, on the other hand, acted under a domineering passion for abstract ideas. This fashion, which was quite contrary to the spirit of the nation, did not last long. The factious made use at first of metaphysical arguments as motives for the most guilty actions, and they soon after overturned this structure to proclaim plainly the force of circumstances and the contempt of general views.
The côté droit of the Assembly was often in the right during the course of the session, and more often still excited the interest of the public, because it was oppressed by a stronger party and denied opportunities of speaking. In no country is it more necessary than in France to establish regulations in deliberative assemblies in favor of the minority; for such a predilection exists there for the stronger party that people are apt to account it a crime in you to belong to the weaker.* After the arrest of the King, the aristocrats, knowing that royalty had acquired defenders among the popular party, thought it best to let the latter act, and to come less conspicuously forward themselves. The converted deputies did what they could to increase the authority of the executive power; but they did not, however, venture to broach those questions, the decision of which alone could give solidity to the political state of France. People were afraid to speak of two chambers as of a conspiracy. The right of dissolving the legislative body, a right so necessary to the maintenance of royal authority, was not granted to it. Reasonable men were alarmed by being called aristocrats; yet the aristocrats were then no longer formidable, and it was on that very account that the name had been converted into a reproach. At that time, as well as subsequently, the stronger party in France have had the art of making the vanquished the object of public disquietude; one would say that the weak alone were to be dreaded. To over-rate the means of their adversaries is a good pretext to increase the power of the victors. We must form enemies in effigy if we wish to accustom our arm to strike a weighty blow.
The majority of the Assembly hoped to restrain the Jacobins, and yet it compromised with them, and lost ground at each victory. The constitution accordingly was drawn like a treaty between two parties, not like a work for permanency. The authors of this constitution launched into the sea an ill-constructed vessel, and thought that they found a justification for every fault by quoting the wish of such an individual or the credit of such another. But the waves of the ocean which the vessel had to traverse were not to be smoothed by such apologies.
But what course, it will be asked, could be adopted when circumstances were unfavorable to that which reason seemed to dictate? Resist, always resist, and rely for support on yourselves. The courage of an upright man is a consideration of importance, and no one can foresee what consequences it may have. Had there been ten deputies of the popular party, had there been five, three, or even one who had made the Assembly feel all the misfortunes that would necessarily result from a political work defenseless against faction; had he adjured the Assembly, in the name of the admirable principles which it had decreed and of the principles which it had overturned, not to expose to hazard so many blessings that formed the treasure of human reason; had the inspiration of thought revealed to one orator in what manner the sacred name of liberty was soon to be consigned to a disastrous association with the most cruel recollections, one man alone might perhaps have been able to arrest the destiny. But the applause, or the murmurs of the galleries, influenced questions which ought to have been discussed calmly by the most enlightened and most reflecting men. The pride which enables one to resist a multitude is of another kind than that which renders one independent of a despot, although it is the same natural impulse that enables us to struggle against oppression of every kind.
There remained only one method of repairing the errors of the laws: that method lay in the choice of men. The deputies about to succeed in the Constituent Assembly might resume imperfect labors and rectify, in the spirit of wisdom, the faults already committed. But the Assembly set out by rejecting property as a qualification, although necessary to confine the elections to the class that has an interest in the maintenance of order. Robespierre, who was about to act so great a part in the reign of blood, combated this condition as an injustice, however low the scale might be fixed; he brought forward the declaration of the rights of man in regard to equality, as if that equality, even in its most extended sense, admitted the power of acquiring everything without talent and without labor. To arrogate political rights without a title to exercise them is a usurpation as much as any other.5 Robespierre joined obscure metaphysics to common declamation, and it was thus that he achieved a kind of eloquence. Better speeches were composed for him in his day of power; but during the Constituent Assembly no one paid attention to him, and whenever he rose to speak, those of the democrats who had any taste were very ready to turn him into ridicule, that they might obtain the credit of belonging to a moderate party.
It was decreed that to pay taxes at the annual rate of a mark of silver (about fifty-four livres) should be a necessary qualification to being a deputy. This was enough to excite complaints from the speakers in regard to all the younger brothers of families, in regard to all the men of talent, who would be excluded by their poverty from becoming representatives: yet the rate was so small as not to confine the choice of the people to the class of men of property.
The Constituent Assembly, to remedy this inconvenience, established two stages in the elective process: it decreed that the people should name electors, who should subsequently make choice of deputies. This gradation had certainly a tendency to soften the action of the democratic element, and the revolutionary leaders were doubtless of that opinion, since they abolished it on their acquiring the ascendency. But a choice made directly by the people, and subjected to a fair qualification in point of property, is infinitely more favorable to the energy of a free government. An immediate election, such as exists in England, can alone communicate public spirit and love of country to every class. A nation becomes attached to its representatives when it has chosen them itself: but when obliged to confine itself to the electing of those who are to elect in their turn, the artificial combination casts a damp on its interest. Besides, Electoral Colleges, from the mere circumstance of their consisting of a small number of persons, are much more open to intrigue than large masses; they are open, above all, to that bourgeois intrigue that is so degrading when we see men of the middling ranks6 apply to their lofty superiors to get places for their sons in the antechambers of the court.
In a free government the people ought to rally itself under the first class by taking representatives from among it, and the first class should endeavor to please the people by their talents and virtues. This double tie retains but little force when the act of election has to pass through two stages. The life of election is thus destroyed to avoid commotion; it is a great deal better, as in England, to balance discreetly the democratic by the aristocratic element, leaving, however, both in possession of their natural independence.7
M. Necker in his last work8 proposed a new method of establishing two stages of election; this should consist, he thinks, in the electoral college giving a list of a certain number of candidates, out of which the primary assemblies might make a choice. The motives for this institution are ingeniously explained in M. Necker’s book; but it is evident that he thought it, all along, necessary that the people should exercise fully its right and its judgment, and that distinguished men should have a permanent interest in winning its votes.
The revisers of the constitution in 1791 were incessantly accused by the Jacobins of being the advocates of despotism, even at the time that they were obliged to resort to circumlocution in speaking of the executive power, as if the name of a king could not be pronounced in a monarchical state. Yet the Constituent Deputies might still perhaps have succeeded in saving France had they been members of the following Assembly. The most enlightened deputies felt what was wanted to a constitution framed under the pressure of events, and they would have endeavored to find a remedy in the mode of interpreting it. But the party of mediocrity, which counts so many soldiers in its ranks, that party which hates talents as the friends of liberty hate despotism, succeeded in debarring, by a decree, the deputies of the Constituent Assembly from the possibility of being re-elected.9 The aristocrats and the Jacobins, having acted a very inferior part during the session, did not flatter themselves with being returned; they felt accordingly a pleasure in shutting the entrance to the next Assembly on those who were assured of the votes of their fellow-citizens. For of all agrarian laws, that which would most please the mass of mankind would be a division of public votes into equal portions, talents never obtaining a greater number than mediocrity. Many individuals would flatter themselves with gaining by this plan; but the emulation which creates the wealth of mankind would be totally lost.
In vain did the first orators of the Assembly urge that successors altogether new, and elected in a time of trouble, would be ambitious of making a revolution equally striking as that which had distinguished their predecessors. The members of the extremity of the côté gauche, agreeing with the extremity of the côté droit, exclaimed that their colleagues wished to make a monopoly of power, and deputies hitherto inimical, the Jacobins and aristocrats, joyfully shook hands on thinking that they should have the good fortune of excluding men whose superiority had for two years cast them into the shade.
How great a fault under existing circumstances! But also how great an error, in point of principle, was it to forbid the people to return those who have already shown themselves worthy of its confidence! In what country do we find a sufficient number of capable persons to enable us to exclude, in an arbitrary manner, men already known, already tried, and practically acquainted with business? Nothing costs a state dearer than deputies who have to make their fortune in the way of reputation; men of acquired property of this kind also ought to be preferred to those who have still their wealth to seek.
[1. ] This petition implicitly demanded the declaration of the republic.
[2. ] The clashes between the National Guard and the people claimed more than fifty victims.
[3. ] See articles 2, 5, and 6–8 of chapter II of the Constitution of 1791.
[4. ] The final version of the Constitution of 1791 had 204 articles.
[* ] An excellent work entitled The Tactics of Deliberative Assemblies, composed by M. Dumont of Geneva, and containing, in part, the ideas of Mr. Bentham, an English lawyer and profound thinker, should be perpetually consulted by the members of our legislature. For it is by no means enough to carry a question in an assembly. It is necessary that the weaker party should have been heard with patience; such is the advantage and the right of a representative government.
[5. ] This was the position held by all prominent nineteenth-century liberals, from Tocqueville and Guizot to Constant and J. S. Mill. For example, Constant devoted special attention to property qualifications, which he regarded as indispensable to the proper functioning of representative government (Principles of Politics, 213–21). For more information, see Guéniffey, Le nombre et la raison; and Kahan, The Political Culture of Limited Suffrage, 217–44.
[6. ] In the original: “hommes du tiers état.”
[7. ] On this issue of direct and indirect election in England, also see Guizot, History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, 339–81. Benjamin Constant discussed the limits and benefits of direct and indirect elections in his Principles of Politics, 201–2, 207.
[8. ] Necker’s Dernières vues de politique et de finance (1802) was republished as volume XI of his Oeuvres complètes.
[9. ] The National Constituent Assembly dissolved itself on September 30, 1791, after having decreed that none of its members could be reelected in the next legislature (Robespierre had been one of the most vocal defenders of this measure). The Legislative Assembly first met on October 1, 1791, and had 745 members, most of whom belonged to the middle class. Since none had been a member of the previous Assembly, the majority of the new members lacked true political experience. Commenting on this issue, Benjamin Constant endorsed the possibility of reelection, which he regarded as an effective means of protecting political liberty. “The impossibility of reelection,” he wrote, “is, in all respects, a great mistake. . . . Nothing is more opposed to liberty, and at the same time more favorable to disorder, than the forced exclusion of the representatives of the people. . . . If you set obstacles to indefinite reelection, you frustrate genius and courage of their due reward; you prepare consolation and triumph for cowardice and ineptitude.” (Principles of Politics, p. 210)