Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXIII: Acceptance of the Constitution, Called the Constitution of 1791. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XXIII: Acceptance of the Constitution, Called the Constitution of 1791. - 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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Acceptance of the Constitution, Called the Constitution of 1791.
Thus ended that famous Assembly which united so much knowledge to so many errors, which was the cause of permanent good but of great immediate evil, the remembrance of which will long serve as a pretext for attacks by the enemies of liberty.
Behold, say they, the result of the deliberations of the most enlightened men in France. But we may say to them in reply: consider what must be the situation of men who, never having exercised any political right, find themselves all at once in posession of that which is so ruinous to everyone—unlimited power: they will be long before they are aware that injustice suffered by any individual citizen, whether a friend or enemy of liberty, recoils on the head of all; they will be long before they understand the theory of liberty, which is so simple when one is born in a country where the laws and manners teach it, so difficult when one has lived under an arbitrary government in which everything is decided by circumstances, and principles always rendered subservient to them. Finally, at all times and in every country, to make a nation pass from the government of a court to the government of law is a crisis of the greatest difficulty, even when public opinion renders it unavoidable.
History should then consider the Constituent Assembly under a double point of view: the abuses which it destroyed, and the institutions which it created. Under the former it has great claims on the gratitude of mankind; under the latter it may be reproached with the most serious errors.
On the proposition of M. de la Fayette, a general amnesty was granted to all those who had participated in the King’s journey or committed what could be called political offenses. He obtained likewise a decree enabling every individual to leave France, and return, without a passport. The emigration was already begun. In the next chapter I shall point out the distinction between the emigration prompted by political views and that unavoidable emigration which was of later date. But that which should fix our attention is that the Constituent Assembly rejected every measure proposed to it that would have impeded civil liberty. The minority of the nobility was actuated by that spirit of justice which is inseparable from disinterestedness. Among the deputies of the Third Estate, Dupont de Nemours,1 who survived in spite of his courage, Thouret, Barnave, Chapelier, and so many others who fell the victims of their excellent principles certainly brought none but the purest intentions into their deliberations; but a tumultuous and ignorant majority carried their point in the decrees relative to the constitution. There was a sufficient store of knowledge in France in whatever related to the judicial branch and the details of administration; but the theory of powers required more profound information.
It was thus, then, the most painful of intellectual spectacles to see the blessings of civil liberty committed to the safeguard of a political liberty that had neither moderation nor strength.
This ill-fated constitution, so good in its foundation and so bad in its superstructure, was presented to the acceptance of the King.2 He certainly could not refuse it, as it put an end to his captivity; but the public flattered itself that his consent was voluntary. Fêtes were held as if for a season of happiness; rejoicings were ordered that people might persuade themselves that the danger was over; the words “King,” “Representative Assembly,” “Constitutional Monarchy” corresponded to the real wishes of all the French. They thought they had attained realities when they had acquired only names.
The King and Queen were entreated to go to the opera; their entrance into the house was the signal for sincere and universal plaudits. The piece was the Ballet of Psyche; at the time that the furies were dancing and shaking their flambeaus, and when the brilliancy of the flames spread all over the house, I saw the faces of the King and Queen by the pale light of this imitation of the lower regions and was seized with melancholy forebodings of the future. The Queen exerted herself to be agreeable, but a profound grief was perceptible, even in her obliging smile. The King, as usual, seemed more engaged with what he saw than with what he felt; he looked on all sides with calmness, one might almost say with indifference; he had, like most sovereigns, accustomed himself to restrain the expression of his feelings, and he had perhaps by this means lessened their intensity. After the opera, the public went out to walk in the Champs Elysées, which were superbly illuminated. The palace and garden of the Tuileries, being separated from them only by the fatal Square of the Revolution, the illumination of the palace and garden formed an admirable combination with that of the long alleys of the Champs Elysées, which were joined together by festoons of lamps.
The King and Queen drove leisurely in their carriage through the midst of the crowd, and the latter, each time that they perceived the carriage, called out: Vive le Roi! But they were the same people who had insulted the same King on his return from Varennes, and they were no better able to account for their applause than they had been for their insults.
I met in the course of my walk several members of the Constituent Assembly: like dethroned sovereigns, they seemed very uneasy about their successors. Certainly all would have wished like them that they had been appointed to maintain the constitution, such as it was; for enough was already known of the spirit of elections not to entertain any hope for an amelioration of affairs. But people were rendered giddy by the noise that proceeded from every quarter. The lower orders were singing, and the newspaper venders made the air re-echo with their loud calls of La grande acceptation du Roi, la constitution monarchique, etc. etc.
The Revolution was apparently finished, and liberty established. Yet people looked around on each other as if to acquire from their neighbors that security which they did not possess themselves.
The absence of the nobility undermined this security, for monarchy cannot exist without the participation of an aristocratic body, and, unfortunately, the prejudices of the French nobles were such that they rejected every kind of free government: it is to this great difficulty that we are to attribute the most serious defects of the constitution of 1791. For the men of rank and property offering no support to liberty, the democratic power necessarily acquired the ascendancy. The English barons, from the time of Magna Charta, have demanded rights for the Commons conjointly with rights for themselves. In France, the nobility opposed these rights when claimed by the Third Estate, but being too weak to struggle with the people, they quitted their country in a mass and allied themselves with foreigners. This lamentable resolution rendered a constitutional monarchy impracticable at that time, for it destroyed its preserving elements. We proceed to explain what were the necessary consequences of emigration.
[1. ] Dupont de Nemours (1739–1817) was a prominent member of the Third Estate. Arrested during the Terror, he immigrated to the United States after September 4, 1797 (18 Fructidor). Madame de Staël’s correspondence with him was translated into English as De Staël–Dupont Letters. Correspondence of Madame de Staël and Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours and of Other Members of the Necker and du Pont Families. For more information on Staël’s views on America, see Hawkins, Madame de Staël and the United States.
[2. ] From the very beginning, the relations between the monarch and the Legislative Assembly were extremely tense. Reluctant to endorse some of the Assembly’s decisions, the King unwisely decided to veto them. This was the case, for example, with the Assembly’s decree that the émigrés assembled on the frontiers should be liable to the penalties of death and confiscation if they remained so assembled after January 1, 1792.