Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II: Prediction of M. Necker on the Fate of the Constitution of 1791. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER II: Prediction of M. Necker on the Fate of 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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Prediction of M. Necker on the Fate of the Constitution of 1791.
During the last fourteen years of his life, M. Necker did not quit his estate of Coppet in Switzerland. He lived in the most complete retirement; but the repose arising from dignity does not exclude activity of mind, and he never ceased to attend, with the greatest solicitude, to every event which occurred in France. The works composed by him at different eras in the Revolution possess a prophetic character; because, in examining the defects of the different constitutions which prevailed for a time in France, he explained beforehand the consequences of these defects, and predictions of this kind could not fail to be realized.
M. Necker joined to a surprising sagacity of intellect a sensibility to the fate of mankind, and in particular of France, of which, I believe, there is no example in any writer on political topics. These topics are commonly treated in an abstract manner, and are almost always founded on calculation; but M. Necker was intent above all on considering the relations which that science bore to individual morality, to the happiness and dignity of nations. He is the Fénélon of politics, if I may venture thus to express myself, in honoring these two great men by the analogy between their virtues.
The first work published by him in 1791 is entitled On the Administration of M. Necker, by Himself.1 At the close of a very profound political discussion on the various compensations that ought to have been granted to the privileged classes for the loss of their ancient rights, he says, addressing himself to the Assembly,
I know that I shall be blamed for my obstinate attachment to the principles of justice, and attempts will be made to debilitate it by giving it the name of aristocratic pity. I know better than you the nature of my pity. It was first for you that I felt that sentiment; but you were then without union and without strength; it was first for you that I sustained a conflict. And at the time when I complained so much of the indifference shown to you; when I spoke of the respect that was due to you; when I showed a perpetual disquietude for the fate of the people; it was then that by mere word games your enemies endeavored to ridicule my sentiments. I would willingly love others than you, now that you abandon me; I would it were in my power; but I possess not that consolation; your enemies and mine have placed between them and me a barrier which I shall never seek to burst; and they must necessarily hate me forever, since they have made me answerable for their own faults. Yet it was not I who prompted them to make an immoderate use of their former power; it was not I who rendered them inflexible when it became necessary to begin negotiating with fortune. Ah! if they were not under oppression, if they were not unhappy, how many reproaches could not I make to them! And when I defend them still in their rights and properties, they will not, I trust, believe that I think for a moment of regaining their favor. I now desire no connection with them, nor with anyone; it is with my recollections, with my thoughts, that I endeavor to live and die; when I fix my attention on the purity of the sentiments that have guided me, I find nowhere a suitable association; and when, in the want experienced by every feeling mind, I form that association, I do it in hope, with the upright men of every country, with those, so few in number, whose first passion is the love of doing good on earth.
M. Necker felt bitter regret for the loss of that popularity which he had sacrificed without hesitation to his duty. Some persons have blamed him for the importance that he set upon it. Woe to the statesmen who do not need public opinion! These are either courtiers or usurpers; they flatter themselves with obtaining, by intrigue or by terror, what generous minds wish to owe only to the esteem of their fellows.
When my father and I were walking together under those lofty trees at Coppet, which still seem to me the friendly witnesses of his noble thoughts, he asked me once whether I thought that the whole of France was infected with those popular suspicions to which he had been a victim on the road from Paris into Switzerland. “It seems to me,” he said, “that in several provinces they acknowledged, down to the latest day of my administration, the purity of my intentions and my attachment to France.” Hardly had he put this question to me than he dreaded being too much affected by my answer; “Let us talk no more on that subject,” he said, “God reads in my heart: that is enough.” I did not venture to give him a consoling answer on that day, so much of restrained emotion did I see in his whole being. Ah! how harsh and narrow-minded must be the enemies of such a man! It was to him that we ought to address the words of Ben Jonson, when speaking of his illustrious friend, the Chancellor of England. “I pray God to give you strength in your adversity; for as to greatness, you cannot want it.”2
M. Necker, at the time when the democratic party, then in the plenitude of power, made him overtures to join them, expressed himself with the greatest energy on the disastrous situation to which the royal authority was reduced. And, although he expected, perhaps, too much from the ascendency of morality and eloquence at a time when men began to think of nothing but personal interest, he was extremely capable of availing himself of irony and reasoning when he thought them suitable. I quote the following example among many.
I will venture to say that the political hierarchy established by the National Assembly seemed to require, more than any other social institution, the efficacious intervention of the monarch. That august mediation was perhaps alone capable of keeping up a distance between so many powers which press on each other, between so many individuals elected on similar grounds, between so many dignitaries, equal by their original profession, and still so near each other from the nature of their functions and the uncertain tenure of their places. It alone could give a certain life to the abstract and entirely constitutional gradations which ought henceforth to form the scale of subordination.
I can clearly perceive
Primary assemblies nominating an electoral body;
That electoral body choosing deputies to the National Assembly;
That assembly passing decrees and calling on the King to sanction and promulgate them;
The King addressing these decrees to the departments;
The departments transmitting them to the districts;
The districts issuing orders to the municipalities;
The municipalities, which for the execution of these decrees require, in case of need, the assistance of the national guards;
The national guards, whose duty it is to restrain the people;
The people who are bound to obey.
We perceive in this succession a numerical order with which there is no fault to be found; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten; all follow with perfect regularity. But in the case of government, in the case of obedience, it is by the connection, it is by the moral relation of the different authorities that the general order is maintained. A legislator would have too easy a task if, to accomplish the grand political work of the submission of the mass to the wisdom of a few, it were enough for him to conjugate the verb to command, and to say like a schoolboy, “I will command, thou shalt command, he shall command, we shall command, &c.” It is necessary, in order to establish effective subordination and to ensure the play of all the upward and downward movements, that there should be among all the conventional superiorities a proportional gradation of reputation and respect. There must be from rank to rank a distinction which has an imposing effect, and at the summit of these gradations, there must be a power which, by a mixture of reality and imagination, influences by its action the whole of the political hierarchy.
In no country are the distinctions of government more effaced than under the despotic sway of the Caliphs of the East; but nowhere are the punishments more hasty, more severe, or more multiform. The heads of the judicial order, and of the administration, have there a decoration which suffices for everything—a train of janissaries, mutes, and executioners.3
These latter paragraphs bear reference to the necessity of an aristocratic body, that is, of a chamber of peers, to support a monarchy.
During his last ministry, M. Necker had defended the principles of the English constitution successively against the King, the nobility, and the representatives of the people, according as each of these authorities had become the strongest. He continued the same course as a writer; and he combated in his works the Constituent Assembly, the Convention, the Directory, and Bonaparte, all four, when at the height of their prosperity; opposing to all the same principles, and apprising them that they were sowing the seeds of their own overthrow, even when succeeding in a present object; because, in political matters, that which most misleads bodies and individuals is the triumph which can be momentarily obtained over justice; a triumph which always ends by overturning those who obtain it.
M. Necker, who viewed the Constitution of 1791 with a statesman’s eye, published his opinion on that subject under the first Assembly, at a time when that constitution still gave rise to a great deal of enthusiasm. His work entitled On the Executive Power in Great Countries,4 is recognized by thinkers to be a classic. It contains ideas altogether new on the strength necessary to government in general; but these reflections are at first applied specifically to the order of things recently proclaimed by the Constituent Assembly; in this book, still more than in the former, one might take predictions for history, so precise and clear is the detail of the events which must necessarily arise from the defects of the institutions in question. M. Necker, on comparing the English constitution with the work of the Constituent Assembly, ends by these remarkable words: “The French will regret, when too late, their not having shown more respect to experience, and their having failed to recognize its noble origin though concealed under garments worn and rent.”
He foretold in the same book the terror that was about to arise from the power of the Jacobins; and, what is still more remarkable, the terror that would be produced after them by the establishment of military despotism.
Such a political writer as M. Necker was not to be satisfied with merely exhibiting a picture of all the misfortunes that would result from the constitution of 1791: he also gave the Legislative Assembly advice on the means of escaping them. The Constituent Assembly had decreed more than three hundred articles which no succeeding legislature had a right to touch, except on conditions which it was almost impossible to fulfill; and yet, among these unchangeable articles was the method adopted for nominating to inferior appointments and other things of equally little importance; “so that it would be neither more easy nor less difficult to change the French monarchy into a republic, than to modify the most insignificant of all the details comprised, one knows not why, in the constitutional act.”
“It seems to me,” says M. Necker elsewhere,
that in a great State we cannot expect liberty and renounce at any time the following conditions.
1. Conferring exclusively the right of legislation on the national representatives under the sanction of the monarch; comprising in this right of legislation, without exception, the choice and enactment of taxes.
2. Fixing public expenditure by the same authority; with this right is evidently connected the limitation of the military force.
3. Rendering all accounts of receipt and expenditure to commissioners from among the national representatives.
4. The annual renewal of the powers necessary to levy taxes, excepting the taxes mortgaged for the payment of the interest of the public debt.
5. The proscription of every kind of arbitrary authority; and vesting in every citizen a right to bring a civil or criminal action against all public officers who should have made an abuse of their power in regard to him.
6. Prohibiting military officers to act in the interior of the kingdom otherwise than on the demand of civil officers.
7. The annual renewal by the legislature of the laws which constitute the discipline, and consequently the action and strength, of an army.
8. The liberty of the press, extended as far as is compatible with morality and public tranquillity.
9. An equal distribution of public trusts, and the legal right of all citizens to exercise public functions.
10. The responsibility of ministers and of the principal agents of government.
11. The hereditary succession to the throne, in order to prevent factions and preserve public tranquillity.
12. Conferring the executive power, fully and unreservedly, on the monarch, with all the means necessary for its exercise, that public order may be assured and that the various powers united in the legislative body may be prevented from introducing a despotism not less oppressive than any other.
To these principles should be added the most unqualified respect for the rights of property, if that respect did not already compose one of the elements of universal morality, regardless of the form of government under which men live together.
The twelve articles which I have just pointed out offer to all enlightened men the fundamental bases of the civil and political liberty of a nation. They ought, accordingly, to have been placed separately in the constitutional act, and not have been confounded with the numerous provisions which the Assembly was willing to submit to a continual renewal of discussion.
And why was this not done? Because, in assigning to these articles a conspicuous place in the constitutional charter, a light would have been cast on two truths which it was intended to keep in the background.
The one, that the fundamental principles of the liberty of France were completely stated, either in the text or in the spirit of the declaration made by the King on the 27th of December, 1788,5 and in his subsequent explanations.
The other, that all the orders of the state, all classes of citizens, after a certain time of wavering and agitation, would have, in all probability, concurred in giving their consent to the same principles, and would perhaps still give it were they called on to do so.
These articles, which constitute in a manner the “gospel of society,” we have seen reappear, under a form nearly similar, in the declaration of the 2d of May (1814) by His Majesty Louis XVIII, dated at St. Ouen;6 they reappeared also on another occasion, of which we shall speak hereafter. From the 27th of December, 1788, to the 8th of July, 1815, these articles are what the French wished, whenever they had the power of expressing a wish.
The book On the Executive Power in Great Countries is the best guide that can be followed by men called on to make or to modify a constitution of any kind; for it may be called the political chart in which all the dangers that are found in the track of liberty are pointed out.
In the beginning of this work M. Necker addresses himself thus to the French nation:
I remember the time when, on publishing the result of my long reflections on the finances of France, I wrote these words: “Yes, generous nation, it is to you that I consecrate this work.” Alas! who would have told me that, after the lapse of so small a number of years, there would come a time when I could no longer make use of the same expressions, and when I should have to turn my eyes toward other nations to regain courage to speak of justice and morality! Ah! why am I not permitted to say today: it is to you that I address this work, to you, nation, still more generous since liberty has developed your character and freed it from any restraint; to you, nation, still more generous since your forehead no longer bears the impression of a yoke; to you, nation, still more generous since you have made trial of your strength, and that you dictate, yourself, the laws that you obey! Ah! with what pleasure I should have held this language! my feelings still exist, but they seem to me in exile; and, in my sad regret, I cannot either contract new ties nor resume, even in hope, the favorite idea and the only passion which so long filled my soul.
I do not know, but it seems to me that never was a juster expression given to that which we all feel: that love for France which is at present so painful, while formerly there was not a nobler nor sweeter enjoyment.
[1. ] For a list of reviews of Necker’s book, see Grange, Les idées de Necker, 629.
[2. ] Ben Jonson (1572–1637), English poet and playwright, friend and rival of Shakespeare. The chancellor of England referred to here was Francis Bacon.
[3. ] For more information, see Grange, Les idées de Necker, 400–451.
[4. ] For more information on Necker’s book, see ibid., 434–52.
[5. ] On December 27, 1788, the King approved the doubling of the Third Estate in a document entitled Result of the King’s Council of State. This was a major decision that concluded a three-month-long debate and acknowledged the rising influence of public opinion. For more information on the events surrounding this episode, see Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution, 92–94. For more information about the prerevolutionary phase, also see Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution, 131–77, and Egret, The French Pre-revolution.
[6. ] The declaration made by Louis XVIII (1755–1824) in May 1814 on his return to France following the defeat of Napoléon. The declaration is analyzed in detail in part V of Considerations. Louis XVIII fled to Belgium a year later, when Napoléon returned to France during his Hundred Days.