Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIII: Charles I and Louis XVI. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XIII: Charles I and Louis XVI. - 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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Charles I and Louis XVI.
Many persons have attributed the disasters of France to the weakness of the character of Louis XVI; and it has been continually repeated that his stooping to recognize the principles of liberty was one of the essential causes of the Revolution. It seems to me, then, a matter of curiosity to show to those who believe that in France, at this crisis, such or such a man would have sufficed to have prevented everything; or that the adoption of such or such a resolution would have arrested the progress of events; it seems, I say, a matter of curiosity to show them that the conduct of Charles I was, in all respects, the converse of that of Louis XVI, and that, nevertheless, two opposite systems brought about the same catastrophe; so irresistible is the progress of revolutions caused by the opinion of the majority.
James I, the father of Charles, said “that men might form an opinion on the conduct of kings, since they freely allowed themselves to scrutinize the decrees of Providence; but that their power could no more be called in question than that of God.” Charles I had been educated in these maxims; and he regarded as a measure equally inconsistent with duty, and with policy, every concession made by the royal authority. Louis XVI, a hundred and fifty years later, was modified by the age in which he lived; the doctrine of passive obedience, which was still received in England in the time of Charles, was no longer maintained even by the clergy of France in 1789. The English Parliament had existed from time immemorial;1 and although it was not irrevocably decided that its consent was necessary for taxation, yet it was customary to ask its sanction. But as it granted subsidies for several years in anticipation, the King of England was not, as now, under the necessity of assembling it annually; and very frequently taxes were continued without having been renewed by the votes of the national representatives. The parliament, however, on all occasions, protested against this abuse; and upon this ground commenced the quarrel between the Commons and Charles I. He was reproached with two taxes which he levied without the assent of the nation. Irritated by this reproach, he ordered, in pursuance of the constitutional right vested in him, that the parliament should be dissolved; and twelve years2 elapsed before he called another, an interruption almost unparalleled in the history of England. The quarrel of Louis XVI began, like that of Charles I, by financial embarrassments; and it is always these embarrassments that render kings dependent upon their people; but Louis XVI assembled the Estates General, which for nearly two centuries had been almost forgotten in France.
Louis XIV had suppressed even the remonstrances of the Parlement of Paris, the only privilege left to that body, when he registered the bursal edicts. Henry VIII of England had caused his proclamations to be received as laws. Thus, then, both Charles and Louis might consider themselves as inheriting unlimited power; but with this difference, that the people of England always relied, and with reason, upon the past to reclaim their rights, while the French demanded something entirely new, since the convocation of the Estates General was not prescribed by any law. Louis XVI, according to the constitution, or the nonconstitution, of France, was not under any obligation to assemble the Estates General; Charles I, in omitting for twelve years to convoke the English Parliament, violated privileges which had been long recognized.
During the twelve-year suspension of the parliament under Charles, the Star Chamber,3 an irregular tribunal which executed the will of the English monarch, exercised every imaginable species of rigor. Prynne was sentenced to lose his ears for having written, according to the tenets of the Puritans, against plays and against the hierarchy. Allison and Robins endured the same punishment because they expressed an opinion different from that of the Archbishop of York; Lilburne was exposed on the pillory, inhumanly scourged, and gagged because his courageous complaints produced an effect upon the people. Williams, a bishop, underwent a similar punishment.4 The most cruel tortures were inflicted upon those who refused to pay the taxes imposed by a mere proclamation of the King; in a host of other different cases ruinous fines were levied on individuals by the same Star Chamber; but, in general, it was against the liberty of the press that the utmost violence was displayed. Louis XVI made scarcely any use of the arbitrary measure of lettres de cachet for the purpose of exile or imprisonment;5 no one act of tyranny can be laid to his charge; and, far from restraining the liberty of the press, it was the Archbishop of Sens, the King’s prime minister, who, in the name of His Majesty, invited all writers to make known their opinions upon the form and the manner of assembling the Estates General.6
The Protestant religion was established in England; but as the Church of England recognizes the king as its head, Charles I had certainly much more influence over his church than Louis had over that of France. The English clergy, under the guidance of Laud,7 although Protestant, was not only in all respects more independent, but more rigid than the French clergy; for the philosophic spirit had gained a footing among some of the leaders of the Gallican church; and Laud was more decidedly orthodox than the Cardinal de Rohan, the principal bishop of France. The ecclesiastical authority and the hierarchy were supported by Charles with extreme severity. The greater part of the cruel sentences which disgraced the Star Chamber had for their object the enforcing of respect for the clergy. That of France seldom defended itself, and never found defenders in others: both were equally crushed by the Revolution.
The English nobility did not resort to the pernicious measure of emigration, nor to the still more pernicious measure of calling in foreigners: they encircled the throne with constancy, and combated on the side of the King during the civil war. The principles of philosophy which were in vogue in France at the commencement of the Revolution excited a great number of the nobles themselves to turn their own privileges into ridicule. The spirit of the seventeenth century did not prompt the English nobility to doubt the validity of their own rights. The Star Chamber punished with extreme severity some persons who had ventured to ridicule certain lords. Pleasantry is never interdicted to the French. The nobles of England were grave and serious, while those of France were agreeable triflers; and yet both the one and the other were alike despoiled of their privileges;8 and, widely as they differed in all their measures of defense, they were strikingly assimilated in their ruin.
It has often been said that the great influence of Paris over the rest of France was one of the causes of the Revolution. London never obtained the same ascendant over England, because the principal English nobility lived much more in the provinces than those of France. Lastly, it has been pretended that the prime minister of Louis XVI, M. Necker, was swayed by republican principles, and that such a man as Cardinal Richelieu might have prevented the Revolution. The Earl of Strafford,9 the favorite minister of Charles I, was of a firm, and even despotic character; he possessed one advantage over Cardinal Richelieu, that of a high military reputation, which always gives a better grace to the exercise of absolute power. M. Necker enjoyed the greatest popularity ever known in France; the Earl of Strafford was always the object of popular animosity; yet each was the victim of a revolution, and each was sacrificed by his master: the former because he was denounced by the Commons; the latter because the courtiers demanded his dismissal.
Lastly (and this is the most striking point of contrast), Louis XVI has been always blamed for not having taken the field, for not having repelled force by force, and for his insuperable dread of civil war. Charles I began the civil war with motives doubtless very plausible, but still he began it. He quitted London, repaired to the country, and put himself at the head of an army which defended the royal authority to the last extremity. Charles I refused to recognize the competency of the tribunal which condemned him; Louis XVI never made a single objection to the authority of his judges. Charles was infinitely superior to Louis in capacity, in address, and in military talents—everything, in short, formed a contrast between these two monarchs, except their misfortune.
There was, however, one point of resemblance in their sentiments, which alone can account for the similarity of their destinies—Charles I was from the bottom of his heart attached to Catholicism, at that time proscribed in England by the reigning opinion; and Louis XVI was anxious to preserve the ancient political institutions of France. This similarity caused the destruction of both. It is in the art of directing public opinion, or of yielding to it at the proper moment, that the science of government consists in modern times.
[1. ] In its current form, only since 1529.
[2. ] From 1629 to 1640.
[3. ] The Star Chamber was the judiciary branch of the King’s Council, which assumed an important role beginning with 1487 and met in a special room of Westminster Palace with a star-painted ceiling. It was abolished in 1647.
[4. ] Prynne, Allison, Robins, Lilburne, and Williams were religious dissenters. Lilburn (1614–57) became one of the leaders of the English levelers.
[5. ] The infamous lettres de cachet allowed imprisonment without any prior judgment. The King refused to abolish them in 1788.
[6. ] On July 5, 1788.
[7. ] Laud (1573–1645), Archbishop of London and later of Canterbury, suppressed dissent and sought to strengthen the power of the king on religious matters. He was charged by the House of Commons and executed in 1645.
[8. ] In reality, the English nobles did not lose all their privileges.
[9. ] Thomas Strafford (1593–1641), a supporter of Charles I, was executed in 1641.