Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IV: Progress of Bonaparte to Absolute Power. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER IV: Progress of Bonaparte to Absolute Power. - 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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Progress of Bonaparte to Absolute Power.
The first symptoms of tyranny cannot be watched too carefully: for when once it has matured to a certain point, it can no longer be stopped. A single man enchains the will of a multitude of individuals, the greater part of whom, taken separately, would wish to be free, but who nevertheless submit because they dread one another and dare not communicate their thoughts freely. A minority not very numerous is often sufficient to resist in succession every portion of the majority which is unacquainted with its own strength.
In spite of the differences of time and place, there are points of resemblance in the history of all nations who have fallen under the yoke. It is generally after long civil troubles that tyranny is established, because it offers the hope of shelter to all the exhausted and timorous factions. Bonaparte said of himself with reason that he could play admirably upon the instrument of power. In truth, as he is attached to no principles, nor restrained by any obstacles, he presents himself in the arena of circumstances like a wrestler, no less supple than vigorous, and discovers at the first glance the points in every man or association of men which may promote his private designs. His scheme for arriving at the dominion of France rested upon three principal bases—to satisfy men’s interests at the expense of their virtues, to deprave public opinion by sophisms, and to give the nation war for an object instead of liberty. We shall see him follow these different paths with uncommon ability. The French, alas! seconded him only too well; yet it is his fatal genius which should be chiefly blamed; for as an arbitrary government had at all times prevented the nation from acquiring fixed ideas upon any subject, Bonaparte set its passions in motion without having to struggle against its principles. He had it in his power to do honor to France and to establish himself firmly by respectable institutions; but his contempt of the human race had quite dried up his soul, and he believed that there was no depth but in the region of evil.
We have already seen him decree a constitution1 in which there existed no guarantees. Besides, he took great care to leave the laws that had been published during the Revolution unrepealed, that he might at his pleasure select from this accursed arsenal the weapon which suited him. The extraordinary commissions, the transportations, the banishments, the slavery of the press, measures unfortunately introduced in the name of liberty, were extremely useful to tyranny. When he employed them, he alleged as a pretext sometimes reasons of state, sometimes the urgency of the conjuncture, sometimes the activity of his adversaries, sometimes the necessity of maintaining tranquillity. Such is the artillery of the phrases by which absolute power is defended, for circumstances never have an end; and in proportion as restraint by illegal measures is increased, the disaffected become more numerous, which serves to justify the necessity of new acts of injustice. The establishment of the sovereignty of law is always deferred till tomorrow, a vicious circle of reasoning from which it is impossible to escape; for the public spirit that is expected to produce liberty can be the outcome only of that very liberty itself.
The constitution gave Bonaparte two colleagues: he chose with singular sagacity, for his assistant consuls, two men who were of no use but to disguise the unity of his despotism: the one was Cambacérès,2 a lawyer of great learning, who had been taught in the convention to bend methodically before terror; the other, Lebrun,3 a man of highly cultivated mind and highly polished manners, who had been trained under the Chancellor Maupeou, under that minister who, not satisfied with the degree of arbitrary power which he found in the monarchy as it then existed, had substituted for the parlements of France one named by himself. Cambacérès was the interpreter of Bonaparte to the revolutionaries, Lebrun to the royalists: both translated the same text into two different languages. Thus two able ministers were charged with the task of adapting the old system and the new to the mixed mass of the third. The one, a great noble who had been engaged in the Revolution, told the royalists that it was their interest to recover monarchical institutions at the expense of renouncing the ancient dynasty. The other, who, though a creature of the era of disaster, was ready to promote the re-establishment of courts, preached to the republicans the necessity of abandoning their political opinions in order to preserve their places. Among these knights of circumstances, the grand master Bonaparte could create such conjunctures as he desired; while the others maneuvered according to the wind with which the genius of the storms had filled their sails.
The political army of the First Consul was composed of deserters from the two parties. The royalists sacrificed to him their fidelity to the Bourbons; the patriots, their attachment to liberty, so that no independent style of thinking could show itself under his dominion; for he was more willing to pardon a selfish calculation than a disinterested opinion. It was by the bad side of the human heart that he hoped to gain possession of it.
Bonaparte took the Tuileries for his abode: and even the choice of this residence was a political calculation. It was there that the King of France was accustomed to be seen; circumstances connected with monarchy were there presented to every eye; the very presence of the walls, if we may say so, was sufficient to re-establish everything. Toward the concluding days of the last century, I saw the First Consul enter the palace built by our kings: and though Bonaparte was still very far from the magnificence which he afterward displayed, there was visible in all around him an eagerness to vie in the courtier arts of Oriental servility, which must have persuaded him that it was a very easy matter to govern the earth. When his carriage arrived in the court of the Tuileries, his valets opened the door and put down the steps with a violence which seemed to say that even inanimate substances were insolent when they retarded his progress for a moment. He neither looked at nor thanked any person, as if he were afraid of being thought sensible to the homage which he required. As he ascended the staircase in the midst of the crowd which pressed to follow him, his eyes were not fixed on any object or any person in particular. There was an air of vagueness and want of thought in his physiognomy, and his looks expressed only what it always becomes him to show—indifference to fortune and disdain for men.
One factor which was singularly favorable to the power of Bonaparte was that he had nothing but the mass of the nation to manage. All individual existence had been annihilated by ten years of tumult,4 and nothing acts upon a people like military success: to resist this inclination on their part instead of profiting by it, a great strength of reason is requisite. Nobody in France could believe his situation secure; men of all classes, whether ruined or enriched, banished or recompensed, found themselves, so to speak, one by one alike in the hands of power. Thousands of Frenchmen were upon the list of emigrants, thousands more had acquired national domains; thousands were proscribed as priests or nobles; and thousands of others feared to be so for their revolutionary deeds. Bonaparte, who constantly marched between two opposite interests, took care not to terminate these inquietudes by fixed laws, which would enable every man to know his rights. To this or that man he gave back his property; from this or that other he took it away forever. A decree concerning the restitution of woods reduced one man to misery while another recovered more than he had originally possessed. Sometimes he restored the estate of the father to the son, or that of the elder brother to the younger, according as he was satisfied or dissatisfied with their attachment to his person. There was not a Frenchman who had not something to ask of the government; and that something was life: for favor then consisted not in the frivolous pleasure which one can impart, but in the hope of revisiting the land in which one was born, and of recovering a part at least of what he once possessed. The First Consul had reserved to himself, under some pretext or other, the power of disposing of the lot of all and of everyone. This unheard-of state of dependence excuses in a great measure the nation. Is universal heroism to be expected? And was there not need of heroism to run the risk of the ruin and the banishment which impended over all by the application of a simple decree? A singular concurrence of circumstances placed the laws of the period of terror and the military force created by republican enthusiasm at the disposal of one man. What an inheritance for an able despot!
Those among the French who sought to resist the continually increasing power of the First Consul had to invoke liberty in order to struggle against him with success. But at this word the aristocrats and the enemies of the Revolution roared out against Jacobinism, and thus seconded the tyranny, the blame of which they have since wished to throw upon their adversaries.
To tranquillize the Jacobins, who had not yet all rallied round that court whose intentions they did not well comprehend, pamphlets were poured forth which declared that there was no reason to apprehend that Bonaparte meant to resemble Caesar, Cromwell, or Monk—obsolete parts, it was said, which were no longer suitable to the age. It is not, however, quite certain that the events of this world do not occur again and again with little variation, though such sameness is forbidden to the authors of new pieces for the stage; but the important object then was to furnish a phrase to all who wished to be decently deceived. French vanity at that time began to concern itself with diplomacy. The whole nation was informed of the secret of the comedy, and, flattered with the confidence, took pleasure in the intelligent reserve which was required of it.
The numerous journals which existed in France were soon subject to the most rigorous, but at the same time the best combined, censorship:5 for it was wholly out of the question to impose silence upon a nation which needed to scatter its words in every direction, just as the Roman people needed to watch the games of the circus. Bonaparte then established that loquacious tyranny from which he has since derived such a great advantage. The daily papers all repeated the same thing constantly, without anyone being allowed to contradict them. The freedom of journals differs in several respects from that of books. The journals announce the news for which all classes of people are eager; and the discovery of printing, instead of being what it has been called, the safeguard of liberty, would be the most terrible weapon of despotism if the journals which constitute the sole reading of three-fourths of the nation were exclusively subject to authority. For, as regular troops are much more dangerous than a militia to the independence of nations, so hired writers introduce into public opinion much more depravity than could arise where there is no communication except by speech; in which case the judgment could be formed only upon facts. But when the curiosity for news can be satisfied with an allotted portion of lies, when no event is related unaccompanied by sophisms, when everyone’s reputation depends on a calumny propagated by gazettes which are multiplied on every side, and when there is not a possibility that any person should be allowed to refute; when opinions concerning every circumstance, every work, every individual, are subject to a journalist’s word of command, as the movements of soldiers to the leaders of files; then it is that the art of printing becomes what has been said of cannon—the last reason of kings.
Bonaparte, when he had a million armed men at his disposal, did not on that account attach less importance to the art of guiding the public mind by the newspapers: he himself often dictated articles for the journals, which might be recognized by the violent jolts of style: one can see that he would have wished to put blows instead of words in what he wrote. There is in every part of his nature a basis of vulgarity which even the gigantic height of his ambition cannot always conceal. It is not the case that he does not know how to conduct himself with perfect propriety on any given day; he is, however, at his ease only when he despises others, and as soon as he can return to that mood, he yields gladly to his inclination. Yet it was not through mere liking that he allowed himself, in his notes for the Moniteur, to employ the cynicism of the Revolution in the support of his power. He would permit none but himself to be a Jacobin in France. And when he inserted in his bulletins gross insults against the most respectable personages, he thought that he should thus captivate the mass of the people and soldiers by descending, in the very purple with which he was arrayed, to the level of their language and passions.
It is impossible to arrive at great power except by taking advantage of the tendency of the times: accordingly Bonaparte studied the spirit of his age with care. There had been among the men of talent of the eighteenth century, in France, a superb enthusiasm for the principles which constitute the happiness and the dignity of mankind; but under the shelter of this great oak, the venomous plants of egoism and irony flourished; and Bonaparte knew how to avail himself with ability of these baneful dispositions. He turned everything, however glorious, into ridicule, except force; shame to the vanquished was the declared maxim of his reign; and accordingly there is only one reproach which we would be tempted to address to the disciples of his doctrine; yet you have not succeeded, for they would not be affected by blame derived from feelings of morality.
It was, however, necessary to give a vital principle to this system of derision and immorality upon which the civil government was founded. These negative forces were insufficient to produce a progressive motion without the impulse of military success. Order in the administration and the finances, the embellishment of cities, the completion of canals and high roads, everything, in short, that has been praiseworthy in the management of the interior, had for its sole bases the money obtained by contributions raised upon foreigners. Nothing less was necessary than the revenues of the Continent6 to procure these advantages for France; and, far from being founded on durable institutions, the apparent grandeur of this Colossus reposed only on feet of clay.
[1. ] The Constitution of Year VIII. The text can be found in Les constitutions de la France, 109–18.
[2. ] Carbacérès (1753–1824), a deputy to the Council of Five Hundred, was appointed minister of justice on July 20, 1799.
[3. ] Lebrun (1739–1824), a deputy to the Estates General and the Council of Five Hundred.
[4. ] Social atomization and leveling were two themes many French liberals used to account for the challenges faced by postrevolutionary France. In his parlementary speeches during the Restoration, Royer-Collard used a famous phrase—la société en poussière (atomized society)—to describe this phenomenon. A few decades later, Royer-Collard’s disciple Tocqueville resorted to this same image in The Old Régime and the Revolution (1856).
[5. ] The decree of January 17, 1800, reduced the number of journals in Paris from sixty to thirteen. Official censorship was introduced in 1804. For more information, see Hatin, Histoire politique et littéraire de la presse en France, vols. 7–8.
[6. ] Reference to the war contributions made by the countries occupied by Napoléon.