Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER X: Abstract of M. Necker's Principles on Government. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER X: Abstract of M. Necker’s Principles on Government. - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Abstract of M. Necker’s Principles on Government.
It has been often said that religion is necessary for the people; and I think it easy to prove that men of an exalted rank have still more need of it. The same is true of morality in its connections with politics. Men have never been weary of repeating that it suits individuals, and not nations; the truth, on the contrary, is that it is to the government of states that fixed principles are especially applicable. As the existence of this or that individual is fleeting and transitory, it sometimes happens that a bad action is useful to him for the moment in a conjuncture where his personal interest is compromised; but as nations are durable, they cannot disregard the general and permanent laws of intellectual order without proceeding to their ruin. The injustice which may be advantageous to one man by way of exception is always injurious to successions of men, whose lot must necessarily fall under the general rule. But the circumstance which has given some currency to the infernal maxim which places politics above morality is that the leaders of the state have been confounded with the state itself. These chiefs have often experienced that it was more convenient and advantageous for them to extricate themselves at any price from a present difficulty; and they have drawn out into principles the measures to which their selfishness or their incapacity induced them to have recourse. A man embarrassed in his affairs would willingly establish the theory that borrowing at interest is the best financial system which can be adopted. Now immorality of every kind is also borrowing at interest; it saves for the moment and ruins later.
M. Necker, during his first ministry, was not in a situation to think of the establishment of a representative government. In proposing courts of provincial administration, he wished to set a limit to the power of ministers and to give influence to enlightened men and rich proprietors in all parts of France. M. Necker’s first maxim in government was to avoid arbitrary power and to limit the action of the ministry in everything that was not necessary to the maintenance of order. A minister who wishes to do everything, to order everything, and who is jealous of power as a personal enjoyment, is fit for courts but not for nations. A man of genius, when such a man finds himself by chance at the head of public affairs, should try to render himself useless. Good institutions embody and establish those lofty ideas which no individual, whoever he may be, can put in action for more than a short time.
To hatred of arbitrary power M. Necker joined great respect for opinion and a deep interest for that abstract, yet real being called the people, which has not ceased to be the object of pity, though it has shown itself to be formidable. He believed it was necessary to secure to the people knowledge and comfort, two inseparable blessings. He did not wish to sacrifice the nation to privileged casts; but he was at the same time of the opinion that ancient customs should be dealt with gently on account of new circumstances. He believed in the necessity of distinctions in society, that the rudeness of power might be diminished by the voluntary ascendancy of consideration; but aristocracy, according to his conception, was an institution intended to excite the emulation of all men of merit.
M. Necker hated wars of ambition, estimated very highly the resources of France, and believed that such a country, governed by the wisdom of a true national representation and not by the intrigues of courtiers, had nothing to desire or fear in the middle of Europe.
However beautiful, it will be said, the doctrine of M. Necker might be, it has not succeeded, and therefore was not adapted to men as they are. An individual may not obtain from heaven the favor of aiding the triumph of the truths which he proclaims; but are they the less truths on that account? Though Galileo was thrown into prison, have not the laws of nature discovered by him been since universally acknowledged? Morality and freedom are as certainly the only bases of the happiness and dignity of the human race as the system of Galileo is the true theory of the celestial motions.
Consider the power of England: whence does it proceed? from her virtues and her constitution. Suppose for a moment that this island, now so prosperous, were all at once deprived of her laws, of her public spirit, of the freedom of the press, of her parliament, which derives its strength from the people and gives them back its own in return, how her fields would be dried up! How her harbors would be forsaken! The very agents of arbitrary power, unable any longer to obtain their subsidies from a country without credit and without patriotism, would regret the liberty which for so long a time had at least supplied them with treasures.
The misfortunes of the Revolution resulted from the unreflecting resistance of the privileged ranks to what reason and force demanded; this question is still debated after twenty-seven years. The dangers of the struggle are lessened because the parties are weaker, but its issue will be the same.1 M. Necker disdained Machiavellianism in politics, quackery in finances, and arbitrary power in government. He thought that the highest talent consisted in bringing society into harmony with the immutable though silent laws to which the Divinity has subjected human nature. On this ground he may be attacked: for it is the ground on which, if he were alive, he would still place himself.
He did not plume himself on that kind of talent which is requisite to constitute the leader of a faction or a despot; he had too much order in his understanding, and too much peace in his soul, to be fit for those great irregularities of nature which swallow up the age and the country in which they appear. But if he had been born an Englishman, I say with pride that no minister would ever have surpassed him; for he was a firmer friend to liberty than Mr. Pitt, more austere than Mr. Fox, and not less eloquent, not less energetic, nor less penetrated with the dignity of the state than Lord Chatham. Ah! why was he not permitted, like that nobleman, to utter his last words in the senate of his country, in the midst of a nation which can judge, which can be grateful, and whose enthusiasm, far from being the presage of slavery, is the recompense of virtue!
In the meantime, let us return to the examination of that political personage who forms the most complete contrast to the principles which we have just sketched; and let us see whether Bonaparte himself does not help to prove the truth of those principles, which alone could have maintained him in power and preserved the glory of the French name.
[1. ] The political context of the first years of the Bourbon Restoration (1814–16) was marked by heated controversies in the (in)famous Chambre introuvable, dominated by the ultraconservatives. The newly elected chamber provided an open arena for vigorous political debates among partisans of the Old Regime, supporters of constitutional monarchy and representative government, and those who wanted to continue the Revolution. The legacy of the French Revolution made the entire situation extremely complex, for the country had witnessed not only the “noble” moment of 1789 that marked the fall of absolute monarchy of divine right, but also the dark moment of the Terror of 1793–94. Hence, in reopening the debate over the legitimacy of the principles of 1789, the Restoration had to come to terms with the violent episodes of the French Revolution. For more information, see Craiutu, Liberalism Under Siege, chaps. 2–3, 7–9; and Berthier de Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, pt. I, chaps. 1–5; part II, chaps. 2–6; pt. III, chaps. 3, 5.