Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XV: Of the Legislation and Administration Under Bonaparte. - 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 XV: Of the Legislation and Administration Under Bonaparte. - 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.
Of the Legislation and Administration Under Bonaparte.
The unlimited despotism and the shameless corruption of the civil government under Bonaparte has not yet been sufficiently delineated. It might be supposed that after the torrent of abuse which is always poured forth in France against the vanquished, there would remain no ill to be spoken against a fallen power which the flatterers of the subsequent regime have not exhausted. But as they who attacked Bonaparte wished still to spare the doctrine of despotism; as many of those who load him with reproach today had praised him yesterday, they were obliged, in order to introduce some consistency into conduct in which nothing is systematic except baseness, to carry their outrages even beyond what the man deserves, and yet in many respects to observe a prudent silence on a system from which they still wanted to benefit. The greatest crime of Napoléon, however, that for which every man of reflection, every writer qualified to be the dispenser of glory among posterity, will never cease to accuse him before mankind, was the mode in which he established and organized despotism. He founded it on immorality; for so much knowledge was diffused through France that absolute power, which elsewhere rests on ignorance, could there be maintained only by corruption.
Is it possible to speak of legislation in a country where the will of a single man decided everything—where this man, uncertain and fluctuating as the waves of the sea during a tempest, was unable to endure the barriers of his own will if the regulation of the evening was opposed to the next day’s desire of change? A counselor of state once thought proper to represent to him that the resolution which he was about to take was inconsistent with the Code Napoléon. Very well, said he, the Code Napoléon was made for the welfare of the people; and if that welfare requires other measures, we must adopt them. What a pretext for unlimited power is the public welfare! Robespierre did well in giving that name to his government. Shortly after the death of the Duke d’Enghien, while Bonaparte was still troubled at the bottom of his soul by the horror which that assassination had inspired, he said in a conversation upon literature with an artist very capable of forming a judgment upon the subject: “Reason of state, do you observe, has with the moderns supplied the place of the fatalism of the ancients. Corneille is the only French tragic writer who has felt this truth. Had he lived in my time, I would have made him my prime minister.”
There were two kinds of instruments of imperial power, laws and decrees. The laws received the sanction of the semblance of a legislative body; but the real exercise of authority was to be found in the decrees which emanated directly from the Emperor and were discussed in his council. Napoléon left the fine speakers of the Council of State, and the mute deputies of the legislative body, to deliberate and decide on some abstract questions in jurisprudence, with the view of giving his government a false air of philosophical wisdom. But when laws relative to the exercise of power were concerned, all the exceptions, as well as all the rules, were under the jurisdiction of the Emperor. In the Code Napoléon, and even in the criminal code, some good principles remain, derived from the Constituent Assembly: the institution of juries, for instance, the anchor of French Hope—and several improvements in the mode of procedure which have brought that branch of jurisprudence out of the darkness in which it lay before the Revolution, and in which it still lies in several states of Europe. But of what value were legal institutions when extraordinary tribunals named by the Emperor, special courts, and military commissions judged all political offenses—that is to say the very offenses in which the unchangeable aegis of the law is most required? In the succeeding volume we shall show how the English have multiplied precautions in political prosecutions to protect justice more efficaciously from the encroachments of power. What examples has not Bonaparte’s reign exhibited of those extraordinary tribunals, which became habitual! For when one arbitrary act is permitted, the poison spreads itself through all the affairs of the state. Have not rapid and dark executions polluted the soil of France? The military code in all countries except England interferes too much with the civil. But under Bonaparte it was enough to be accused of interfering with the recruitment of soldiers in order to bring the accused before a military commission. It was thus that the Duke d’Enghien was tried. Bonaparte never once left a political offense to the decision of a jury. General Moreau and those who were accused along with him were deprived of that right; but they were fortunately brought before judges who respected their conscience. These judges, however, were not able to prevent the perpetration of iniquities in that horrible trial, and the torture was introduced anew in the nineteenth century by a national chief whose power ought to have emanated from opinion.
Under the reign of Bonaparte, it was difficult to distinguish legislative measures from measures of administration, because both were equally dependent on the supreme authority. On this subject, however, we shall make one main observation. Whenever the improvements of which the different branches of the government were susceptible in no respect struck at the power of Bonaparte, but on the contrary promoted his plans and his glory, he made, in order to effect them, an able use of the immense resources which the dominion of nearly all Europe gave him. And as he possessed a great talent for discovering, among a number of men, those who could be useful instruments of service to him, he generally employed persons very well qualified for the affairs with the care of which they were entrusted. We owe to the imperial government the museums of the arts and the embellishments of Paris, high roads, canals which facilitate the mutual communications of the departments; in short, all that could strike the imagination by showing, as in the Simplon and Mont Cenis, that nature obeyed Bonaparte with almost as much docility as men. These various prodigies were accomplished because he could cause to bear on any particular point the taxes and the labor of eighty million men; but the kings of Egypt and the Roman emperors had, in this respect, equally great titles to glory. In what country did Bonaparte take any concern about the moral development of the people? What means, on the contrary, did he not employ in France to stifle the public spirit which had grown up in spite of the bad governments to which faction had given birth?
All the local authorities in the provinces were gradually suppressed or annulled; there remains in France only one focus of movement—Paris; and the instruction which arises from emulation faded away to nothing in the provinces, while the carelessness with which the schools were kept up completed the consolidation of that ignorance which agrees so well with slavery. Yet as those who are endowed with intellect feel the necessity of exerting it, all who had any talent went immediately to the capital to endeavor to obtain places. Hence proceeds that rage for being employed and pensioned by the state which degrades and devours France. If men had anything to do at home; if they could take a share in the administration of their city or department; if they had an opportunity of making themselves useful there, of gaining consideration, and of cheering themselves with the hope of being one day elected a deputy; we should not see everyone hastening to Paris who can flatter himself with prevailing over his rivals by an intrigue or a flattery the more.1
No employment was left to the free choice of the citizens. Bonaparte took delight in issuing decrees concerning the nomination of doorkeepers and sergeants dated from the first capitals in Europe. He wished to exhibit himself as present everywhere, as sufficient for everything; in fine, as the sole governing being upon earth. It was, however, only by the tricks of a mountebank that a man could succeed in multiplying himself to such a degree; for the substance of power always falls into the hands of the subaltern agents who exercise the details of despotism. In a country where there is neither any intermediate independent body nor freedom of the press, there is one thing which a despot, whatever be the superiority of his genius, can never know; and that is the truth which could be disagreeable to him.
Commerce, credit, all that demands spontaneous activity in the nation and a sure defense against the caprices of government, were ill adapted to the system of Bonaparte. The contributions of foreign countries were its only basis. By treating the public debt with respect, an appearance of good faith was given to the government without actually hindering it very much, given that the sum was so small. But the other creditors of the public treasury knew that their payment or nonpayment was to be considered as a chance, on the determination of which their right was the circumstance which had the least influence. Accordingly nobody thought of lending to the state, however powerful its chief might be; and for the very reason that he was too powerful. The revolutionary decrees accumulated during fifteen years of disorder were taken or let alone according to the exigency of the moment. On every affair there was generally one law on this side and another on that, which the ministers applied according to their convenience. Sophisms, which were a mere article of superfluity, since authority was all-powerful, justified by turns the most opposite measures.
What a shameful establishment was that of the police! This political inquisition has in modern times taken the place of religious inquisition. Was the chief beloved who needed to weigh down the nation with such a bondage? He made use of some to accuse others, and boasted of practicing the old maxim of dividing in order to command which, thanks to the progress of human reason, is now an artifice very easily discovered. The revenue of this police was worthy of its employment. The gaming houses of Paris supplied the funds for its support: and thus it hired vice with the money of the vice which paid it. It escaped public attention by the mystery which enveloped it; but when chance brought into open day a prosecution in which the agents of the police were in some way concerned, is it possible to conceive anything more disgusting, more perfidious, or more mean than the disputes which arose between these wretches? Sometimes they declared that they had professed one opinion to make use secretly of the opposite; sometimes they boasted of the snares which they had prepared to induce malcontents to conspire, with the view of betraying them as soon as a conspiracy was formed; and yet the depositions of such men were received by the tribunals! The unfortunate invention of this police has since been directed against the partisans of Bonaparte in their turn; had they not reason to think that it was the bull of Phalaris,2 of which, after having conceived the fatal idea of it, they were themselves undergoing the punishment?
[1. ] This strongly centralized structure continued during the first years of the Bourbon Restoration. For more information, see Craiutu, Liberalism Under Siege, chaps. 3 and 6.
[2. ] The tyrant of Agrigento (570–554 bc), who is said to have had his enemies burned inside an iron bull.