Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II: Of the Political Doctrine of Some French Emigrants and Their Adherents. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER II: Of the Political Doctrine of Some French Emigrants and Their Adherents. - 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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Of the Political Doctrine of Some French Emigrants and Their Adherents.
The opponents of the French Revolution of 1789, whether nobility, clergy, or lawyers, repeated incessantly that no change was necessary in regard to government, because the intermediary bodies which then existed were sufficient to prevent despotic measures; and they now proclaim despotic forms as a re-establishment of the old regime. This inconsistency in point of principle is consistency in point of interest. So long as the privileged classes served as a limit to the royal authority, they were averse to arbitrary power in the Crown; but since the time that the people has found means to take the place of the privileged classes, the latter have rallied under the royal prerogative and would give the character of rebellion to all constitutional opposition and to all political liberty.
These persons found the power of kings on divine right to be an absurd doctrine, which caused the overthrow of the Stuarts, and which, even at that time, was denied by their most enlightened adherents, from a dread that it would forever bar their return to England. Lord Erskine,1 in his admirable pleading in favor of the Dean of St. Asaph, on a question relative to the liberty of the press, begins by quoting Locke’s treatise on the points of divine right and passive obedience, in which that celebrated philosopher positively declares that every agent of royal authority who goes beyond the latitude allowed by law should be considered an instrument of tyranny, and that on this account it is lawful to shut one’s door and repel him by force, as if we were attacked by a robber or a pirate. Locke admits the objection so often repeated, that a doctrine of this kind disseminated among the people might encourage insurrections. “There exists no truth,” he says, “which may not lead to error, no remedy which may not become a poison. There is not one of the gifts which we hold from the bounty of God of which we could make use, if the possible abuse of them were a reason for depriving us of their use. On this view, the Gospels ought not to have been published; for although they are the foundation of all the moral obligations which unite men in society, yet an imperfect knowledge and an injudicious study of the Holy Word has led many men to madness. Weapons necessary for defense may serve for vengeance and murder. The fire that warms us exposes us to conflagration; the medicines which cure us may cause our death. Finally, one could not instruct men on any point of government, one could not profit by any of the lessons of history, if the excesses to which false reasoning may be carried were always to be brought forward as an argument to prevent freedom of thought.”2
The sentiments of Mr. Locke, said Lord Erskine, were published three years after the accession of King William to the throne of England, and at a time when that monarch had raised the author to a high rank in the state. But Bolingbroke, no less famous than Locke in the republic of letters and in the theater of the world, expresses himself on this question in the same manner. He who had armed himself to restore James II to the throne laid the greatest stress on exculpating the Jacobites from what he considered a dangerous calumny—the charge of attempting to found the claims of James II on divine right, and not on the English constitution. And it was from the Continent, to which he had been banished by the House of Hanover, that he wrote what follows: “The duty of a people,” says Bolingbroke, “is now so clearly established that no man can be unacquainted with the circumstances in which he ought to obey, or those in which he ought to resist. Conscience has no longer to contend with reason. We know that we ought to defend the crown at the cost of our fortune and our life, if the crown protects us and does not depart from the limits assigned by law; but we know likewise that if it exceed these limits, it is our duty to resist it.”3
I shall observe incidentally that this divine right, refuted so long ago in England, is kept up in France by an equivocation. Its advocates urge the established phrase: “by the grace of God, king of France and Navarre.” The words so often repeated, that our kings hold their crown from God and their sword, were intended to free them from the extraordinary pretension advanced by the popes to crown and to remove sovereigns. The emperors of Germany, who undoubtedly were elective, assumed, in like manner, the title of “Emperor by the grace of God.” The kings of France, who in virtue of the feudal system rendered homage for this or that province, were not less in the habit of using this form; while princes and archbishops, down to the humblest members of the feudal body, took the title of lords and prelates by the grace of God. At this day the king of England employs the same form, which in fact is nothing but an expression of Christian humility; yet a positive law in England declares guilty of high treason whoever should support divine right. These pretended privileges of despotism, which never can have any other support than that of force, are like the passage in St. Paul: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers; for there is no power but of God.” Bonaparte insisted greatly on the authority of this apostle; he obliged all the clergy of France and the Low Countries to preach on this text; and in fact one could not well refuse to Bonaparte the title of “a higher power on earth.” But what could be the meaning of St. Paul, except that the Christians ought not to interfere with the political factions of his time? Will it be alleged that St. Paul meant to justify tyranny? Did he not himself resist the orders issued by Nero when he preached the Christian faith? And were the martyrs obedient to the prohibition of professing their worship enjoined to them by the emperors? St. Peter calls government very properly a human order. There is not a single question, either in morals or politics, in which we are under the necessity of admitting what is called authority. The conscience of men is to them a perpetual revelation, their reason an unalterable fact. That which constitutes the essence of the Christian religion is the harmony of our private feelings with the words of Jesus Christ. That which constitutes society is the principles of justice applied in different ways, but always recognized as the basis of power and of law.
The nobility, as we have shown in the course of this work, had passed, under Richelieu, from the condition of independent vassals to that of courtiers. One would almost say that a change of dress was indicative of a change of character. Under Henri IV, the French dress had in it something chivalrous; but the large perukes and that sedentary and affected dress that was worn at the court of Louis XIV did not begin till under Louis XIII. During the youth of Louis XIV, the impulse given by the faction called the fronde still called forth some energy; but in his latter years, in the regency, and during the reign of Louis XV, can we quote a single public man who deserves a name in history? What court intrigues occupied the great nobles! And in what a state of ignorance and frivolity did not the Revolution find the greatest part of them!
I have spoken of emigration, its motives, and its consequences. Of the nobles who took that step, some remained constantly out of France and followed the Royal Family with a commendable fidelity. The majority returned to France under the reign of Bonaparte, and many of them became confirmed in his school in the doctrine of passive obedience, of which they made the most scrupulous trial in submission to him whom they were bound to consider a usurper. That the emigrants are justly irritated by the sale of their property I can well conceive; such a confiscation is infinitely less justifiable than the highly legal disposal of the property of the church. But must a resentment, in other respects very natural, be directed against all the good sense of which mankind is in possession in this world? One would say that the progress of the age, the example of England, and even a knowledge of the actual state of France, are so foreign to their minds that they would, I believe, be tempted to strike out the word “nation” from their language as a revolutionary term. Would it not be better, even as a matter of calculation, to become frankly reconciled to all the principles which accord with the dignity of man? What proselytes can they make with this doctrine ab irato,4 without any other foundation than personal interest? They want an absolute king, an exclusive religion, an intolerant priesthood, a court nobility founded on genealogy, a Third Estate acquiring from time to time distinction by lettres de noblesse, a population immersed in ignorance and without rights, an army acting as a mere machine, ministers without responsibility, no liberty of the press, no juries, no civil liberty; but they would have police spies and hired newspapers to extol this work of darkness. They want a king of unbounded authority that he may be able to restore to them all the privileges that they have lost, and which the deputies of the nation, be they who they may, would never consent to restore. They desire that the Catholic religion alone should be tolerated: some because they flatter themselves that thus they should recover the property of the church; others because they hope to find zealous auxiliaries of despotism in some of the religious orders. The clergy of France contended formerly against the Crown, in support of the authority of Rome; but at present all persons of the privileged classes are leagued together. It is the people only which has no other support than itself. These men desire a Third Estate incapable of occupying any elevated station, that all such offices may be reserved for the nobles. They would have the people receive no education, that they may be a flock more easily guided. They would have an army with officers accustomed to arrest, denounce, and put to death; in short, more the enemies of their fellow-citizens than of foreigners. For to re-establish the old state of things in France, without the glory that existed on the one part and the portion of liberty that existed on the other; without the habits of the past which are broken; and all this in opposition to the invincible attachment to the new order of things—a foreign force would be necessary to keep the nation in a state of perpetual compression. These men are averse to juries because they wish for the re-establishment of the old parlements of the kingdom. But besides that these parlements were formerly unable, notwithstanding their honorable efforts, to prevent either arbitrary condemnation, lettres de cachet, or taxes imposed in spite of their remonstrances, they would be in the situation of other privileged persons; they would no longer be animated by their former spirit of resistance to the encroachments of ministers. Re-instated against the wish of the nation, and merely by the will of the sovereign, how could they act in opposition to kings, who might say to them, “If we do not continue to support you, the nation, which is no longer disposed to bear with you, will overthrow you”? Finally, to maintain a system in contradiction to the public wish, it is necessary to have the power of arresting anyone, as well as to give ministers the means of imprisoning without trial, and of preventing the accused from printing a single line in their defense. Society in such a state would be the prey of a few and the bane of the many. Henri IV would be as much disgusted by such a state of things as Franklin; and there is, in the history of France, no period so remote as to offer anything similar to such barbarism. At a time when all Europe seems to advance toward gradual improvement, ought one to pretend to make use of the just horror inspired by a few years of revolution to establish oppression and degradation in a nation once invincible?
Such are the principles of government disclosed in a number of writings by emigrants and their adherents; or rather such are the consequences of this party egoism; for we cannot give the name of principles to that theory which interdicts refutation and does not bear the light. The situation of the emigrants dictates to them the opinions which they advance, and hence the reason that France has always dreaded that power should be lodged in their hands. It is not the former dynasty that inspires any aversion to the country; it is the party which wishes to reign in its name. When the emigrants were recalled by Bonaparte, he was able to restrain them; and the public did not perceive that they had influence. But as they call themselves exclusively the defenders of the Bourbons, there has existed an apprehension that the gratitude of that family toward them might lead to entrusting the military and civil authority to those against whom the nation had contended during twenty-five years, and whom it had always seen in the ranks of the hostile armies. Nor is it the individuals composing the emigrant party who displease those of the French who never quitted their country; they have been intermingled in the camps, and even in the court of Bonaparte. But as the political doctrine of the emigrants is contrary to the national welfare, to the rights for which two million men have perished on the field of battle, to the rights for which (and this is still more grievous) crimes committed in the name of liberty have recoiled on France, the nation will never willingly bend under the yoke of emigrant opinions; and it is the dread of seeing itself constrained to this which has prevented it from taking part in the recall of its ancient princes. The constitutional charter, by giving a guarantee to the good principles of the Revolution, is the palladium of the throne and of the country.5
[1. ] Lord Thomas Erskine (1750–1823) defended Thomas Paine in 1792. He served as chancellor in 1806–7.
[2. ] Staël does not indicate the exact source of this quote. In Two Treatises of Government (1689) Locke criticized the doctrine of the divine right of kings and advocated the principle of constitutionalism (separation of powers, rule of law).
[3. ] Staël does not indicate the exact source of this quote. Henry St. John Bolingbroke (1678–1751) was a prominent British politician and writer. He was educated at Oxford, entered Parliament in 1701, and soon after became a member of the Tory party. His works, which include A Dissertation on Parties (1736) and The Patriot King (1769), were widely read in eighteenth-century America and influenced Burke.
[4. ] Latin phrase used in civil law signifying “in anger.”
[5. ] For more information about the political doctrine of the ultraconservative right under the Restoration, see Oechslin, Le mouvement ultra-royaliste sous la Restauration; Rials, Révolution et Contre-Révolution au XIXème siècle; and Rémond, The Right Wing in France.