Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III: Of the Prosperity of England, and the Causes by Which It Has Been Hitherto Promoted. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER III: Of the Prosperity of England, and the Causes by Which It Has Been Hitherto Promoted. - 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 Prosperity of England, and the Causes by Which It Has Been Hitherto Promoted.
In the year 1813, the English had been twenty-one years at war with France, and for some time the whole Continent had been in arms against them. Even America, from political circumstances foreign to the interests of Europe, made a part of this universal coalition.1 During several years the respectable monarch of Great Britain was no longer in possession of his intellectual faculties.2 The great men in the civil career, Pitt and Fox, were now no more, and no one had yet succeeded to their reputation. No historical name could be cited at the head of affairs, and Wellington alone attracted the attention of Europe. Some ministers, several members of the opposition, lawyers, men of science and literature enjoyed a great share of the public esteem; and if on the one hand, France, in bending beneath the yoke of one man, had seen the reputation of individuals disappear; on the other, there was so much ability, information, and merit among the English that it had become very difficult to take the first rank amidst this illustrious crowd.
On my arrival in England, no particular person was present to my thoughts: I knew scarcely anyone in that country; but I went there with confidence.3 I was persecuted by an enemy of liberty, and therefore believed myself sure of an honorable sympathy in a country where every institution was in harmony with my political sentiments. I counted also greatly on my father’s memory as a protection, and I was not deceived. The waves of the North Sea, which I crossed in going from Sweden, still filled me with dread when I perceived at a distance the verdant isle that had alone resisted the subjugation of Europe. Yet it contained only a population of twelve million; for the five or six additional million which compose the population of Ireland had often, during the course of the last war, been a prey to intestine divisions.4 Those who will not acknowledge the ascendency of liberty in the power of England are perpetually repeating that the English would have been vanquished by Bonaparte, like every Continental nation, if they had not been protected by the sea. This opinion cannot be refuted by experience; but I have no doubt that if, by a stroke of the Leviathan, Great Britain had been joined to the European continent, she would indeed have suffered more; her wealth would, no doubt, have been diminished; but the public spirit of a free nation is such that it would never have submitted to the yoke of foreigners.
When I landed in England, in the month of June 1813, intelligence had just arrived of the armistice concluded between the Allied Powers and Napoléon. He was at Dresden, and it was still in his power to reduce himself to the miserable lot of being Emperor of France as far as the Rhine, and King of Italy. It was probable that England would not subscribe to this treaty;5 her position was therefore far from being favorable. A long war menaced her anew; her finances appeared exhausted; at least if we were to judge of her resources according to those of every other country of the world. The bank note, serving instead of coin, had fallen one-fourth on the Continent; and if this paper had not been supported by the patriotic spirit of the nation, it would have involved the ruin of public and private affairs. The French newspapers, comparing the state of the finances of the two countries, always represented England as overwhelmed with debt, and France as mistress of considerable treasure. The comparison was true; but it was necessary to add that England had the disposal of unbounded resources by her credit, while the French Government possessed only the gold which it held in its hands. France could levy millions in contributions on oppressed Europe; but her despotic sovereign could not have succeeded in a voluntary loan.
From Harwich to London you travel by a high road of nearly seventy miles, which is bordered, almost without interruption, by country houses on both sides; it is a succession of habitations with gardens, interrupted by towns; almost all the people are well clad; scarcely a cottage is in decay, and even the animals have something peaceful and comfortable about them, as if there were rights for them also in this great edifice of social order. The price of everything is necessarily very high; but these prices are for the most part fixed: there is such an aversion in that country to what is arbitrary that when there is no positive law, there is first a rule, and next a custom, to secure, as far as possible, something positive and fixed even in the smallest details. The dearness of provisions, occasioned by enormous taxes, is, no doubt, a great evil; but if the war was indispensable, what other than this nation, that is, this constitution, could have sufficed for its expenses? Montesquieu is right in remarking that free countries pay far more taxes than those who are governed despotically; but we have not yet ascertained, though the example of England might have taught us, the extent of the riches of a people who consent to what they give and consider public affairs as their own. Thus the English nation, far from having lost by twenty years of war, gained in every respect, even in the midst of the Continental blockade. Industry, become more active and ingenious, made up in an astonishing manner for the want of those productions which could no longer be drawn from the Continent. Capitals, excluded from commerce, were employed in the cultivation of waste lands and in agricultural improvements in various counties. The number of houses increased everywhere, and the extension of London, within a few years, is scarcely credible.6 If one branch of commerce fell, another arose soon. Men whose property was increased by the rise of land appropriated a large portion of their revenue to establishments of public charity. When the Emperor Alexander arrived in England,7 surrounded by the multitude, who felt so natural an eagerness to see him, he inquired where the lower orders were, because he found himself surrounded only by men dressed like the better class in other countries. The extent of what is done in England by private subscription is enormous: hospitals, houses of education, missions, Christian societies were not only supported but multiplied during the war; and the foreign who felt its disasters, the Swiss, the Germans, and the Dutch, were perpetually receiving from England private aid, the produce of voluntary gifts. When the town of Leyden was almost half destroyed by the explosion of a vessel laden with gunpowder,8 the English flag was soon after seen to appear on the coast of Holland; and as the Continental blockade existed at that time in all its rigor, the people on the coast thought themselves obliged to fire on this perfidious vessel; she then hoisted a flag of truce and made known that she brought a considerable sum for the people of Leyden, ruined by their recent misfortune.
But to what are we to attribute all these wonders of a generous prosperity? To liberty, that is to the confidence of the nation in a government which makes the first principle of its finances consist in publicity; in a government enlightened by discussion and by the liberty of the press. The nation, which cannot be deceived under such a state of things, knows the use of the taxes which it pays, and public credit supports the amazing weight of the English debt. If, without departing from proportions, anything similar were tried in the governments of the European continent that are not representative, not a second step could be made in such an enterprise. Five hundred thousand proprietors of public stock form a great guarantee for the payment of the debt in a country where the opinion and interest of every man possess influence. Justice, which in matters of credit is synonymous with ability, is carried so far in England that the dividends due to French proprietors were not confiscated there, even when all English property was seized in France. The foreign stockholder was not even made to pay an income tax on his dividends, though that tax was paid by the English themselves. This complete good faith, the perfection of policy, is the basis of the finances of England; and the confidence in the duration of this good faith is connected with political institutions. A change in the ministry, whatever it may be, occasions no prejudice to credit, since the national representation and publicity render all dissimulation impossible. Capitalists who lend their money are of all people in the world the most difficult to deceive.
There still exist old laws in England which cause some obstacles to different enterprises of industry in the interior; but some are progressively abolished, and others are fallen into disuse. Thus everyone creates resources for himself, and no man endowed with any activity can be in England without finding the means of acquiring property by doing that which contributes to the good of the state. The government never interferes in what can be equally well done by individuals: respect for personal liberty extends to the exercise of the faculties of every man; and the nation is so jealous of managing its own affairs, whenever possible, that in several respects London lacks a police necessary to the comfort of the town, because the ministers cannot encroach on the local authorities.
Political security, without which there can be neither credit nor accumulated capital, is not, however, sufficient to bring forth all the resources of a nation; men must be excited to labor by emulation, while the law secures to them the fruits of labor. Commerce and industry must be honored, not by recompenses bestowed on such or such an individual, which supposes two classes in a country, one of which believes it has the right to pay the other; but by an order of things which allows each man to reach the highest rank, if he is worthy. Hume says “that commerce stands still more in need of dignity than of liberty”;9 and indeed, the absurd prejudice which forbade the French nobles to engage in business was more prejudicial than all the other abuses of the Old Regime to the progress of wealth in France. Peerages have been recently given in England to merchants of the first class; when once made peers, they do not remain in business, because it is understood that they should serve their country in another manner. But it is their functions as magistrates, and not the prejudices of a caste, which removes them from the occupations of trade, into which the younger sons of the greatest families, when called on by circumstances, enter without hesitation. The same family is often connected with peers on one side and, on the other, with the plainest merchants of a provincial town. This political order stimulates all the faculties of the individual, because there are no bounds to the advantages which riches and talent may attain; and because no exclusion withholds either alliances, or employment, or society, or titles from the last of English citizens, if he is worthy of being the first.
But it will be said that in France, even under the old government, individuals without high birth were named to the greatest places. Yes; they were sometimes employed where they were useful to the state; but a bourgeois citizen could in no case be made the equal of a man of noble family. How was it possible to give decorations of the first order to a man of talent, without high birth, when genealogical titles were requisite to have the right of wearing them? Have we ever seen the title of duke and peer conferred on one who could have been called an upstart? And was not this word parvenu in itself an offense? Even the members of the French parliament could never, as we have already stated, cause themselves to be considered the equals of the nobility of sword. In England, rank and equality are combined in the manner most favorable to the prosperity of the state, and the happiness of the nation is the object of all social distinctions. There, as everywhere else, historical names inspire that respect of which a grateful imagination cannot refuse the tribute; but the titles remaining the same, though passing from one family to another, there results from this a salutary ignorance in the minds of the people, which leads them to pay the same respect to the same titles, whatever may be the family name to which they are attached. The great Marlborough10 was called Churchill, and was certainly not of so noble an origin as the ancient house of Spencer, to which the present Duke of Marlborough belongs; but without speaking of the memory of a great man, which would have sufficed to honor his descendants, the people of the better classes only know that the Duke of Marlborough of our days is of more illustrious descent than the famous General, and the respect in which he is held by the mass of the nation neither gains nor loses from that circumstance. The Duke of Northumberland,11 on the contrary, descends, by the female branch only, from the famous Percy Hotspur;12 and, nevertheless, he is considered by everybody as the true heir of that house. People exclaim against the regularity of ceremonials in England; the seniority of a single day, in point of nomination to the peerage, gives one peer precedence of another named some hours later. The wife and daughter share the advantages of the husband or father; but it is precisely this regularity of ranks which prevents qualms of vanity; for it may happen that the last created peer is of a nobler birth than he by whom he is preceded; he may at least think so; and everyone takes his share of self-love without injuring the public.
The nobility of France, on the contrary, could be classed only by the genealogist of the court. His decisions, founded on parchments, were without appeal; and thus, whilst the English aristocracy is the hope of all, since every person can attain it, French aristocracy was necessarily the despair of all, since it was impossible for an individual to obtain, by the efforts of his whole life, that which chance had refused him. It is not the inglorious order of birth, said an English poet to William III, which has raised you to the throne, but genius and virtue.
In England they have made respect for ancestry serve to form a class which gives the power of flattering men of talents by associating them with it. In fact, we cannot too often ask, what folly can be greater than that of arranging political associations in such a way as may lead a celebrated man to regret that he is not his own grandson; for, once ennobled, his descendants of the third generation obtained by his merit privileges that could not be granted to himself. Thus in France all persons were eager to quit trade, and even the law, whenever they had money enough to purchase a title. Hence it happened that no career, except that of arms, was ever carried as far as it might have been; and it has thus been impossible to judge how far the prosperity of France would extend if it enjoyed in peace the advantages of a free constitution.
All classes of respectable individuals are accustomed to meet in England in different committees when engaged in any public undertaking, in any act of charity supported by voluntary subscriptions. Publicity in business is a principle so generally admitted that though the English are by nature the most reserved of men, and the most averse to speak in society, there are always seats for spectators in the halls where the committees meet and an elevation from which the speakers address the assembly.
I was present at one of these discussions, in which motives calculated to excite the generosity of the hearers were urged with much energy. The question was sending of relief to the inhabitants of Leipzig after the battle fought under the walls of that town.13 The first who spoke was the Duke of York, the King’s second son and the first person in the kingdom after the Prince Regent, a man of ability and much esteemed in the direction of his department; but who has neither the habit of, nor a taste for, speaking in public. He, however, conquered his natural timidity because he was thus hopeful of giving useful encouragement. Courtiers in an absolute monarchy would not have failed to insinuate to a king’s son, first, that he ought not to do anything which cost him trouble; and, secondly, that he was wrong to commit himself by haranguing the public in the midst of merchants, his colleagues in speaking. This idea never entered the Duke of York’s mind, nor that of any Englishman, whatever might be his opinion. After the Duke of York, the Duke of Sussex, the King’s fifth son, who expresses himself with great ease and elegance, spoke in his turn; and the man the most respected and esteemed in all England, Mr. Wilberforce,14 could scarcely make himself heard, so much was his voice drowned in acclamations. Obscure citizens, holding no other rank in society than their fortune or their zeal for humanity, followed these illustrious names; every one, according to his powers, insisted on the honorable necessity in which England was placed of helping those of her allies who had suffered more than herself in the common contest. The auditors subscribed before their departure, and considerable sums were the result of this meeting. It is thus that are formed the ties which strengthen the unity of the nation; and it is thus that social order is founded on reason and humanity.
These respectable assemblies do not merely aim at encouraging acts of humanity; some of them serve particularly to consolidate the union between the great nobility and the commercial class, between the nation and the government; and these are the most solemn.
London has always had a Lord Mayor, who presides during a year in the council of the city, and whose administrative powers are very extensive. They are very careful in England not to concentrate everything in ministerial authority; they choose that in every county, in every town, local interests should be placed in the hands of men chosen by the people to manage them. The Lord Mayor is usually a merchant in the city, and not always a great merchant; but often a trader in whom a great many individuals may see their equal. The Lady Mayoress, for it is thus the Mayor’s wife is called, enjoys, during a year, all the honors attached to the most distinguished ranks of the state. The election of the people and the power of a great city are honored in the man by whom they are represented. The Lord Mayor gives two grand official dinners, to which he invites English of all classes and foreigners. I have seen at his table sons of the King, several of the ministers, ambassadors of foreign powers, the Marquis of Lansdowne, the Duke of Devonshire, as well as gentlemen of the highest respectability on various accounts: some sons of peers; others members of the House of Commons; merchants, lawyers, literary men, all English citizens, all equally attached to their noble country. Two of the King’s ministers rose from table to address the company; for while on the Continent a minister confines himself, even in the midst of select society, to the most insignificant phrases, the heads of government in England always consider themselves as representatives of the people and endeavor to win its approbation with as much solicitude as the members of the opposition; for the dignity of the English nation soars above every office and every title. Various toasts, of which the objects were political interests, were given according to custom: sovereigns and nations, glory and independence were celebrated, and there at least the English showed themselves the friends of the liberty of the world. In fact, a free nation may have an exclusive spirit in regard to the advantages of trade or power; but it ought to associate itself in every country with the rights of mankind.
This meeting took place in an ancient edifice in the city, whose gothic vaults have witnessed the bloodiest struggles: tranquillity has reigned in England only in conjunction with liberty. The official dress of all the members of the Common Council is the same as it was several centuries ago. Some customs of that period are likewise preserved, and the imagination is affected by them; but this is because the recollections of former ages do not recall odious prejudices. Whatever is Gothic in the habits, and even in some of the institutions of England, seems a ceremony of the worship of the age; but neither the progress of knowledge nor the improvement of the laws suffers from it in any respect.
We cannot believe that Providence has placed this fine monument of social order so near to France merely to give us the pain of never being able to equal it; and we shall examine with attention that which we should wish to imitate with energy.
[1. ] The war between the United States and England lasted from June 1812 to December 1814. The Americans were never allied with Napoléon against the English.
[2. ] See note 2, p. 539.
[3. ] Madame de Staël arrived in London on June 17, 1813. A few days later, she was presented to the Queen and the Prince Regent. For more information, see Fairweather, Madame de Staël, 417–46.
[4. ] Allusion to Irish opposition to England. In 1798, two years before the Union Act, which linked the two countries, the English defeated a revolt in Ireland.
[5. ] The Treaty of Pleiswitz (May 29, 1813).
[6. ] The population of London rose from 745,000 inhabitants in 1801 to 1,250,000 in 1815.
[7. ] In June 1814.
[8. ] On January 12, 1807.
[9. ] See Hume’s essay “Of Commerce” in Essays, 253–67.
[10. ] John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722).
[11. ] Hugh Smithson Percy, first Duke of Northumberland (1715–86).
[12. ] Percy Hotspur (1364–1403), second Count of Northumberland, played an important role in the War of the Roses.
[13. ] In October 1813.
[14. ] William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a member of Parliament, fought for the abolition of slavery. The Slavery Abolition Act was passed shortly after his death, in 1833. Madame de Staël and her son, Auguste, became strong supporters of Wilberforce after meeting him at a dinner in London. For more information, see Fairweather, Madame de Staël, 428–29.