Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX: Can a Limited Monarchy Have Other Foundations Than That of the English Constitution? - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER IX: Can a Limited Monarchy Have Other Foundations Than That of the English Constitution? - 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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Can a Limited Monarchy Have Other Foundations Than That of the English Constitution?
We find in Swift’s Works a small tract entitled Polite Conversation,1 which comprises all the commonplace ideas that enter into the discourse of the fashionable world. A witty man had a plan of making a similar essay on the political conversations of the present day. “The English constitution is suitable only to Englishmen; the French are not worthy of receiving good laws: people should be on their guard against theory and adhere to practice.” What signifies it, some will say, that these phrases are tedious if they convey a true meaning? But it is their very falsehood that makes them tedious. Truth on certain topics never becomes common, however often repeated; for every man who pronounces it feels and expresses it in his own way; but the watchwords of party spirit are the undoubted signs of mediocrity. We may almost take for granted that a conversation beginning by these official sentences promises only a combination of tedium and sophistry. Laying aside, then, that frivolous language which aims at profundity, it seems to me that thinking men have not even yet discovered other principles of monarchical and constitutional liberty than those which are admitted in England.
Democrats will say that there ought to be a king without a patrician body, or that there ought to be neither; but experience has demonstrated the impracticability of such a system. Of the three powers, aristocrats dispute only that of the people: thus, when they pretend that the English constitution cannot be adapted to France, they merely say that there must be no representatives of the people; for it is certainly not a nobility or hereditary royalty which they dispute. It is thus evident that we cannot deviate from the English constitution without establishing a republic by eliminating hereditary succession; or a despotism by suppressing the commons: for of the three powers, it is impossible to take any one away without producing one or other of these two extremes.
After such a revolution as that of France, constitutional monarchy is the only peace, the only treaty of Westphalia, if we may use the expression, which can be concluded between actual knowledge of society and hereditary interests; between almost the whole nation and the privileged classes supported by the powers of Europe.
The King of England enjoys a power more than sufficient for a man who wishes to do good; and I can hardly conceive how it is that religion does not inspire princes with scruples on the use of unbounded authority: pride in this case gets the ascendancy over virtue. As to the commonplace argument of the impossibility of being free in a Continental country where a numerous standing army must be kept up, the same persons who are incessantly repeating it are ready to quote England for a contrary purpose, and to say that in that country a standing army is not at present dangerous to liberty. The diversity of arguments of those who renounce every principle goes to an unheard-of length: they avail themselves of circumstances when theory is against them; of theory, when circumstances demonstrate their errors: finally, they wheel round with a suppleness which cannot escape the broad light of discussion, but which may mislead the mind when it is not permitted either to silence or to answer sophists. If a standing army give greater power to the King of France than to the King of England, the ultra-royalists, according to their way of thinking, will enjoy that excess of strength, and the friends of liberty do not dread it if the representative government and its securities are established in France with sincerity and without exception. The existence of a Chamber of Peers necessarily reduces, it is true, the number of noble families: but will public interest suffer by this change? Would the families known in history complain of seeing associated in the peerage new men whom the sovereign and public opinion might think worthy of that honor? Should the nobility, which has most to do to reconcile itself with the nation, be the most obstinately attached to inadmissible pretensions? We, the French people, have the advantage of being more ingenious, but at the same time more stupid than any other people of Europe; I am not aware that we ought to boast of it.
Arguments deserving a more serious examination, because they are not inspired by mere frivolous pretensions, were renewed against the Chamber of Peers at the time of Bonaparte’s constitution. Human reason had, it was said, made too great progress in France to bear with any hereditary distinctions. M. Necker had treated that question fifteen years before, like a writer undaunted either by the vanity of prejudices or the self-conceit of theories; and it appears to me admitted by every reflecting mind that the respect with which a conservative element surrounds a government is to the advantage of liberty as well as order, by rendering a recurrence to force less necessary. What obstacle would there then be in France more than in England to the existence of a numerous, imposing, and enlightened House of Peers? The elements of it exist, and we already see how easy it would be to give them a happy combination.
What, it will still be said, for all political sayings are worth the trouble of being combated on account of the multitude of common minds who respect them; you then wish that France should be nothing but a copy, and a bad copy, of the English government? Truly, I do not see why the French or any other nation should reject the use of the compass because they were Italians2 who discovered it. There are in the administration of a country, in its finances, in its commerce, in its armies a number of things connected with localities, and necessarily varying according to them; but the fundamental parts of a constitution are the same throughout. The republican or monarchical form is prescribed by the size and situation of a country; but there are always three elements given by nature: deliberation, execution, and preservation; and these three elements are necessary to secure to the citizens their liberty, their fortune, the peaceful development of their faculties, and the rewards due to their labor. What people is there to whom such rights are not necessary, and by what other principles than those of England can we obtain their lasting enjoyment? Can even all the defects which people are so ready to attribute to the French serve as a pretext to refuse them such rights? In truth, were the French rebellious children, as their great parents in Europe pretend, I would the rather advise giving them a constitution, which should be in their eyes a pledge of equity in those who govern them; for rebellious children, when in such numbers, can be more easily corrected by reason than restrained by force.
A lapse of time will be necessary in France before it will be practicable to create a patriotic aristocracy; for the Revolution having been directed still more against the privileges of the nobles than against the royal authority, the nobility now second despotism as their safeguard.3 It might be said with some truth that this state of things is an argument against the creation of a Chamber of Peers, as too favorable to the power of the Crown. But first, it is in the nature of an upper house in general to lean toward the throne; and the opposition of the peers in England is almost always a minority. Besides, there can be introduced into a Chamber of Peers a number of noblemen friendly to liberty; and those who may not be so today will become so from the mere circumstance that the discharge of the duties of a high magistracy alienates a person from a court life and attaches him to the interest of the country. I shall not fear to profess a sentiment which a number of persons will term aristocratic, but with which all the circumstances of the French Revolution have impressed me: it is that the noblemen who have adopted the cause of a representative government, and consequently of equality before the law, are, in general, the most virtuous and most enlightened Frenchmen of whom we can yet boast. They combine, like the English, the spirit of chivalry with the spirit of liberty;4 they have, besides, the generous advantage of founding their opinions on their sacrifices, while the Third Estate must necessarily find its own in the general interest. Finally, they have to support, almost daily, the ill-will of their class, sometimes even of their family. They are told that they are traitors to their order because they are faithful to the country; while men of the opposite extreme, democrats without the restraint of reason or morality, have persecuted them as enemies of liberty, looking to nothing but their privileges and refusing, very unfairly, to believe in the sincerity of their renunciation. These illustrious citizens, who have voluntarily exposed themselves to so many trials, are the best guardians of liberty on which a country can rely; and a Chamber of Peers ought to be created for them, even if the necessity of such an institution in a constitutional monarchy were not acknowledged even to demonstration.
“No kind of deliberative assembly, whether democratic or hereditary, can succeed in France. The French are too desirous of making a display, and the necessity of producing effect carries them always from one extreme to another.” “It is sufficient then,” certain men say, who constitute themselves the guardians of the nation, that they may declare it in a perpetual minority; “it is sufficient then that France have provincial states instead of a representative assembly.” Certainly I ought to respect provincial assemblies more highly than anyone, since my father was the first and the only minister who established them, and who lost his place for having supported them against the parlements. It is doubtless very wise, in a country as large as France, to give the local authorities more power and more importance than in England; but when M. Necker proposed to assimilate, by provincial assemblies, the provinces called elective (pays d’élection) to the pays d’état;5 that is, to give to the old provinces the privileges possessed only by those whose union to France had been more recent, there was in Paris a parlement which could refuse to register money edicts or any other law emanating directly from the throne. This right of parlement was a very bad outline of a representative government, but at least it was one; and now that all the former limits of the throne are overturned, what would be thirty-three provincial assemblies, dependent on ministerial despotism and possessing no means of opposing it? It is good that local assemblies should discuss the repartition of taxes and verify the public expenses; but popular forms in the provinces, subordinate to an unlimited central power, is a great political monstrosity.
Let us frankly say that no constitutional government can be established if, in the outset, we introduce into all places, whether of deputies or of the agents of the executive power, the enemies of the constitution itself. The first condition to enable a representative government to proceed is that the elections should be free; for they will then produce in men of integrity a wish for the success of the institution of which they will form a part. A deputy is alleged to have said in company, “People accuse me of not being for the constitutional charter; they are very wrong, I am always mounted on this charter; but it is indeed to ride it to death.” Yet after this charming effusion, this deputy would probably take it very much amiss to be suspected of wanting good faith in politics; but it is too much to desire to unite the pleasure of revealing one’s secrets to the advantage of keeping them. Do people think that, with these concealed, or rather with these too well-known intentions, a fair experiment of representative government is made in France? A minister declared lately in the Chamber of Deputies that, of all powers, the one over which royal authority should exercise the greatest influence was the power of elections; which is saying in other terms that the representatives of the people ought to be named by the King. At that rate the officers of the Household ought to be named by the people.
Let the French nation elect the men she shall think worthy of her confidence, let not representatives be imposed on her, and, least of all, representatives chosen among the constant enemies of every representative government: then, and then only, will the political problem be solved in France.6 We may, I believe, consider it a certain maxim that when free institutions have subsisted twenty years in a country, it is on them the blame must be cast if we do not perceive a daily improvement in the morality, the intelligence, and the happiness of the nation that possesses them. It is for these institutions, when arrived at a certain age, to answer, if we may say so, for men; but at the commencement of a new political establishment, it is for men to answer for the institutions:7 for we can in no degree estimate the strength of a citadel if the commanding officers open the gates or attempt to undermine the foundations.
[1. ] The full title of Swift’s book is A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation According to the Most Polite Mode and Method Now Used at Court and in the Best Companies of England (1738).
[2. ] In fact, the compass was invented by the Chinese.
[3. ] See Furet, Revolutionary France, 284–98.
[4. ] Burke put forward a similar claim in Reflections on the Revolution in France.
[5. ] Before 1789 the term pays d’élection was applied to provinces that did not have estates to assist in local government and in the assessment and collection of taxes. Its opposite was pays d’état.
[6. ] It will be recalled that on September 5, 1816, Louis XVIII dissolved the (in)famous Chambre introuvable and called for new elections.
[7. ] Montesquieu made a similar argument in The Spirit of the Laws.