Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter two: On Coups d'Etat in Countries with Written Constitutions - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
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chapter two: On Coups d’Etat in Countries with Written Constitutions - Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments 
Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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On Coups d’Etat in Countries with Written Constitutions
Coups d’Etat are at their most fatal in countries not governed by traditions, or public remembrance, or habit, whose institutions are determined by a positive charter, a written constitution.
During the whole course of our Revolution our governments claimed they had the right to violate the constitution in order to save it. The safe-keeping of the constitution having been entrusted to them, they said, their duty was to prevent all the attacks people might dare to make on it; and since the pretext of prevention permits anything one may do or try to do, our governments, with their safeguarding foresight, have always discerned secret plots and treacherous intentions among those who offended them, and generously taken it upon themselves to commit real sins in order to prevent doubtful ones.
 Nothing serves to falsify ideas better than comparisons. People have said that you could step outside the constitution in order to defend it, much as the garrison of a beleaguered place might make a sortie against a force blockading it. This reasoning recalls that of the shepherd in the lawyer Patelin.6 Since, however, it has at times covered France with gallows and ruins, and at others served as the pretext for the most oppressive despotism, I think it necessary to reply seriously to it.
A government which exists by a constitution ceases to exist as soon as the constitution which created it no longer exists, and a constitution ceases to exist the second it is violated.
Doubtless one can ask what the government ought to do when a party evidently wishes to overthrow the constitution. But this objection, pushed to a certain point, reaches deadlock. One can easily hypothesize a factual situation such as to defy all earlier precautions. One cannot organize moral counterweights to attempts using physical force. What is needed are institutions such as to deter parties from engaging in such attempts and from finding any advantage in them, and from having the means for doing so, institutions which ensure that if some maniac manages all this, the physical resources of the overwhelming majority are ready to resist the physical force he uses. This is what one calls public spirit. This is quite different, however, from the constitutional violations to which we have given the term “coups d’Etat” and which governments think about at their leisure and cause to break out when it suits them, with alleged necessity as their pretext.
It is probably inane to say in praise of a constitution that it would work well if everybody were willing to observe it. It is not inane to say, however, that if your basic objections include the hypothesis that nobody will want to respect the constitution and everyone will take pleasure in violating it without reason, then you will easily be able to show that no constitution can subsist. The physical possibility of an overthrow is always there. The whole point is to oppose moral barriers to this possibility.
 Any time people adopt or justify means which can be judged only after the event and are not accompanied by precise due process and legal safeguards, they are turning tyranny into a political system, because once the thing is done, the victims are no longer there to protest, and the only resources their friends have to avoid sharing their fate are acquiescence or silence. What is more, silence takes courage.
What is left after a constitution has been violated? No more security nor public trust. Among those who govern there is a feeling of usurpation, among the governed of being at the mercy of an arbitrary power. All protestation of respect for constitution by the former seems a mockery, and all appeals to that constitution by the latter seem like hostility. Even assuming the purest of intentions, all efforts will be fruitless. The governing group know they have prepared a sword which waits only for an arm strong enough to direct it against them.
Maybe the people might forget that the government is illegitimate and based on violation of the laws. The government cannot. It thinks about it, both because it sees as precarious an authority whose source it knows to be tainted, and because it has always at the back of its mind the worry of a possible coup d’Etat like the first one. It moves with difficulty and by way of shocks from day to day. On the other hand, not only the group attacked, but all those holding offices in the state whose powers are solely constitutional, feel that truth, eloquence, and all moral means are futile against a government which has become purely despotic. So they renounce all intellectual vigor. Slavishly they cringe and hate.
Everywhere the constitution has been violated it is provenly a bad constitution, for one of three things must be true: either it was impossible for the constituted powers to govern on its basis, or all those powers did not possess sufficient vested interest to maintain it, or lastly,  the powers opposed to the usurping tyranny did not have the means to defend it. But even supposing, per impossibile, that this constitution had been good, its power over men’s minds has been destroyed. It loses everything which makes it respectable, or forms its mystique, as soon as its legality is assailed. Nothing is more common than for a State to be seen to live tolerably without a constitution. But the specter of a constitution outraged hurts liberty far more than the total absence of any constitutional act.
There are, I know, meretricious means of clothing constitutional violations with an apparent legitimacy. The people can be encouraged to make their judgment by way of joint petitions; they can be made to sanction the proposed changes.
Recourse was made to this expedient from the first days of our Revolution, though the Constituent Assembly, by allowing into its presence the delegates of the common herd, had done from the start what was needed to render the expedient ridiculous. But we have been wrong in thinking ridicule all-powerful in France. With us, ridicule attacks everything but destroys nothing, since vanity is quite content to have laughed at what happens, and each person, flattered by the superiority he has shown, then tolerates what he laughed at. The people’s sanction can never be more than an idle formality. Alongside the acts submitted to this so-called sanction, there is always either the force of the existing government, provisional or fully established, which wants the acts accepted, or, on the unlikely supposition of its complete neutrality, the prospect, if there should be a refusal, of wars and civil dissensions. The people’s sanction, and mass petitions, were born in the minds of those men who, finding no support, either in morality or reason, look for it in a simulated approbation which they obtain from ignorance or extract by terror.7 The  legislators who make the worst laws are those who attach the most importance to law’s being obeyed, just because it is the law, and without examination. Just so, the men who adopt the measures most contradictory to the common good, being unable to find reasons for them in the public interest, make good the lack by giving them the appearance of the people’s will. This device cuts all objections short. Are there complaints that the people are being oppressed? They declared that they wanted to be.
Mass petitions should be banned by all nations having some idea of liberty. They can never be considered as the expression of true feelings. “The term ‘people’,” says Bentham, “is a forged signature to justify their leaders.” Fear comes constantly, borrowing the language of action, to bow down before power, to congratulate itself for its servitude, and to encourage conquerors avid for vengeance to sacrifice the vanquished. Great adulation always follows great injustice. Rome prostrated itself not before Marcus Aurelius but rather before Tiberius and Caracalla. If I saw a nation being consulted in a country where public opinion was choked, freedom of the press annihilated, popular election destroyed, I would think I was watching tyranny asking its enemies for a list so that it could recognize them and strike them at its leisure.
For whom is it claimed that mass petitions are necessary? For the authors of a measure already taken? But they have acted. What belated scruple has suddenly seized them? How comes it that where they were once bold, now they are suddenly timid? For the people? But if the latter found fault with their conduct, would they retrace their steps? Used they not to say that critical petitions are the work of a rebel faction? Would they not have contrary petitions produced?
 Mass petitions are a purely illusory ceremony. Now, all illusory ceremony is worse than useless. There is something in this formality which wounds and degrades a people’s spirit. All the appearances of freedom are forced on them in order that they vote in a direction prescribed in advance. This persiflage debases them in their own eyes and makes freedom ridiculous.
Mass petitions corrupt the people. They get them used to bowing before government; this is always a bad thing, even when the government is right.
[6. ][This is a reference to a fifteenth-century farce of unknown authorship, Le Maistre Pierre Patelin. Translator’s note]
[7. ]On the subject of mass petitions Constant said in his speech to the Tribunat of 12 pluviôse an VIII (1 February 1800): “There have been too many abuses of these during the course of our Revolution. Each one of our crises has been followed by a deluge of such petitions which never proved anything but the profound terror of the weak and the despotism of the strong.” Archives parlementaires. Recueil complet des débats législatifs et politiques des Chambres françaises de 1800 à 1860, Paris, P. Dupont, t. I, p. 133.