Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter two: On the Pretexts for War - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter two: On the Pretexts for War - 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).
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.
On the Pretexts for War
Governments themselves have been forced to recognize these truths for some time, at least in theory. They no longer claim that the nations are there to establish, at the price of their blood and their poverty, the disastrous fame of some of their leaders.  However despotic a modern leader, I think he would scarcely dare to present his subjects with his personal glory as compensation for their peace and their lives. Only Charles XII misconstrued his century thus.2 But since that revolution in ideas, governments have invented so many pretexts for war that the peace of nations and the rights of individuals are still far from guaranteed.
We will examine only very much in passing these various pretexts. National independence, national honor, the need to make our influence respected abroad, the rounding off of our frontiers, commercial interests. What else can I say? The fact is that this vocabulary of hypocrisy and injustice is inexhaustible.
What would one say of an individual who held his honor and independence compromised as long as other individuals possessed some honor and independence, and thought himself safe only when surrounded by slaves and trembling victims? Aside from the insolence and immorality of such a reckoning, this individual would be headed for destruction, precisely and solely because hatred would unite against him those whom his skill and daring had momentarily surprised and subdued. It is the same with a State. The independence of peoples rests on equity as much as force. The kind of force necessary to hold all the other peoples in subjugation is a situation against nature. A nation which places the guarantee of its independence, or to put it more accurately, its despotism, in such force, is in greater danger than the feeblest of nations, for all public opinion, all wishes, all hatred menace it. Sooner or later this hatred, this public opinion, these wishes, will break out and envelop it. Doubtless there is something unjust about these sentiments. A people is never guilty of the excesses its government makes it commit. It is the government which leads it astray, or more often dominates it without leading it astray. But the nations which are victims of its deplorable obedience cannot take into account the hidden sentiments to which its behavior gives the lie. They blame the instruments for the excesses of the hand which directs them. The whole of France suffered from Louis XIV’s ambition and detested it;  but Europe accused France of that ambition, and Sweden paid the penalty for the madness of Charles XII.
As for influence abroad, without our examining whether the excessive extent of that influence is not frequently a misfortune for a nation rather than an advantage, we have to consider the instability of all headstrong and disordered influence. Even when acceding to its momentary ascendancy, the world does not believe in its lasting character. Everyone in such a period, at such a given moment, will perhaps obey the dominant government. But nobody identifies its reckonings with his own. It is seen as a transient calamity. People wait until the torrent ceases to roll its waves along, sure it will perish one day in the arid sand and that they will sooner or later trample dry-footed on the earth its course has furrowed.
If the talk is of rounding off our frontiers, we will reply that guided by this pretext, the human species could never enjoy an instant of peace. No monarch to my knowledge has ever sacrificed a portion of his territory to give his lands a greater geometric regularity. So it is always outside that peoples wish to do their rounding off. This, then, is a dispensation whose basis moves to destruction of its own accord. It is one whose elements are at war and whose operation can rest only on the spoliation of the weakest, one which inexorably renders illegitimate the possessions of the strongest. International law could thereby be nothing more than a code of expropriation and barbarism. All the ideas of justice which the enlightened scholars of several centuries have brought into international relations, as into those between individuals, would be repelled and banished anew by this dispensation. The human race would step back toward those times of devastation and invasion which used to seem to us the opprobrium of history. The only difference now would be the hypocrisy, a hypocrisy all the more scandalous and corrupting in that no one would believe it. All words would lose their sense. That of moderation would presage violence, that of justice would announce iniquity. There is a theory of rounding off of frontiers which resembles, save for the good faith of those who profess it, ideal theories of the perfection of constitutions. This perfection is never attained,  but every day it serves to motivate some new upheaval.
Were someone to put forward the interests of commerce, I would ask whether people believed in good faith that we serve commerce by depopulating a country of its most thriving young men, uprooting the labor most necessary to agriculture, manufacturing, and other production, by raising between other peoples and oneself barriers sprinkled with blood? “War costs more than its expenses,” a wise writer has said; “it costs everything it stops from being earned.”3 Commerce rests on a good understanding of nations between themselves. It is sustained only by justice. It rests on equality. It prospers in peace. Yet it is for the sake of commerce that a nation is to be kept in nonstop wars, that universal hatred is to be heaped on its head, that the march is to be from one injustice to another, that every day credit is to be disrupted by violence, and that equals are absolutely not to be tolerated.
During the French Revolution a pretext for war hitherto unknown was invented, that of delivering nations from the yoke of their governments, which we took to be illegitimate and tyrannical. Under this pretext death and devastation were brought into places where men either lived peacefully under faulty institutions, ones nevertheless softened by time and habit, or had enjoyed for several centuries all the benefits of freedom. A period forever shameful, in which we saw a perfidious government inscribe sacred words on its guilty standards, to trouble the peace, violate the independence, destroy the prosperity of its innocent neighbors, adding to the scandal of Europe by lying protestations of respect for the rights of man and of zeal for humanity. The worst conquest is the hypocritical type, says Machiavelli, as if he had predicted our history. Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy.4
To give a people freedom in spite of itself is only to give it slavery. Conquered nations can contract neither free spirits nor habits. Every society must repossess for itself rights which have been invaded, if it is worthy of owning them. Masters cannot impose freedom. For nations  which enjoy political freedom, conquests have furthermore, beyond anything else we might hypothesize, this most clearly insane feature, that if these nations stay faithful to their principles, their triumphs cannot help but lead to their depriving themselves of a portion of their rights in order to communicate them to the conquered.
When a nation of ten million people governed by its representatives adds to its territory a province in which a million more live, what it gains is the loss of a tenth of its representation, since it transfers this tenth to its new fellow citizens.
One is forced to believe that the absurdity of the politics of conquest in conjunction with a representative constitution, somehow eluded the republican government of France. Ancient habits have so great an empire over men, however, that they act in virtue of these habits, even when they have solemnly abjured them. Under the Directory, by dint of victories and territorial mergers, France came close to being represented in the main by foreigners. Every new success was for the French one less French representative.
[2. ]King of Sweden (1682–1718), whose famous military genius Voltaire related in his Histoire de Charles XII (1731).
[4. ]Hofmann failed to find this quotation from Machiavelli.
Jean-Baptiste Say, op. cit., t. II, p. 426.