Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter seven: On Premature Ameliorations - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
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chapter seven: On Premature Ameliorations - 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 Premature Ameliorations
If government acts badly when it stops the natural progress  of the human race, and guided by false ideas of stability, opposes the imperceptible changes brought into institutions by the progress of ideas, it does no less harm when it encroaches on the proper dictates of the time and devotes itself to thoughtless projects of improvement or reform.
We will have to deal in detail with this subject when we talk about revolutions, which are usually, in their intentions or at least in the language of their authors, only vast reforms or general improvements. Here we have to consider only the endeavors of proper and stable governments, less hazardous endeavors than popular revolutions, but which have nevertheless more than once been pernicious enough.
When government says to public opinion as Séide does to Mahomet, “I acted in advance of your order,” public opinion replies, as did Mahomet to Séide, “It should have been waited for,”17 and when government refuses to wait, public opinion invariably takes its revenge.
The eighteenth century was fertile in examples of this kind.
Chance brings a man of genius to the government of Portugal. He finds that country plunged into ignorance and bent under the yoke of priesthood. He fails to work out that to break this  yoke and dispel this deep night he needs a base of support in the national outlook. By a mistake common to those in power, he seeks this base in authority. He thinks by striking a rock he will make a spring flow from it.18 But his imprudent haste turns against him the few independent minds fit to support him. They oppose a vexatious government whose unjust means render its purposes at least doubtful. The influence of the priests grows with the very persecution of which they are victims. The marquis de Pombal wishes in vain to turn against them the powerful weapons they hold. Censorship, aimed at condemning works favorable to the Jesuits, itself falls victim to condemnation. The nobles rise. The prisons fill. Frightful punishments bring consternation everywhere. The minister becomes an object of horror to all classes. After twenty years of tyrannical administration, he is robbed of his protector by the king’s death. He barely escapes the scaffold, and the nation blesses the moment when an apathetic and superstitious government replaces the government claiming to be reformist.19
In Austria, Joseph II succeeds Maria Theresa. He observes sadly that the education of his subjects is inferior to that of all neighboring peoples.
Impatient to eliminate an inequality which offends him, he calls to his aid all the means with which his power provides him. He does not neglect even those promised by freedom. He establishes it for the press. He encourages writers to uncover all abuses and thinks he is helping them marvelously by lending them the support of power. What results from this unnatural alliance? That obscure monks and ignorant nobles struggle successfully against the projects of the philosopher, because the philosopher was emperor. His authority is drained in the redoubling of effort. Resistance makes him cruel. His administration becomes odious through excessive severity and iniquitous spoliation. The regrets which go with sterile good intentions, the sadness of being misunderstood, perhaps also the grief of wounded vanity, drive Joseph to his grave. His last words are a confession of his impotence and misfortune;20 and since the end of his reign, every day  we see some of the abuses he thought he had destroyed breaking out and rising anew.
Of all monarchs who have arrogated to themselves the difficult function of speeding up their peoples’ progress toward civilization, those of Russia are certainly the most excusable. One cannot deny that from the time of Peter I,21 the monarchs of that vast empire have been much more enlightened than their subjects. With the exception of a few bizarre things inseparable from any plan spontaneously constructed in the minds of powerful men, the reforms planned and executed by the autocrats of Russia were incontestably real improvements. But the great adopted them only by calculation or imitation, without being able to convince themselves, on their own account, of their intrinsic merit, and regarding philosophy and education, just as luxury and the arts, as adornments necessary to a nation wishing to become European; the people submitted to these changes only by constraint, after numberless persecutions. None of these sound ideas, perceived by government, took root. None of the institutions it commanded became habitual. Morality suffered from the abolition of ancient usages which had always served as its base. Enlightenment made little progress, because such progress depends on a series of ideas powerless until the series is complete and which cannot be introduced by an absolutist government. Peter I’s efforts to advance reason remained fruitless because they were in principle vicious. Reason is no longer itself when it lacks freedom. In Russia there is a show of things French at the court and among the nobles, of things Prussian in the army and English in the navy, but the mass of the people in its opinions, customs, and outlook, even down to its clothes, is still an Asiatic nation.
It is only since the beginning of the reign of Alexander that Russia has some chance of enlightenment. This young prince seeks not at all to reform the people but to moderate the government. He does not direct thought; rather he restrains government.22 Now, thought is strengthened when redundant activity is removed from government. For a people to progress, it suffices that government does not shackle them. Progress is in human nature. The government which leaves it alone favors it enough.  May Alexander persevere in this at once prudent and generous way and protect himself against the mistrust which seeks to interrupt and the impatience which wants to push ahead.
If we attributed the poor results of so many reforms and innovations attempted in vain by government to the nature of the administrations which presided over these attempts, and if we claimed that, resting on improper bases and always fearful of disturbing them, they were incapable of doing lasting good, because they could want such good only half-heartedly, if we thought that less mistaken governments, ones which had not forced themselves to tread carefully when remedying abuses, would have progressed more crisply, destroyed without difficulty everything in need of destruction, established painlessly everything desirable, experience would soon come and overturn that chimerical supposition.
Doubtless the governments we have cited as examples were in a particularly difficult situation. Pulled by the spirit of the age, they aimed at honoring philosophy, but they did not dare frankly to renounce the support of prejudice. They accepted a few of the most evident rights of the human race, but from their high rank they believed they could represent this acceptance as a gracious one. They thought they owed it to themselves to keep in reserve the right to do all the harm they did not do, not that, to do them justice, they made use of it, but in disclaiming for ordinary purposes the practice of despotism, they retained the theory as part of their beloved decorative pomp. They felt strongly, nevertheless, that security alone could merit gratitude, and they strove, by way of conditional sentences and preambles full of restrictions, to produce security without giving constitutional guarantee. This inherently self-destructive double task contributed greatly, I like to believe, to their faults and reverses. But have we not seen in our country, during the first years of the Revolution, a government free of all oppositional intent finding itself first of all forsaken, then attacked by public opinion, solely for having pushed forward and precipitately carried out improvements which that very opinion had long seemed to be demanding? The government had taken a few stray and as yet uncertain inclinations and still partial reflections for a general will.
 But, someone will ask, how can you know precisely what the state of public opinion is? You cannot count votes. It is only after some particular measure has been taken that opposition appears. Then it is often too late to withdraw. To say that we should not run ahead of public opinion is therefore to say nothing.
I reply first of all that if you allow opinion the right of expression, you will know it readily. Do not provoke it, nor excite hopes by indicating the direction in which you want it to pronounce, for then, to please government, flattery will assume the shape of opinion. Put an irreligious monarch at the head of a devout people and the most flexible of his courtiers will be precisely the most unbelieving. As soon as a government declares for some philosophy, a phalanx forms around it, all the more clamorous in the favored opinion in having none at all itself; and government readily takes the supine surrounding agreement for universal feeling. If government stays neutral, however, letting people debate, opinions join combat and enlightenment is born of their clash. A national outlook forms, and the truth brings together such agreement that it is no longer possible to fail to recognize it.
Secondly, thinking tends to modify gradually laws and institutions which clash with it. Let it do this work. It has the double advantage of softening the execution of defective laws which persist and preparing their abrogation.
When you want to destroy an institution which seems improper to you, let people break free of it, but do not require them to. Allowing this, you call to your aid all educated forces. Requiring it, you arm many interests against you. I will use an example to make myself clear. There are two ways to do away with monasteries. One is to open their doors, the other  to drive away their inhabitants. The former does good, without doing bad. It breaks chains but does not violate sanctuary. The latter overturns all the expectations based on public faith. It insults old age, which it drags, listless and defenseless, into an unknown world. It undermines an incontestable right of individuals, namely to choose their way of life, to hold their property in common, and to come together to profess the same doctrine, to attend the same rituals, to enjoy the same prosperity, and to savor the same relaxation. And this injustice turns against reform the very outlook which only recently seemed to uphold it.
In short, any improvement, any amelioration contrary to the habits of a large section of the nation, must as far as possible be adjourned till the time is right. This spares the present generation and prepares the one which must follow. Youth, innovation’s collaborator, progresses. Old age has no interest in declaring hostilities, and the change anticipated in this way becomes almost a habit before it is affected.
Time, says Bacon, is the great reformer.23 Do not refuse its help. Let it go before you, so it can smooth the way. If it has not prepared what you set up, your orders will be in vain. Your institution, however good in theory, is only a mechanism and not part of your administration. It will not be more difficult to rescind your laws than you found it to rescind other ones; and all that will be left of your rescinded ones will be the harm they have done.
[17. ]A quotation from Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le prophète, by Voltaire. Hofmann points out that Constant took the part of Zopire in this play at the beginning of 1806. Séide’s exact words are: “I have anticipated your order.”
[18. ]Like Moses on Mount Horeb, Exodus 17, 1–7.
[19. ]Constant summarizes here what Sebastien-Joseph de Carvalho e Melo (marquis de Pombal) says in his Mémoires, s.l, 1784, t. I, pp. 118–124.
[21. ][Known in modern writings in English as Peter the Great. Translator’s note]
[22. ]See the letter from F. C. de La Harpe to Alexander I, in Jean-Charles Biaudet and Françoise Nicod, Correspondance de Frédéric-César de La Harpe et Alexandre Ier, t. I, 1785–1802, Neuchâtel, La Baconnière, 1978, pp. 316–330.
[23. ]Francis Bacon, De augmentis scientiarum, Book VI, Exempla antithetorum XL,The works of Francis Bacon, collected and edited by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, London, 1858, vol. 1, p. 704.
[I. [Refers to page 342.]]Joseph II demanded that after his death it should be inscribed on his tomb that he had been unlucky in all his enterprises.