Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter three: On Revolutions - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter three: On Revolutions - 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.
It would be a childish endeavor to seek to present individuals with fixed rules relative to revolution. Revolutions share in the nature of physical upheavals. Hidden causes prepare them. Chance decides them just as chance can retard them. The lightest circumstance, or an event less important than a thousand others which had produced no effect, sometimes suddenly gives the unexpected signal for the subversive movement. The contagious fury spreads. Spirits are raised. Citizens feel themselves pushed as though involuntarily  to the overthrow of existing order. Chiefs are far outdistanced by the crowd, and revolutions operate without anyone really knowing as yet what people want to destroy and what they want to build.
It would also be impossible to judge revolutions in a general way by their consequences. These have not all been dire. The expulsion of the Tarquins established Roman freedom. The Swiss insurrection has given close to five valuable centuries of peace and good fortune to Switzerland. The banishment of the Stuarts has given England a hundred twenty years of prosperity. The Dutch are indebted to the rebellion of their ancestors for a long enjoyment of peace and civil freedom. The American uprising has been followed by political arrangements which permit man the freest development of all his faculties. Other revolutions have had different results: that of Poland, for example, that of Brabant under Joseph II, several in Italy, and yet others.
It is only to governments that one can give useful advice for the avoidance of revolutions. The most absolute resignation on the part of individuals is a powerless guarantee against these terrible crises, because that resignation cannot exceed certain limits. Long-lasting injustice, repeated and growing, insolence, more difficult to endure even than injustice, the intoxication of power, the shocks of government which offend all interests in succession, or its negligence which refuses to listen to complaints and lets grievances accumulate: these things produce, sooner or later, such fatigue, such discontent, that all the counsels of prudence cannot stop that mood. It penetrates all minds with the air that is breathed. It becomes habitual feeling, everyone’s idée fixe. People do not get together to conspire; but all those who do get together do conspire.
It is in vain then that the government aspires to maintain itself by force. It is a matter of appearances. The reality does not exist. Governments are like those bodies struck by a thunderbolt. Their outer contours are still the same, but the least wind, the slightest shock, are enough to reduce them to dust.
Whatever physical means surround those in power, it is always public opinion which creates, gathers together, keeps available, and directs these means. These soldiers who seem to us, and indeed are at such and such a given moment, blind machines,  these soldiers who shoot their fellow citizens indiscriminately, as though without pity, these soldiers are men, with moral faculties, with sympathy, sensibility, and a conscience which can suddenly awake. Public opinion has the same sway over them as over us, and no order can affect that sway. Watch it running through the ranks of the French soldiery in 1789, transforming into citizens men brought together from all parts, not just of France, but of the world, reanimating spirits crushed by discipline, enervated by debauchery, driving the ideas of freedom into these ignorant minds like a prejudice, a new prejudice breaking the bonds which so many ancient prejudices and entrenched habits had woven. Later on look at the changeable and swift opinion, sometimes detaching our soldiers from their leaders, sometimes rallying them around the latter, rendering them by turns rebellious or devoted, defiant or enthusiastic. In England, after the death of Cromwell, watch the republicans, concentrating all power in their hands, having at their disposal armies, treasure, civil authorities, Parliament, and the courts. Only dumb opinion was against them; suddenly all their resources are dissolved, everything is shaken and crumbles.
Choke malcontent opinion in blood is the favorite maxim of certain statesmen. But you cannot choke opinion. Blood flows, but opinion survives, takes up the charge again, and triumphs. The more repressed it is, the more terrible is it.11 When it cannot speak it acts. “In London,” one Englishman says, “the people express themselves through petitions; in Constantinople by means of fires.” He might have added that in London the monarch’s measures are criticized. In Constantinople he is not censured, merely strangled.
[E. [Refers to page 407.]]Bentham, III, 189.