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Constant’s Political Thought

Source: Introduction to Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).

Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi

Benjamin Constant was the key thinker in the French classical liberal tradition between Montesquieu and Tocqueville. He was born 25 October 1767 in Lausanne, Switzerland, to Henriette de Chandieu and Juste Constant de Rebecque. His mother, who died shortly after childbirth, was a descendant of a French Huguenot family that had sought refuge in Switzerland from religious persecution. The Protestant—or more specifically, Calvinist—heritage remained an important part of Constant’s framework. His father was a professional soldier in a Swiss regiment in the service of the Netherlands. Constant wrote a detailed account of his private life from 1767 to 1787 in Le Cahier rouge (not published until 1907); subsequently he maintained a Journal intime (published in unexpurgated form in 1952).

The great intellectual event of Constant’s life occurred when he was sent to Edinburgh to study between 1783 and 1785. There he learned to speak flawless English; he read William Blackstone, David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and Dugald Stewart, as well as Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, and William Godwin. The Scottish Enlightenment remained the formative influence on his thought. In a manner not unlike Montesquieu’s, throughout the rest of his life, Constant sought to introduce the principles of British classical liberalism into French political life.

From 1788 until 1794, Constant served in the court of the duke of Brunswick, and in 1789 married a lady of the court, Wilhelmine von Cramm. In 1793, Constant began a relationship with Charlotte von Hardenburg, to whom he was secretly married fifteen years later. This relationship was depicted in a novel, Cécile, which was not discovered and published until 1951. In 1794, he met Mme. Germaine de Staël (1766–1817), divorced his then-wife Wilhelmine, and returned with Mme. de Staël to Paris in 1795.

Thus began the stormy intellectual and political relationship between Constant and Mme. de Staël. Germaine de Staël, daughter of the statesman and financier Jacques Necker, was herself a leading intellectual and later the author of important works of literature as well as works on literary theory, romanticism, and the thought of Rousseau. She was the center of Paris’s most brilliant salon and a political activist. Her political model, also influenced by Montesquieu, adhered to British constitutional monarchy, and her political sympathies in France were with the Girondist faction. She has been described as perhaps the most brilliant and influential woman in Europe in her time. Constant, in his novel Cécile, described a Mme. de Malbée (i.e., Mme. de Staël) as follows: “Her intellect, the most far-ranging that has ever belonged to any woman, and possibly to any man either, had, in serious discussion, more force than grace, and in what touched the emotional life, a hint of sententiousness and affectation. But in her gaiety there was a certain indefinable charm, a kind of childlike friendliness which captivated the heart and established for the moment a complete intimacy between her and whoever she was talking to.” Constant may have fathered her third child, a daughter, Albertine.

Although not originally a French citizen and not present during the dark days of the Revolution, Constant, through his association with Mme. de Staël, became a supporter of the Directory. Within that group, Constant identified not with those who wanted a restored but constitutional monarchy, but instead with those who were working for a republic with citizenship based on the ownership of property. Constant became a French citizen in 1798. Following the coup d’état of 18 brumaire (1799) he was appointed to the new Tribunate, but by 1802 his classical liberal views and association with Mme. de Staël and the classical liberal economist Jean-Baptiste Say had alienated Napoleon. In 1803, he accompanied Mme. de Staël into exile in Germany and Switzerland. During this time they met Goethe, Schiller, and the von Schlegel brothers, and both Constant and Mme. de Staël became imbued with German romanticism. Constant began working on his religious writings, some of which constitute On Religion Considered in Its Source, Its Forms, and Its Developments (published in five volumes between 1824 and 1831).

For the next twelve years, until 1815, Constant was an implacable enemy of Napoleon. One result was a classic critique of authoritarianism, The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation and Their Relation to European Civilization (1814). Constant was also an adviser to Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, a former Napoleonic general, then Prince Royal of Sweden, and an aspirant to the French throne. When Napoleon briefly returned to power and seemed on the verge of accepting the British model of constitutional monarchy, he, along with Constant’s then-mistress Madame Récamier, a friend of Mme. de Staël and reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Europe, met with and persuaded Constant to become conseiller d’état. During this “Hundred Days” period, Constant even drew up a new constitution known as the “Benjamine.” It was under this inspiration that Constant completed and published his longtime work in progress, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments. This is to be distinguished from the longer 1810 version, edited in 1980 by Etienne Hofmann, on which the 2003 Liberty Fund translation is based. Clearly there is a huge affinity of subject matter, often explicably so. Even so, where the 1815 version is short and pointed, the 1810 is long and discursive. Where the 1815 version focuses repeatedly on constitutional questions and in particular on the civilizational possibilities of constitutional monarchy, the 1810 version explicitly eschews constitutional issues, cleaving instead to a search for the philosophical, economic, and jurisprudential principles which undergird any free society. And in 1810, the bias, if there is one, is slight, but leans all the same towards a republicanism somewhat akin to that of Machiavelli, whom Constant much admired.

On learning of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Constant fled to England and published what many consider to be the first romantic novel, Adolphe (1816). He also wrote an apologia that was acceptable to Louis XVIII, paving the way for a return to Paris. During the remainder of his life, Constant was a prolific author and journalist. In 1819, he published the classic essay “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns.” The core of the argument is prefigured in Book XVI of the 1810 edition of The Principles, which deals with the differences between ancient (political) and modern (civil) freedom. He was to repeat this argument in a famous speech, but this book is the locus classicus. As François Furet has argued, every subsequent French thinker, including Constant, is judged by his interpretation of the Revolution. Constant, like Mme. de Staël, sought to explain how Rousseau’s notion of the general will had been used by Robespierre and others to transform the French Revolution into the Reign of Terror. Constant argued that it was the attempt to institute ancient liberty in a modern context that led to this perversion. Constant went on to argue that representative government was the system the moderns had devised for preserving liberty. His persistent defense of freedom of the press and vociferous opposition to the slave trade are representative of the stands he took on a number of issues.

Constant subsequently served in the Chamber of Deputies, being elected as a deputy for Paris in 1824 and from the Lower Rhine in 1827. Despite failing health, he supported the July Revolution of Louis-Philippe and served as conseiller d’état again until his death on December 8, 1830. Like so many other great French thinkers and authors, he is buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and also like so many others, he had persistently been denied membership in the Académie Française. At the time of Constant’s death, Louis Blanc and others tried unsuccessfully to have him entombed in the Panthéon. One of the things that distinguished Constant from other classical liberals of his time, whether French or British, was his recognition of the importance of the spiritual dimension for the sustenance of liberal culture. This view is reflected in On Religion and a massive amount of unpublished religious speculation that accumulated over his lifetime.

Constant’s Principles of Politics is a microcosm of his whole political philosophy and an expression of his political experience. As far back as the period between 1800 and 1803, Constant had begun a project of both translating and commenting on Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. This evolved into an 1806 draft commentary on Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and finally, in 1815, during the Hundred Days, into an essay on the Acte additional aux constitutions de l’empire—the “Benjamine.” Out of embarrassment over its Napoleonic association, Constant did not include it in his Cours de politique constitutionelle of 1818–20. It was included in the 1861 edition of the Cours edited by Édouard Laboulaye.

The Principes de politique in all its versions reflected the immense impact of the French Revolution on Constant’s thinking. The 1810 edition, however, expresses in purest form the ideas which Constant believed universally applicable to all civilized government. Unlike the 1815 edition, it is in no sense a manual of applied politics. It does not focus on constitutional monarchy or the constitutional balancing of powers and the control of ministers. Despite Constant’s gently apparent republicanism, it readily accepts that republics can be despotic and monarchies decent.

Constant, like Tocqueville and Mill afterward, was obsessed with the dangers of popular sovereignty. As he pointed out, where there are no limits on the legislature or the representative body, the representatives (e.g., the Convention during the French Revolution) become not the defenders of liberty, but the agents of tyranny. Constant was focused above all on liberty. The Revolution had destroyed the ancien régime and all its constituent intermediary institutions. Without intermediary institutions, a society of atomized individuals faced an all-powerful state. In order to restore and preserve liberty, new intermediary institutions needed to be established. Prime among these was the free press. It was the free press that provided a context not only for public discussion, but for calling attention to governmental (ministerial) abuse.

In the Principles Constant reasserts his lifelong commitment to individual and institutional freedom and the absence of arbitrary power. He affirms that even a single arbitrary act sets government on the road to despotism. Constant always saw freedom as an organic phenomenon: to attack it in any particular was to attack it generally. To construct this thesis he explores many subjects: law, sovereignty, and representation; power and accountability; government, property and taxation; wealth and poverty; war, peace and the maintenance of public order; and above all freedom, of the individual, of the press, and of religion. Early in his text he tackles the difficult issue of the general will. Although recognizing its existence in the abstract, Constant immediately asserts the Lockean view that citizens have rights independent of all social and political authority, and he goes on via a comprehensive critique to enumerate the dangers of Rousseau’s views. Individual freedoms reflecting individual rights are sacrosanct even in the face of the popular will. Constant returns again and again with arguments against those who assert the prerogatives of society against those of the individual—Rousseau, Hobbes, and Mably—and equally with arguments favourable to individualism, where he relies very heavily on British commentary from Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and others.

Constant’s preference throughout The Principles is for limited but strong government. He asserts unambiguously that all successful government must secure the two essentials of internal order and external defense of the realm.

In the first half of The Principles, Constant focuses on the specific liberties that were so important to him: private property, freedom of the press, religious liberty, individual liberty, and due process. The legal reflection is extensive, both abstract and focusing on individual examples. In Books IV and V, Constant focuses on the rule of law: the need for due process in order to protect individual rights; laws that lay down the neutral rules of the game, so that individuals can pursue their private economic interests with security; the importance of jury trials; the significance of pardon as a check on the system itself; and the need for judicial independence. Much of this part of Constant’s thinking is resonant of the Federalist Papers.

The discussion of individual rights, limited government, and the sacrosanct nature of property constitute Constant an apostle of economic modernity. The discussion of property in Book X is a masterpiece. Eschewing abstract arguments, Constant appeals to Smith and Say to show the connections between politics and economics: how prosperity is enhanced by privatization and how the national wealth is undermined by debt, irresponsible taxation, and the delusions of grandeur from which public officials who oversee the surplus created by taxation too often suffer. In Book XVIII, Constant both looks back to the Revolution and anticipates events of our own time with his reflections on the dangers of a civil religion or any form of civil intolerance. Citing Holbach’s System of Nature, Constant is able to see the dangers of an atheistic secularism itself turned into a civic religion.

Both Tocqueville and Guizot were intrigued by Constant’s reflection on the concept of sovereignty and the insight that democracy could be a source of despotism, perhaps the greatest threat to liberal culture. If Constant’s brand of liberalism (as well as Tocqueville’s) did not prevail on the continent of Europe, it was because European thinking remained mired in some consideration of a collective good. Hegel was greatly influenced by Constant’s conception of a monarch who reflected the entire “state” (i.e., community) and the concern for reflecting the important specific interests in the legislature. We can foresee John Stuart Mill in, among other things, Constant’s comment that there is a part of human existence that remains individual and independent, and which is, by right, outside any social competence. Perhaps the most enduring contribution of all of his work is, as Benedetto Croce said, in his having raised the question of whether liberal culture can survive without a soul.

Nicholas Capaldi

Last modified April 10, 2014