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Madame de Staël argues that Napoleon was able to create a tyrannical government by pandering to men’s interests, corrupting public opinion, and waging constant war (1817)

One of Napoleon’s most persistent critics was Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) who sheltered many liberal opponents of the regime in her salon at Coppet in Switzerland. In one of the first histories of the French Revolution she identifies the ways in which Napoleon manipulated power to establish his tyranny:

It is generally after long civil troubles that tyranny is established, because it offers the hope of shelter to all the exhausted and timorous factions. Bonaparte said of himself with reason that he could play admirably upon the instrument of power. In truth, as he is attached to no principles, nor restrained by any obstacles, he presents himself in the arena of circumstances like a wrestler, no less supple than vigorous, and discovers at the first glance the points in every man or association of men which may promote his private designs. His scheme for arriving at the dominion of France rested upon three principal bases—to satisfy men’s interests at the expense of their virtues, to deprave public opinion by sophisms, and to give the nation war for an object instead of liberty.

The first symptoms of tyranny cannot be watched too carefully: for when once it has matured to a certain point, it can no longer be stopped. A single man enchains the will of a multitude of individuals, the greater part of whom, taken separately, would wish to be free, but who nevertheless submit because they dread one another and dare not communicate their thoughts freely. A minority not very numerous is often sufficient to resist in succession every portion of the majority which is unacquainted with its own strength. < br />
In spite of the differences of time and place, there are points of resemblance in the history of all nations who have fallen under the yoke. It is generally after long civil troubles that tyranny is established, because it offers the hope of shelter to all the exhausted and timorous factions. Bonaparte said of himself with reason that he could play admirably upon the instrument of power. In truth, as he is attached to no principles, nor restrained by any obstacles, he presents himself in the arena of circumstances like a wrestler, no less supple than vigorous, and discovers at the first glance the points in every man or association of men which may promote his private designs. His scheme for arriving at the dominion of France rested upon three principal bases—to satisfy men’s interests at the expense of their virtues, to deprave public opinion by sophisms, and to give the nation war for an object instead of liberty. We shall see him follow these different paths with uncommon ability. The French, alas! seconded him only too well; yet it is his fatal genius which should be chiefly blamed; for as an arbitrary government had at all times prevented the nation from acquiring fixed ideas upon any subject, Bonaparte set its passions in motion without having to struggle against its principles. He had it in his power to do honor to France and to establish himself firmly by respectable institutions; but his contempt of the human race had quite dried up his soul, and he believed that there was no depth but in the region of evil. < br />
We have already seen him decree a constitution in which there existed no guarantees. Besides, he took great care to leave the laws that had been published during the Revolution unrepealed, that he might at his pleasure select from this accursed arsenal the weapon which suited him. The extraordinary commissions, the transportations, the banishments, the slavery of the press, measures unfortunately introduced in the name of liberty, were extremely useful to tyranny. When he employed them, he alleged as a pretext sometimes reasons of state, sometimes the urgency of the conjuncture, sometimes the activity of his adversaries, sometimes the necessity of maintaining tranquillity. Such is the artillery of the phrases by which absolute power is defended, for circumstances never have an end; and in proportion as restraint by illegal measures is increased, the disaffected become more numerous, which serves to justify the necessity of new acts of injustice. The establishment of the sovereignty of law is always deferred till tomorrow, a vicious circle of reasoning from which it is impossible to escape; for the public spirit that is expected to produce liberty can be the outcome only of that very liberty itself.

About this Quotation:

Germaine de Stael knew something about tyranny. As the daughter of the last minister of finance under the old regime, Jacques Necker, and a committed liberal throughout the Revolution and Napoleon’s empire, she was persecuted and forced to flee to Switzerland. Her revenge was to sponsor a famous liberal salon in her family chateau at Coppet in Switzerland where she gave shelter and support to many liberal critics of the regime. She also wrote one of the first histories of the French Revolution in which she was able to savagely critique Napoleon’s tyrannical rule. This quotation is an excellent example of her thinking.

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