Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Germaine de Staël on the indestructible love of liberty (1818)

n one of the first histories of the French Revolution Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) decries what had been done in the name of “liberty” during the french Revolution. In spite of these deeds, she believes that love of liberty is deeply embedded in the human soul and that it cannot be extinguished by tyrant:

Liberty! Let us repeat her name with so much the more energy that the men who should pronounce it, at least as an apology, keep it at a distance through flattery: let us repeat it without fear of wounding any power that deserves respect; for all that we love, all that we honor is included in it. Nothing but liberty can arouse the soul to the interests of social order. The assemblies of men would be nothing but associations for commerce or agriculture if the life of patriotism did not excite individuals to sacrifice themselves for their fellows. Chivalry was a warlike brotherhood which satisfied that thirst for self-devotion which is felt by every generous heart. The nobles were companions in arms, bound together by duty and honor; but since the progress of the human mind has created nations, in other words, since all men share in some degree in the same advantages, what would become of the human species were it not for the sentiment of liberty?

It is time that twenty-five years, of which fifteen belong to military despotism, should no longer place themselves as a phantom between history and us, and should no longer deprive us of all the lessons and of all the examples which it offers us. Is Aristides to be forgotten, and Phocion, and Epaminondas in Greece; Regulus, Cato, and Brutus at Rome; Tell in Switzerland; Egmont and Nassau in Holland; Sidney and Russell in England; because a country that had long been governed by arbitrary power was delivered, during a revolution, to men whom arbitrary power had corrupted? What is there so extraordinary in such an event as to change the course of the stars, that is, to give a retrograde motion to truth, which was before advancing with history to enlighten the human race? By what public sentiment shall we be moved henceforth if we are to reject the love of liberty? Old prejudices have now no influence upon men except from calculation; they are defended only by those who have a personal interest in defending them. What man in France desires absolute power from pure love or for its own sake? Inform yourself of the personal situation of its partisans, and you will soon know the motives of their doctrine. On what then would the fraternal tie of human associations be founded if no enthusiasm were to be developed in the heart? Who would be proud of being a Frenchman after having seen liberty destroyed by tyranny, tyranny broken to pieces by foreigners, unless the laurels of war were at least rendered honorable by the conquest of liberty? We should have to contemplate a mere struggle between the selfishness of those who were privileged by birth and the selfishness of those who are privileged by events. But where would then be France? Who could boast of having served her, since nothing would remain in the heart, either of past times or of the new reform?

Liberty! Let us repeat her name with so much the more energy that the men who should pronounce it, at least as an apology, keep it at a distance through flattery: let us repeat it without fear of wounding any power that deserves respect; for all that we love, all that we honor is included in it. Nothing but liberty can arouse the soul to the interests of social order. The assemblies of men would be nothing but associations for commerce or agriculture if the life of patriotism did not excite individuals to sacrifice themselves for their fellows. Chivalry was a warlike brotherhood which satisfied that thirst for self-devotion which is felt by every generous heart. The nobles were companions in arms, bound together by duty and honor; but since the progress of the human mind has created nations, in other words, since all men share in some degree in the same advantages, what would become of the human species were it not for the sentiment of liberty? Why should the patriotism of a Frenchman begin at this frontier and cease at that, if there were not within this compass hopes, enjoyments, an emulation, a security which make him love his native land as much through the genuine feelings of the soul as through habit? Why should the name of France awaken so invincible an emotion if there were no other ties among the inhabitants of this fine country than the privileges of some and the subjection of the rest?…

It is indeed a remarkable circumstance that throughout the world, wherever a certain depth of thought exists, there is not to be found an enemy of freedom. As the celebrated Humboldt has traced upon the mountains of the New World the different degrees of height which permit the development of this or that plant, so might we predict what extent, what elevation of spirit is requisite to enable a man to conceive the great interests of mankind in their full connection and in all their truth. The evidence of these opinions is such that they who have once admitted them can never renounce them, and that from one end of the world to the other, the friends of freedom maintain communication by knowledge, as religious men by sentiments; or rather knowledge and sentiment unite in the love of freedom as in that of the Supreme Being. Is the question the abolition of the slave trade, or the liberty of the press, or religious toleration? Jefferson thinks as La Fayette; La Fayette, as Wilberforce; and even they who are now no more are reckoned in the holy league. Is it then from the calculations of interest, is it from bad motives that men so superior, in situations and countries so different, should be in such harmony in their political opinions? Without doubt knowledge is requisite to enable us to soar above prejudices: but it is in the soul also that the principles of liberty are founded; they make the heart palpitate like love and friendship, they come from nature, they ennoble the character. One connected series of virtues and ideas seems to form that golden chain described by Homer, which in binding man to Heaven delivers him from all the fetters of tyranny.

About this Quotation:

Germaine de Staël, like many French liberals of the time, was tarred by the same brush as the defenders of “Jacobinism.” Conservatives argued that advocacy of individual liberty would lead to Jacobinism, the Terror, and the dictatorship of Napoleon. Staël of course denied this was the case and as her own actions showed, true defenders of liberty were also enemies of Jacobinism and Napoleon. In her last work before she died she declared that during the revolution men had become corrupted by power and that liberty had been destroyed by tyranny. In spite of this, the love of liberty was universal and was the basis of the “fraternal tie of human associations.” She concluded that “it is in the soul also that the principles of liberty are founded; they make the heart palpitate like love and friendship, they come from nature.” Hence, they are indestructible and would always re-emerge.

More Quotations