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Madame de Staël on how liberty is ancient and despotism is modern (1818)

In her history of the French Revolution Madame Germaine de Staël (née Necker) (1766-1817) makes the important point that it is liberty which is “ancient” and much predated the rise of relatively recent and “modern” despotism, such as Napoléon’s:

It is of importance to repeat to those who are the advocates of rights founded on the past, that it is liberty which is ancient, and despotism which is modern. In all the European states founded at the commencement of the middle age, the power of the king was limited by that of the nobles. The Diets in Germany, in Sweden, in Denmark before its charter of servitude, the Parliaments in England, the Cortes in Spain, the intermediate bodies of all kinds in Italy, prove that the northern tribes brought with them institutions which confined the power to one class, but which were in no respect favorable to despotism.

Troubles without end have arisen in France to obtain what was considered to be liberty, at different periods, whether feudal, religious, or representative; and, if we except the reigns of those kings who, like Francis I and, above all, Louis XIV, possessed the dangerous art of occupying the nation by war, we shall not find, in the space of eight centuries, an interval of twenty-five years without a conflict of nobles against the sovereign, of peasants against nobles, of Protestants against Catholics, or, finally, of parliaments against the court—all struggles to escape from that arbitrary power which forms the most insupportable of burdens on a people. The civil commotions, as well as the violent measures adopted to stifle them, are an evidence that the French exerted themselves as much as the English to obtain that liberty confirmed by law, which alone can ensure to a people peace, emulation, and prosperity.

It is of importance to repeat to those who are the advocates of rights founded on the past, that it is liberty which is ancient, and despotism which is modern. In all the European states founded at the commencement of the middle age, the power of the king was limited by that of the nobles. The Diets in Germany, in Sweden, in Denmark before its charter of servitude, the Parliaments in England, the Cortes in Spain, the intermediate bodies of all kinds in Italy, prove that the northern tribes brought with them institutions which confined the power to one class, but which were in no respect favorable to despotism. The Franks never acknowledged uncontrolled power in their chiefs; for it is incontrovertible that, under the first two races of their kings, all who had the right of a citizen, that is, the nobles, and the nobles were the Franks, participated in the government. “Every one knows,” says M. de Boulainvilliers, who certainly was no philosopher, “that the French were a free people, who elected their chiefs, under the title of kings, to execute the laws which they themselves had enacted, or to command them in war; and that they were very far from considering their kings as legislators who could order everything according to their pleasure. There remains no act of the first two races of the monarchy which is not characterized by the consent of the general assemblies of the Champs de Mars or Champs de Mai, and even no war was then undertaken without their approbation.”

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Numerous liberal thinkers have made the point that it is liberty which is ancient while it is despotism which is a modern invention. Thinkers such as Althusius and Montesquieu argued that there have always been “intermediary institutions” such as cities, communes, and other associations which prevented kings or barons from wielding uncontrolled political power. Only with the rise of the modern nation state were these bodies gradually pushed aside so that a unitary, bureaucratic, police state could enforce the will of the ruling monarch or emperor or president. Staël again makes this point in her exploration of how the French Revolution went off the rails and produced a dictator like Napoléon. Shortly after she wrote, another French historian Augustin Thierry began to explore the old medieval charters of the “free cities” which defended their ancient liberties against the encroachments of local lords who were trying to expand their powers. One might also note that in the 17th century the English Levellers were arguing the same thing in their struggle against the despotic powers of Charles I. They pointed out that the liberties of free-born Englishmen were enshrined in the ancient document known as Magna Carta which was signed by a reluctant King John in 1215.

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