Liberty Matters

Crimes in the Name of Liberty


Since two of us (K. Steven Vincent and I) mentioned the importance of the Réflexions sur le procès de la reine as a founding text in Staël's political writings, I would like to add a couple of thoughts about it. It seems to me that it is an instance of her attempting to claim a role for those who were not yet known as "intellectuals" in public life. It further demonstrates her belief, which is also present, for instance, in the second half of her great essay on literature, De la littérature (1800), that texts have potential agency in politics. The failure of her brochure and the queen's execution were both indicators of the attacks on liberty by the revolutionary regime. This was particularly unbearable for Staël since the early stages of the Revolution had seemed to bring the promise of liberty—as the French national motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité continues to proclaim.
On November 25, 1793, Staël wrote to the Dutch-Swiss author Isabelle de Charrière:
Quel sort cependant est réservé aux premiers amis de la liberté en France ! en relation presque avec tous, chaque jour j'éprouve une nouvelle peine.[104]Yet what fate is reserved to the first friends of liberty in France! For nearly all of them I feel a new sadness every day.
A couple of months later, on January 26, 1794, she sent the Swiss scientist Lavater, who had asked for it, a copy of her Réflexions sur le procès de la reine. She drew a direct link between the queen's execution and the perverse attitude of the regime to liberty:
Aucun acte réunît autant de caractères de barbarie que le long supplice de cette malheureuse victime. Ah ! Que d'horreurs commises au nom de la plus sainte des idées, de la liberté, et quelle notion certaine peut-il rester du juste et de l'injuste quand on a pris soin de les confondre avec tant d'art ? Je reviens sans cesse à cette France : je l'ai tant aimée[105]No action unites so many barbarous characters as the long torture of this unhappy victim. Ah! How many horrific acts have been committed in the name of the holiest of ideas, that of liberty, and what secure notion of the just and the unjust can remain when one has taken care to confuse them so artfully? I return time and time again to France which I have loved so much.
The gratuitousness of the queen's execution after a summary trial came, for Staël and for many others, to offer a paradigmatic expression of the way in which people who had claimed to be acting for freedom had in fact betrayed this central value. She was particularly conscious of the way in which words are often cynically bandied about by politicians to unite people. This is an invitation to us to analyze discourse and to be wary of grandiloquence when it is empty discourse
[104.] Correspondance générale, ed. Beatrice Fink (Paris: Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1960), vol. II, p. 507.
[105.] Ibid., p. 559. The comment is reminiscent of Jeanne-Marie Roland's supposed last words before she was executed: "Oh, Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!"