N & E
Napoleon & Empire

Liberal opposition
Madame de Staël, Benjamin Constant

The faces of the republican opposition: [Introduction] [The Idéologues] [Military opposition] [The liberals: Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant]

Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant, very close to the Ideologues, were not strictly speaking part of their group. However, they differed less in their ideas than in their personal conduct. Indeed, neither of them would ever accept an official position or title from a regime they disapproved of. And Benjamin Constant's final rallying was not a denial, since it came at the price of Napoleon's adherence, albeit essentially formal, to certain of his conceptions.

Germaine de Staël et Benjamin Constant
Germaine de Staël et Benjamin Constant

Germaine de Staël, after imagining herself as the muse of Bonaparte, whom she met for the first time in 1800, quickly switched to the opposition. She used her salon as a platform for her "Ideologue" friends, already inclined to distance themselves from the regime they had helped to establish. But it was above all by helping, even pushing, Benjamin Constant to express his disagreement with the government's plans, that she intervened in the country's political life and tried to thwart the First Consul's schemes.

Benjamin Constant, founder of liberalism

The young Benjamin Constant, whose entry into the Tribunat seemed to have been secured by successively asserting opposite convictions to Bonaparte and Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, and who was close to the "Ideologues" without being counted as one of them, nevertheless supported them in spectacular fashion during his debut on the public stage, on the occasion of the debate on the Tribunate's rules of procedure. The draft submitted by Bonaparte was intended to be sufficiently restrictive to prevent the resurrection of the factions that had undermined the revolutionary assemblies. The "Ideologues" saw in it a restriction of their freedom, independence and power, and the consecration of the lowering of legislative power, with the Tribunate reduced to the role of a recording chamber.

Benjamin Constant's speech on this occasion, on January 5, 1800, is a brilliant, well-argued indictment. Without asserting that they will take place, he pointed out possible abuses, and even had the indulgence to propose solutions to the problems he raised. For example, it presented practical measures to ensure that legislation would be drafted in the necessary form and as slowly as possible. In particular, he disapproved of the ability to pass laws in a hurry.

His conclusion was without appeal. Without the independence of the Tribunate, there would be no harmony, no Constitution; there would only be servitude and silence, he declared, and simply demanded the withdrawal of the project.

His speech provoked the wrath of the First Consul, furious that Constant's astonishing insight had been so quick to discern the still latent tendencies of the regime that was being set up. The public reaction was like a bomb. But public opinion no longer wanted speeches, after a Revolution that had given pride of place to orators. It wanted power capable of action. Condemnation of Constant's ideas was almost unanimous. The press did not support him; worse, the Journal des Hommes libres attacked the constitutionality of Benjamin Constant's presence in the Tribunate. His friends and those of Madame de Staël deserted her salon.

This was because Madame de Staël, Bonaparte first, was generally considered to be the inspiration behind the speech. She had to report to the Ministry of Police, where Joseph Fouché advised her to leave the capital. Madame de Staël moved to... Saint-Ouen. The punishment was considered light, even by public opinion. In fact, it was a simple message from the First Consul that he had no intention of letting a tribune and his mistress, no matter how brilliant, interfere with his plans.

Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant, for all their intelligence, failed to understand that the near-unanimous support of a people, weary of disorder and all for Bonaparte − despite or because of his authoritarianism − gave him a power that no one could oppose.

Constant, untouchable as a parliamentarian, continued to speak from the rostrum. His speeches were sometimes favorable to the executive's plans, as when he approved a law on inheritance tax. More often, however, they were critical. For example, he defended the right to petition, which Bonaparte wanted to reform so as to render it ineffective; he refused to accept a reduction in the number of justices of the peace; and he criticized a project concerning land rents. In the latter case, he eventually won the day, obtaining the withdrawal of the text. In January 1801, when the law creating special criminal courts was debated, Constant's list of grievances was long: the project was obscure, unconstitutional, retroactive and dangerous due to the absence of appeal and juries. It was a threat to citizens.

Throughout this period, from the beginning of 1800 to his expulsion from the Tribunate on March 18, 1802, Constant laid the foundations of his political philosophy, the foundation of French liberalism. While preserving the achievements of the Revolution, his aim was to enshrine them in law and introduce the guarantees necessary to protect individual freedom. Constant set out a number of key principles: only power can stop power, any authority can be abused, laws must be prepared with wise deliberation, and citizens must enjoy a private sphere guaranteed by institutions.

Faced with Bonaparte's authoritarian republic, imbued with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's conceptions of national sovereignty, determined to build a strong state and convinced that he embodied the general will, it was a fundamentally different political conception that Constant defended during these debates. But the time was not right for him. Public opinion was not ready to follow him. Bonaparte was quick to exclude him from the Tribunate when it was partially renewed.

Madame de Staël, an increasingly fierce opponent

Despite the warnings she received after her expulsion, Germaine de Staël continued to oppose Bonaparte. She was no stranger to the ill-temper shown by Jacobin generals (Jean Victor Moreau, Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte) on the occasion of the Concordat; she inspired a pamphlet very hostile to the First Consul, which was seized and whose printer was imprisoned: Le vrai sens du vote national sur le consulat à vie; she urged her father, Jacques Necker, to publish a work critical of the new constitution; finally, she gave her novel Delphine, published in 1802, a preface subtly malicious towards the First Consul and his work. Having retired to Switzerland, Madame de Staël was forbidden to return to France on pain of arrest. She ignored the ban in September 1803 and settled twenty kilometers from Paris. But her lack of discretion forced the authorities, after initially turning a blind eye, to order her to withdraw forty leagues from the capital.

She then embarked on an extensive tour of Germany, Switzerland and Italy, spreading her hatred of Napoleon throughout Europe, calling him a monster and a tyrant. She returned to France in 1806, this time respecting the radius of exclusion imposed on her. In 1807, she took advantage of Napoleon's absence to settle near Paris. The Emperor, on the other side of Europe and in the midst of a war with Russia, inundated Fouché with letters to remind her of her obligations.

Napoleon considered Madame de Staël as much an enemy of France as of the government. In February 1810, the printing of her new book De l'Allemagne brought her close to Paris again. But her friend Fouché, who until then had been able to temper Napoleon's measures, lost his ministry in June to General Savary. Savary had none of his predecessor's delicacy or ulterior motives, and in September Madame de Staël was firmly invited to leave Paris within 48 hours for Switzerland or America. As for her book, it was seized and destroyed.

A divergent final trajectory

Madame de Staël would not see France again until after Napoleon's abdication. In the meantime, she would devote herself to a tour of the European courts, encouraging the sovereigns to go to war. Benjamin Constant, for his part, was persuaded in 1815 to draft a new constitution on behalf of Napoleon during the Hundred Days. This would be the Acte additionnel aux constitutions de l'Empire, whose author had the lucidity to declare: The intentions are liberal; the practice will be despotic. There wasn't enough time to verify this prophecy.