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FrRevol_051-100.indd 46 3/16/12 1:02 PM CHAPTER XI Did France Possess a Constitution Before the Revolution? 1 Of all modern monarchies, France was certainly the one whose political institutions were most arbitrary and fluctuating; and the cause is probably to be sought in the incorporation, at very different periods, of the provinces that compose the kingdom. Each province had different claims and customs; the government skillfully made use of the old against the new ones, and the country became only gradually a whole. Whatever may be the cause, it is an undoubted fact that there exists no law in France, not even an elementary law, which has not, at some time or other, been disputed- nothing, in short, which has not been the object of difference of opinion. Did, or did not the legislative power reside in the kings? Could they, or could they not impose taxes in virtue of their prerogative and will? Or, the Estates General, were they the representatives of the people, to whom alone belonged the right ofgranting subsidies ? In what manner ought these Estates General to be composed? The I. This unusually long chapter plays a seminal role in Madame de Stael's analysis ofthe Old Regime and the roots of the French Revolution. The question whether France did or did not have a true constitution was an old one, and any answer was pregnant with significant political implications. Most famously, Abbe Sieyes answered in the negative, thus justifying his revolutionary claims in What Is the Third Estate? (1789). In a surprisingly short (fourpage ) chapter of his own book, Bailleul pointed to the contradictions in Madame de Stael's analysis in part I, chapter xi. He ironically noted (Examen critique, vol. 1, 146- 47) that by concluding that France had no genuine constitution under the Old Regime, Madame de Stael was contradicting some of her earlier statements such as the existence of a forceful opposition to royal power coming from local privileges and intermediary bodies. For another critique see Louis de Bonald, Observations sur l'ouvrage de Madame la baronne de Stael, chap. I (Paris, 1818). FrRevol_051-100.indd 47 3/16/12 1:02 PM cHAPTER xI . Did France Possess a Constitution? privileged classes, who possessed two voices out ofthree, could they consider themselves as essentially distinct from the nation at large, and entitled , after voting a tax, to relieve themselves from its operation, and to throw its burden on the people? What were the real privileges of the clergy, who at one time held themselves to be independent of the king, at another independent of the pope? What were the powers of the nobles, who, at one time, even down to the minority of Louis XIV, asserted the right of maintaining their privileges by force ofarms in alliance with foreigners , while, at another time, they would acknowledge that the king possessed absolute power? What ought to be the situation of the Third Estate, emancipated by the kings, introduced into the Estates General by Philip the Fair,2 and yet doomed to be perpetually in a minority, since it had only one vote in three, and since its complaints could carry little weight, presented as they were to the monarch on the knee? What was the political influence of the parlements, these assemblies, which declared at one time that their sole business was to administer justice , at another that they were the Estates General on a reduced scale, that is, the representatives of the representatives ofthe people? The same parliaments refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the intendants, who were the provincial administrators of the Crown; and the cabinet, on the other hand, contested with the pays d'itats the right, to which they pretended , of acquiescing in the taxes. The history of France would supply us with a crowd ofexamples ofsimilar want ofconsistency in small things as in great; but enough of the deplorable results ofthis want ofprinciples. Persons accused of state offenses were almost all deprived of a fair trial; and many ofthem, without beingbrought before a court at all, have passed their lives in prisons, to which they had been sent by the sole authority ofthe executive power. The code ofterror against Protestants, cruel punishments , and torture, still existed down to the Revolution.3 The taxes, which pressed exclusively on the lower orders, reduced them to hopeless poverty. A French jurist, only fifty years ago, continued to call 2. Philip IV was King of France from 1285...


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