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Benjamin Constant: French Liberal Extraordinaire

“He loved liberty as other men love power,” was the judgment passed on Benjamin Constant by a contemporary. His lifelong concern, both as a writer and politician, was the attainment in France and in other nations of a free society; and at the time when classical liberalism was the specter haunting Europe — in the second and third decades of the last century — he shared with Jeremy Bentham the honor of being the chief intellectual protagonist for the new ideology. But it is not only for his elevated and disinterested love of freedom, nor for his historical importance that Constant merits being remembered: there is something to be gained in the study of his works by individualists aiming at the development of a political philosophy that will avoid the errors both of certain 18th-century liberals and of 19th-century conservatism.

Although in his day he was the most famous liberal spokesman on the Continent, Constant was never as well-known in the English-speaking world; especially today, when he shares the neglect into which his party has fallen, something will have to be said of his career.1

He was born near Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1767, a descendant of Huguenots who had fled France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Little need be noted of his generally erratic upbringing, except that he enjoyed a cosmopolitan education, studying at the universities of Erlangen and Edinburgh; the latter was at the time a center of Whig ideas, and boasted a faculty that included Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. Constant was early attracted to Parisian life, and entered the world of the salons shortly before the beginning of the Revolution. He was absent in Germany until the fall of the Jacobins, returning in 1795, when he quickly became closely associated with Madame de Stael, and began a life of political pamphleteering. A brief period as a member of the Tribunate under Napoleon was ended after a too ardently expressed demand that the legislative assembly be allowed a voice in the making of laws — Constant and his friends were purged, Napoleon complaining of the “metaphysicians” in the assembly who were forever seeking to tie his hands.

There followed a period of intense opposition to Bonaparte. At this time, Constant composed his On the Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation,2 a demonstration of to what extent the aims and methods of Napoleon were out of keeping with the spirit of the new bourgeois world. He joined other liberals in enlisting under Napoleon’s banner, however, during the Hundred Days, on the supposition that the great general would now be compelled to rule as a constitutional monarch. At this time, Constant drafted the constitution under which Napoleon was to have governed. With Waterloo and the restoration of the Bourbons, Constant joined the liberal opposition, serving in the Chamber of Deputies and acting as a brilliant and forceful critic of every governmental policy that he viewed as inconsistent with the rights of man. This was the period of his greatest influence, when he enjoyed a vast European reputation and inspired groups of young disciples as far away as Warsaw. He died in 1830, shortly after the establishment of the July Monarchy.

With two important facts regarding Constant, we will not be concerned here, although they merit mentioning. First, that he occupies an honorable place in the history of French literature, principally through his short novel, Adolphe; and, second, that, like the hero of this work, his was a painfully introspective intellect, and his a personality that found it impossible ever to be less than studied and analytical. His psychological problems and the complex emotional life to which they led have provided most of the content for the studies of Constant that have appeared up until the present. While it is likely that these aspects of his personality had a certain bearing on his political and social thought, it did so in too complex a way to warrant closer examination here.

France has, together with England and Scotland, contributed more than any other nation to the theory, if not to the practice, of liberty. In the line of great French liberals, which begins about the second quarter of the 18th century with Montesquieu, Constant was the first of the generation following the Revolution. This circumstance was of the greatest significance for the development of his political ideas, and to it may be traced the fact that he tended to regard political problems from a somewhat different viewpoint from that of most of the earlier liberals. This is most evident in his attitude toward the power of the central government.

Turgot and the Physiocrats, for example, had championed the extension of state power in the interests of “reform.” These liberals saw the economic life of France hamstrung by the guilds and by an incredibly circumstantial mercantilist regulation; its social life irrationally structured on the basis of nobility of birth; its intellectual life, though intense, yet furtive and often even subterranean, because a large number of persons and bodies — from the Sorbonne to some influential duchess at Versailles — had the de facto power of ordering any book they wished committed to the flames; and they blamed the casual heaping up of tradition for such an intolerable state of affairs. They thought that what was needed was the action of an enlightened, ordering mind, endowed with sufficient power to sweep aside the machinations of all those who had a vested interest in the traditional encumbrances on freedom. For this reason, the philosophes (both those among them who were essentially liberals, and those who cannot fairly be classed as such) were enthusiasts of the “enlightened despotism” fashionable among certain rulers of the time. This is also the reason that led virtually the whole philosophical party wholeheartedly to support Louis XV in his suppression of the parlements; since these law courts had been the only legal check on the power of the king, the favor shown by the philosophes for this arbitrary action would otherwise be difficult to understand.3

With the upheaval of the Revolution, however, most of the institutions of the Old Regime that had (with government sanction, to be sure) acted as centers of privilege, were swept away. Industrial freedom was granted to all; Protestants and freethinkers no longer had to fear imprisonment for manifesting their beliefs; there was one law for commoner and noble. The focus of all threats to individual freedom became the government itself. The Church, nobility, guilds and other corporations that, endowed with coercive privilege, had vexed the free functioning of men, left the stage, and across the gap created by their disappearance the individual and the state, for the first time, stood alone facing each other.

And now the liberals’ attitude toward the state underwent a change. Where previous French liberals had seen a potential instrument for the establishment of liberty, and one that might at times even safely be used for the realization of certain “philosophical” values, writers like Constant started to see a collection of standing threats to individual freedom: government is “the natural enemy of liberty;” ministers, of whatever party, are, by nature, “the eternal adversaries of freedom of the press;” governments will always look on war as “a means of increasing their authority.” Thus, with Constant, the chief articulator of his generation’s liberal ideals, we see the beginnings of classical liberalism’s “state hatred,” which, after the 18th century’s ambiguous attitude, marks its theory to the present day.4

Another feature distinguishing Constant from earlier liberals was what he conceived to be the ethical ends of social organization. In this respect, the philosophes had anticipated the central idea of Bentham, Constant’s fellow liberal and almost exact contemporary. While the liberalism of writers like Mercier de la Rivière and Du Pont de Nemours, like Bentham’s, was based exclusively on a utilitarian ethic, Constant’s had a vaguer, but, it will appear to many, a more elevated foundation. This ought to be emphasized, since many writers on the history of liberalism — both conservatives and modern left-liberals — often write as if utilitarianism were historically the sole philosophical basis of liberalism. This was not the case with many of the most prominent liberals, including Constant, who emphatically rejected utilitarianism:

Is it so true that happiness — of whatever sort it might be — is the unique end of man? In that case, our road would be quite narrow, and our destination not a very lofty one. There is not one of us, who, if he wished to descend, to restrict his moral faculties, to degrade his desires, to abjure activity, glory and all generous and profound emotions, could not make himself a brute, and a happy one … it is not for happiness alone, it is for self-perfectioning that destiny calls us.5

Thus, Constant found the ethical ends that he wished to realize through a system of liberty not in the greatest-happiness principle but in the development and enrichment of personality. This view was in keeping with the humanism then prevalent in Germany, and was possibly, in the case of Constant, traceable to his study of Kantian philosophy, and to the influence of certain of his many German friends, including Schiller and especially Wilhelm von Humboldt.

The aim of allowing the widest possible sphere for individual development meant, in Constant’s thinking, the restriction of government action within the narrowest possible limits, namely, defense against external and internal aggression:

Whenever there is no absolute necessity, whenever legislation may fail to intervene without society being overthrown, whenever, finally, it is a question merely of some hypothetical improvement, the law must abstain, leave things alone, and keep quiet.6

The same conclusion is arrived at by another line of reasoning. To demand that individual activity be interfered with is to demand that individual judgment give way to the judgment of the government. Now, no matter how tenaciously the partisans of state action attempt to cling to abstract terms, in the last analysis their program calls for substituting the opinion of certain government officials for individual judgment, and this aspect of the problem may be stated in this way: is there good reason to suppose the government officials will as a rule make more intelligent decisions regarding whatever it is they wish to legislate about than the individuals concerned? Constant believed the answer to be definitely negative, and offered an interesting analysis of the drawbacks of government decision making.7

In the first place, the government officials will presumably be chosen, directly or indirectly, by the very people whom they are supposed to manage, and it is therefore unlikely that their outlook will be appreciably in advance of that of society as a whole. In fact, the officials will probably share the prejudices and restricted views of the relatively unenlightened majority, rather than the values and thinking of the progressive and innovating minority.

In addition, Constant held, decisions arrived at by political officials exhibit certain other undesirable but necessary features:

  1. errors in legislation spread their effects throughout society, while individuals’ errors are limited in their consequences to a much smaller circle;

  2. the effects of such erroneous laws will fall more on others than on the legislator, who thus has less of an interest in correcting them (at least, less of an interest in proportion to their bad effects) than a private citizen has in modifying his own errors, the burden of which falls on himself;

  3. the fact that the legislator is further removed from the effects of his action brings it about that a greater period of time is required for modifying it, if it should prove wrong, than is the case with private individuals;

  4. since legislators are continually under the eyes of hostile observers, modification of errors involves loss of prestige, and is also difficult for this reason;

  5. finally, legislation has the defect of all collective decisions: it is a “forced give-and-take between prejudice and truth, betwen interests and principles,” while decisions taken by individuals have the chance of being, in this sense, purer.

Thus, Constant concludes, although in a regime of laissez-faire we will have to renounce many grand and glittering undertakings on the part of the state, the chances and costs of errors in legislation are so great that, on net, the sacrifice will be well worth it.

The sphere in which individuals would be free to pursue their activities in accordance with their own values and judgment was to be delimited by a system of rights, which included the customary demands of the classical liberals: personal liberty (including the abolition of Negro slavery and all other forms of involuntary servitude), freedom of religion, freedom of the press, economic liberty, and so on.

Constant did not occupy himself particularly with economic questions. In this field he was first and last a disciple of the economists, especially of Adam Smith and J.B. Say, but asserting the principle of economic nonintervention in even more absolute terms than was customary with the professional economists, and going so far as to criticize the latter for not adhering firmly enough to their motto of laissez faire, laissez passer.8

But the more interesting aspect of Constant’s thought is his political philosophy, and it is to this that we now turn.

In a sense, Constant’s political theory may be considered a rebuttal to that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas in this field had gained increasing influence toward the end of the 18th century, coming to constitute something like the official ideology of the Jacobin, or democratic, party. Like Locke, Rousseau had posited an original social contract, but where the English philosopher had attempted to employ this notion as a foundation for civil rights, in Rousseau’s conception the contract involved the total surrender by the individual of his life, liberty, and possessions into the hands of the community.

It is perhaps not too much of an over-simplification to say that Rousseau’s idea amounted to a Hobbesian system, in which the despot is replaced by society as the great Leviathan, but for one important qualification: Rousseau recognized the dangers involved in his scheme, and believed they could be met by stipulating that, in return for the loss of rights as against society, the individual would be assured of an equal share with all other individuals in the sovereignty, in the determination and exercise of the “General Will.”

Accepting the idea that social life necessarily brings with it the total alienation of one’s rights, Rousseau was thus the modern originator of the notion that freedom in a social context is identifiable with a condition of equal submission to the interests of the community and equal participation in the exercise of political power.

Constant believed that the championship of unlimited popular sovereignty by Rousseau and others represented much less of a break with the historical political pattern than might at first appear to be the case. What had happened was that these thinkers

saw in history a small number of men, or even a single man, in possession of an immense power, which did much harm, but their wrath was directed against the possessors of power, and not against the power itself. Instead of destroying it, they only dreamt of displacing it. It was a scourge, and they regarded it as a conquest.9

Constant admitted the sovereignty of the people, in the sense that no government whose authority is not delegated to it by the people, is a legitimate one. But from this sense of sovereignty

it does not follow that the universality of the citizens or those who are invested by them with sovereignty, can dispose as supreme master of the existence of individuals. There is, on the contrary, a part of human existence which necessarily remains individual and independent, and which is of right outside of all social competence.10

In analyzing Rousseau’s conception of freedom, Constant had occasion to enter into an interesting historical explanation of the Rousseauian idea. He distinguished two senses of freedom: the liberty of the ancients, and that of the moderns, and asserted that Rousseau, as well as the Jacobins during the Revolution, had been attempting to reintroduce the sort of liberty that had been prevalent in the republics of classical antiquity, but that was, for various historical reasons, now outmoded. How this analysis was relevant to the state of opinion at the time may require some explanation.

During the 18th century, the veneration of the classical reached such proportions that it has been referred to by one historian as a “cult.” If few went to the lengths of the admittedly oversensitive Madame Roland, who as a girl wept for not having been born a Roman or a Spartan, the commonly accepted picture of the typical citizen of the ancient republics as austerely virtuous and natural led many to consider whether the institutions that had produced this presumably ideal human being could not be reproduced in France with similarly beneficent effects. This cult achieved its peak during the Revolution, and especially with the triumph of the Jacobins.

Now thousands were sent to their deaths, cities were razed and wars declared, all accompanied by the invocation of what amounted to a schoolboy’s vague but overheated notion of “ancient liberty.” This acceptance of the worst forms of tyranny — from arbitrary arrest and trial without jury to conscription, the “blood tax” — to the doubtlessly sincere cry of “liberty” resulted in much confusion. Conservatives were often even led to the conclusion that the tyrannical excesses were somehow connected with an “excess” of liberty, and resolved that in the future Jacobin tyranny would be avoided by a ruthless suppression of all liberal demands.

But, Constant held, the truth of the matter was that what was involved were two different senses of “liberty”: one, the sort of “liberty” generally characteristic of the ancient world — consisting in equal powerlessness before the state and equal participation in public affairs — was perfectly compatible with all the specific measures that were destructive of the second sort of liberty, the liberty characteristic of modern times. This was a liberty having to do above all with the sphere of private life, and one in which political activity plays a very subordinate role:

Inquire, first of all, gentlemen, what, in our day, an Englishman, a Frenchman, an inhabitant of the United States of America, understands by the word, “liberty.” It means for everyone to be under the dominion of nothing but the laws, not to be arrested, detained, or put to death, nor maltreated in any way as a consequence of the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is for everyone to have the right to express his opinion, to choose and exercise his occupation; to dispose of his property and even to abuse it; to go and come without having to obtain permission, and without having to give an accounting of his motives or actions. It is, for each man, the right to join with other individuals, either to confer on their interests, or simply to fill his hours and days in a manner more conformable to his inclinations and his fantasies. Finally, it is the right for each to influence the administration of the government, either by the nomination of all or of certain functionaries, or by representations, petitions and demands, which authority is more or less obligated to take into consideration.11

Constant makes some suggestive observations as to why political liberty can no longer be considered a significant enough good to outweigh the sacrifice of private liberties:

The most obscure citizen of Rome and of Sparta was a power. This is no longer the case with the simple citizen of Great Britain or of the United States. His personal influence is an imperceptible element in the social will which impresses on the government its direction.12

Even leaving aside the question of the desirability of this way of life, man could, in the present day, simply not be a political animal in the sense proposed by the partisans of antiquity. Thus, the preservation of liberty in the modern sense becomes our chief task.

Rousseau had argued that, given popular sovereignty, there was no longer any need for guarantees against state power: if the sovereign was identifiable with the totality of the citizens, it was foolish to think that it would act in such a way as to harm the citizens. The speciousness of this reasoning, obvious enough in itself, was made explicit by Constant:

As soon as the sovereign is to make use of the force which it possesses, that is, as soon as it is necessary to proceed to a practical organization of authority, since the sovereign itself cannot exercise the authority, it delegates it…. The action done in the name of all necessarily being willingly or unwillingly at the disposition of an individual or of a few individuals, it comes about that in giving oneself to no one, one gives oneself, on the contrary, to those who act in the name of all.13

At the beginning of the age of democratic government, Constant insisted on a truth that doctrinaire democrats of the Rousseauian sort have tended to overlook: “The people which can do anything it wishes is just as dangerous, is more dangerous, than any tyrant, or, rather, it is certain that tyranny will seize hold of this right granted to the people.”14

The worst outrages of the Terror could be regarded as logical deductions from Rousseau’s principles, and “the Social Contract, so often invoked in favor of liberty, is the most terrible auxiliary of every form of despotism.”

Having established the necessity of limits to state power, Constant had to seek for a system of effective guarantees to maintain such limits.

After the Revolution and the Napoleonic period, it had become a fact too obvious for anyone to deny that the mere proclamation of a list of rights was in no way a sufficient guarantee of freedom:

All the constitutions which have been given to France have equally accorded individual liberty, and under the empire of these constitutions, individual liberty has been ceaselessly violated. The point is that a simple declaration does not suffice. What is required are positive safeguards; what is required are bodies powerful enough to employ in favor of the oppressed the means of defense sanctioned by the law.15

That is to say, if individual rights are not to be a dead letter, certain institutional arrangements must be developed and encouraged that can be counted on to work toward the maintenance of constitutional guarantees. In one sense, everything with which Constant concerned himself — from bicameralism, through freedom of the press and private property, to religion — may be viewed as an addition to the edifice of guarantees. In general, these positive guarantees may be divided into two sorts: there are those that are positively established by state action, and have to do with the form of the government itself, and there are those that consist in extragovernmental forces that there is good reason to believe can also be relied upon to serve the function of limiting government action to its proper sphere.

As regards the first category, Constant’s thinking represents no major innovation. Rather, his merit in this regard is that of having been the systematizer of the structure of the liberal state, to the point where an eminent French historian of thought could say of him that he “invented liberalism.”16

The method of limiting state power that, since the time of Montesquieu, had been thought of as most effective by the liberals was that of turning the state in against itself, through a system of division of powers. The author of The Spirit of the Laws had observed that “it is an eternal experience that anyone who possesses power tends to abuse it…. In order that power should not be abused, it is necessary so to arrange matters that power should be checked by power.”

If every increase in the power of some arm of the state could be counted on to meet the resistance of other arms of the state, then, because, while it extended the sphere of the former functionaries, it narrowed that of the latter, there would result another case of a great social good being achieved by tapping the vices of men. In this way, the will to power of state officials would be directed not so much against the rights of the people as against the power of other officials.

The system of checks and balances and the division of powers were not, therefore, what one social democratic writer has recently called them: “contrivances, so dear to the [classical] liberals, for guarding against the possibility that governments might govern”;17 they were instead reasonable institutionalized protections against the virtual certainty that governments would try to govern too much.

The system of checks and balances was, in Constant’s thought, to operate at many different points in the structure of government, and the general outlines of his scheme will be familiar enough to anyone acquainted with the American Constitution. There was to be a bicameral legislature, including a House of Peers to be selected independently of democratic opinion. This was an institution that had been demanded by the Anglophile, or moderate liberal, party as early as the first year of the Revolution, and a number of historians, including Acton, have seen in the rejection of this proposal the first ominous signs of the thoughtless Rousseauian spirit that was to lead to the Convention.

Constant further divided power between the legislature and the ministry, and between these two branches and the judiciary, which was to consist of judges whose immovability from office was guaranteed. A further limit on the power of the central government was implied in a system of departmental and municipal rights, an idea that had never found much acceptance in France, accustomed for centuries to the centralizing efforts of the monarchy.18

Besides the division of powers, another political guarantee of rights was to be found in a certain degree of popular representation in the government. But Constant insisted on restricting the franchise to property holders. The extent to which democracy was necessary for the maintenance of liberty could, he thought, be served by such a limited franchise, and he was skeptical of the benefits of a more democratic system. He had seen Napoleon made consul for life, and later emperor, on the basis of universal manhood suffrage; he saw that in the situation in which France found itself during the Restoration, it was primarily the more prosperous and educated classes that were the bearers of the new liberal ideas. The masses of workers and, especially, peasants, cared less for the introduction of a liberal state than for the preservation of the old ways, to which they were accustomed — indeed, this was the reason why the only significant group that was interested in a mass-based suffrage at this time was a certain wing of the reactionary party.19

A major reason for Constant’s disinclination to extend the franchise was the question of property:

If, to the liberty of the faculties and of industry, which you owe them [the lower classes], you join political rights, which you do not owe them, then these rights, in the hands of the greatest number will inevitably serve to invade property. They will march toward it by this irregular route, instead of following the natural route, labor….20

Although in historical retrospect the attempt to limit the franchise appears to have been unrealistic, Constant at least has the merit — as this passage shows — of having foreseen one of the principal features of modern democracy.

In addition to the guarantees of individual rights that were built into the system of government itself, Constant looked to certain social institutions to provide further guarantees. One of the most important of these was the press, and freedom of the press in this way took on a double character: it was itself a precious right, and it acted as one of the most powerful nonpolitical guarantees of all other rights as well. The function of the press as a tribune for those whose rights were violated was incessantly emphasized by Constant:

Everyone now knows that freedom of the press is nothing else than the guarantee that the acts of the government will be made known to the public, that it is the sole means of such publication, that without such publication the authorities are free to do what they will, and that to trammel freedom of the press is to place the life, property and person of every Frenchman in the hands of a few ministers.21

He looked, as we have mentioned, on the ministers, of whatever political complexion they happened to be at the moment, as the “eternal adversaries of freedom of the press.” During his career as deputy in the French legislature, at the period of the Bourbon Restoration, Constant tirelessly fought all the various expedients that an ingenious and anxious government devised to interfere with this freedom. He was considered the parliamentary expert on the subject, and, in view of the place that debates in the French legislature occupied in the affairs of the whole continent, the great European defender of this liberty.

An idea that seems to have originated with Constant is that a further guarantee against despotism is to be found in certain extragovernmental institutions capable of tying the loyalties of men against the day when the state might once again, as in the time of Robespierre, attempt to become the be-all and the end-all of social life. It was for this reason that he severely criticized the reckless spirit of uniformity and the senseless passion for pseudomathematical “symmetry” that inspired many of the Revolutionary measures — that, for instance, hatched Sieyes’s suggestion that the departments, having replaced the traditional provinces, should be designated by number rather than by name, and that led, at the Jacobin Club of Strasbourg, to the interesting question being raised of whether it might not, after all, be better to guillotine Alsatians who were “divisive” enough to cling to German as their chief language.

“It is remarkable,” observes Constant, “that absolute unity of action, without any limits, has never found greater favor than in a revolution made in the name of the rights of man.” Every institution with a claim to the loyalty of men was another potential enemy for a state aiming at total control; this was particularly true of such powerful social elements as regionalism:

The interests and memories which are born of local customs contain a germ of resistance which authority suffers only with regret, and which it hastens to eradicate. With individuals it has its way more easily; it rolls its enormous weight over them effortlessly, as over sand.22

It is in this light that we should also view Constant’s attitude toward religion, to the study of which he devoted many years. His works on this subject are no longer read, but they contributed to the post-18th-century attitude that no longer considered religion to have originated as a priestly invention (”when the first knave met the first fool”), but as a response to a deeply rooted need. The writers of the Enlightenment had also, with few exceptions, been bitterly hostile to organized religion in general, and particularly to the Catholic Church. Faced with an often savage religious intolerance, thinkers like Voltaire and Diderot explicitly championed control of the Church by the State,23 believing the only alternative to be the reverse order of control.

Constant, however, held that, given religious toleration as an established right, guaranteed as other rights were, religion could, from a strictly political point of view, serve the same sort of valuable function as regionalism. He welcomed it as a similar “divisive” element in social life, and warned against the proposal of the philosophes of combining the spiritual and political powers in the same hands:

What does it matter if spiritual pretensions have given way to political authority, if this authority makes of religion an instrument, and thus acts against liberty with a double force?24

Constant’s break with the Enlightenment and the Revolution by no means meant that he was sympathetic to the ideas then being advanced by conservative writers like de Maistre and Bonald, who attempted to erect the Christian notion of Original Sin into the theoretical underpinning for a system of oppression, arguing for a state strong enough to keep a firm check on natural man. Constant could not imagine how politicians could be thought not to have participated in the Fall, and saw no merit in this

bizarre notion according to which it is claimed that because men are corrupt, it is necessary to give certain of them all that much more power … on the contrary, they must be given less power, that is, one must skillfully combine institutions and place within them certain counterweights against the vices and weaknesses of men.25

Furthermore, his respect for traditions as encumbrances on government action did not mean that he was prepared, as were the conservative writers of his day, to enshrine simply any tradition. The touchstone for him was the employment of force in connection with the traditional arrangement. He rejected both the program of some of the Revolutionaries, who had been eager enough to use force to destroy traditions that did not fulfill their personal, “philosophical” values, and the program of the conservatives, who typically recommended the use of state power for opposite ends. Constant was content to leave changes in traditional institutions to the workings of forces outside of the state:

If I reject violent and forced improvements, I equally condemn the maintenance, by force, of what the progress of ideas tends to improve and reform insensibly.26

In the last analysis, Constant was as much an opponent of conservatism as of the Jacobin system, and on much the same grounds: both involved violent interference with the rightful sphere of the individual’s private judgment and action, the seedbed from which emerge the things that make social life worthwhile. It is interesting to note, in this connection, that when faced with the beginnings of the socialist movement, in the form of the Saint-Simonians, Constant thought it appropriate to associate them with the representatives of the closed societies of the past; they wished, he asserted, simply to be popes over the economic organization of society, and “priests of Memphis and Thebes” over its intellectual life.27

Benjamin Constant may serve as a good rebuttal to the stereotype of the classical liberal as antireligious, utilitarian, and fanatically democratic — a stereotype that is often employed by contemporary conservatives who insist on confusing classical liberalism with Philosophical Radicalism. And for everyone sincerely interested in discovering a liberalism that will avoid some of the errors of certain liberal thinkers of the past, Constant may be looked on as a good starting point.

This article originally appeared in the New Individualist Review, 1961.

  • 1The most complete biography of Constant in English is that of Elizabeth Schermerhorn, Benjamin Constant: His Private Life and His Contribution to the Cause of Liberal Government in France (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1924).
  • 2Published in Hannover, in 1813. It is reprinted in Edouard Laboulaye, ed.; Cours de Politique Constitutionnelle (Paris: Guillaumin, 1872), vol. ii, pp. 129-282. There have been several English translations of On the Spirit of Conquest, and the reader may consult this book for a good example of Constant’s political and social thought.
  • 3The inability of many of the French liberals to fully appreciate the operations of a spontaneous, undirected social order has been emphasized by F. A. Hayek; cf. his stimulating essay, “True and False Individualism,” in Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).
  • 4Cf. Henri Michel, L’Idee de l’Etat.
  • 5Cours de Politique Constitutionnelle, vol. ii, p. 559.
  • 6Commentaire sur l’ouvrage de Filangleri (Paris: Dufard, 1824), p. 70.
  • 7Ibid., pp. 55-70.
  • 8Ibid., p. 14.
  • 9Cours, vol. i, p. 9.
  • 10Ibid.
  • 11Ibid., vol. ii, p. 541.
  • 12Ibid., p. 545.
  • 13Ibid., vol. i, pp. 10-11.
  • 14Ibid., p. 280.
  • 15Ibid., p. 146.
  • 16Emile Faguet, Politiques et Moralistes du Dix-neuvième Siècle (Paris: Société Française d’Imprimerie, 1891), p. 255.
  • 17Harry K. Girvetz, The Evolution of Liberalism (New York: Collier, 1963), p. 105. In this passage, Prof. Girvetz goes so far as to include even “bills of rights” within the sweep of his Voltairian irony. Since he prefers to consider himself a “liberal,” his book turns out to be a good illustration of its own sad theme.
  • 18Constant’s constitutional ideas are elaborated on in his Principes de Politiques and Reflexions sur les Constitutions et les Garanties, both reprinted in the Cours, vol. i, pp. 1-381.
  • 19Georges Weill, La France sous la Monarchie constitutionnelle (Paris: Alcan, 1912), p. 5. As a rule, conservatives rejected democracy in the 19th century because of its connection with the French Revolution, and because they viewed it as part and parcel of the newfangled liberal system. But the rivulet of conservative thinking that looked on democracy as a good tactic for depriving the liberal middle classes of predominance in the legislatures was sufficiently important to merit more attention than it has been given. Its chief practical consequence was the establishment of universal manhood suffrage in the Constitution of the North German Confederation, in 1867, by the Junker Bismarck, who was explicitly guided by the consideration just cited (cf. Gustav Mayer, Bismarck und Lassalle , pp. 33-39). The obvious fact that if the masses are antiliberal democracy will be as much a peril to liberty as any other system is now forcing itself on the attention of even its more unreserved panegyrists, as they reflect on the civil-liberties controversy in the United States; concern with this problem is sometimes put in the form of the question: “If put to a plebiscite, could the Bill of Rights gain a majority in America today?”
  • 20Cours, vol. i, p. 55.
  • 21Ibid., p. lxi.
  • 22Ibid., vol. ii, pp. 170-171.
  • 23Kingsley Martin, French Liberal Thought in the Eighteenth Century (London: Turnstile, 1954), pp. 136-37.
  • 24Filangieri, p. 27.
  • 25Cited in Georges de Lauris, Benjamin Constant et les Idées Libérales (Paris: Plon, 1904), p. 6.
  • 26Cours, vol. ii, p. 172n.
  • 27Sébastien Charléty, Histoire du Saint-Simonisme (Paris: Hachette, 1896), p. 54.
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