Benjamin Constant

Last updated

Benjamin Constant
Roche - Portrait de Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), ecrivain et homme politique - P1679 - Musee Carnavalet.jpg
Portrait by Hercule de Roche, c. 1820
Member of the Chamber of Deputies
In office
14 April 1819 8 December 1830
Isabelle de Charriere, a Dutch-Swiss intellectual with whom Constant conducted an extensive correspondence Isabelle de Charriere - Jens Juel.gif
Isabelle de Charrière, a Dutch-Swiss intellectual with whom Constant conducted an extensive correspondence

Ancient and modern freedom

One of the first thinkers to go by the name of "liberal", Constant looked to Britain rather than to ancient Rome for a practical model of freedom in a large mercantile society. He drew a distinction between the "Liberty of the Ancients" and the "Liberty of the Moderns". [18] The Liberty of the Ancients was a participatory republican liberty, which gave the citizens the right to influence politics directly through debates and votes in the public assembly. [18] To support this degree of participation, citizenship was a burdensome moral obligation requiring a considerable investment of time and energy. Generally, this required a sub-society of slaves to do much of the productive work, leaving the citizens free to deliberate on public affairs. Ancient Liberty was also limited to relatively small and homogenous male societies, in which they could be conveniently gathered together in one place to transact public affairs. [18]

The Liberty of the Moderns, in contrast, was based on the possession of civil liberties, the rule of law, and freedom from excessive state interference. Direct participation would be limited: a necessary consequence of the size of modern states, and also the inevitable result of having created a mercantile society in which there were no slaves but almost everybody had to earn a living through work. Instead, the voters would elect representatives, who would deliberate in Parliament on behalf of the people and would save citizens from daily political involvement. [18]

Critique of the French Revolution

He criticised several aspects of the French Revolution, and the failures of the social and political upheaval. He stated how the French attempted to apply ancient republican liberties to a modern state. Constant realized that freedom meant drawing a line between a person's private life and that of state interference. [19] He praised the noble spirit of regenerating the state. However, he stated that it was naïve for writers to believe that two thousand years had not brought some changes in the customs and needs of the people. The dynamics of the state had changed. Ancient populations paled in comparison to the size of modern countries. He even argued that with a large population, man had no role in government regardless of its form or type. Constant emphasised how citizens in ancient states found more satisfaction in the public sphere and less in their private lives whereas modern people favoured their private life.

Constant's repeated denunciation of despotism pervaded his critique of French political philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Abbé de Mably. [20] These writers, influential in the French Revolution, according to Constant, mistook authority for liberty and approved any means of extending the action of the state. Alleged reformers used the model of public force of the Ancien Régime, and organised the most absolute despotism in the name of the Republic. He continually condemned despotism, citing the contradiction of a liberty derived from despotism, and the vacuous nature of this ideology.

Furthermore, he pointed out the detrimental nature of the Reign of Terror, as an inexplicable delirium. In François Furet's words, Constant's "entire political thought" revolved around this question, namely the problem of how to justify the Terror. [21] Constant understood the revolutionaries' disastrous over-investment in the political sphere. [19] The French revolutionaries such as the Sans-culottes were the primary force in the streets. They promoted constant vigilance in public. Constant pointed out how despite the most obscure life, the quietest existence, the most unknown name, it offered no protection during the Reign of Terror. The pervasive mob mentality deterred many right thinking people and helped to usher in despots such as Napoleon.

Commerce preferable to war

Moreover, Constant believed that, in the modern world, commerce was superior to war. He attacked Napoleon's belligerence, on the grounds that it was illiberal and no longer suited to modern commercial social organization. Ancient Liberty tended to rely on war, whereas a state organized on the principles of Modern Liberty would tend to be at peace with all other peaceful nations.

Painting by Marguerite Gerard, Mme de Stael et sa fille (around 1805); de Stael was Constant's partner and intellectual collaborator Mme de Stael avec sa fille Albertine.png
Painting by Marguerite Gérard, Mme de Staël et sa fille (around 1805); de Staël was Constant's partner and intellectual collaborator
Charlotte von Hardenberg, Constant's second, "secret" wife Johann Heinrich Schroder zugeschrieben, Portrait der Grafin Charlotte von Hardenberg.jpg
Charlotte von Hardenberg, Constant's second, "secret" wife
Madame Recamier (1777-1849) by Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard Juliette Recamier was a friend and intellectual correspondent of Constant Madame Recamier (1777-1849) by Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard.jpg
Madame Récamier (1777–1849) by Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard Juliette Récamier was a friend and intellectual correspondent of Constant

Constant believed that if liberty were to be salvaged from the aftermath of the Revolution, then the chimera of Ancient Liberty had to be reconciled with the practical to achieve Modern Liberty. England, since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the United Kingdom after 1707, had demonstrated the practicality of Modern Liberty and Britain was a constitutional monarchy. Constant concluded that constitutional monarchy was better suited than republicanism to maintaining Modern Liberty. He was instrumental in drafting the "Acte Additional" of 1815, which transformed Napoleon's restored rule into a modern constitutional monarchy. [22] This was only to last for "One Hundred Days" before Napoleon was defeated, but Constant's work nevertheless provided a means of reconciling monarchy with liberty. Indeed, the French Constitution (or Charter) of 1830 could be seen as a practical implementation of many of Constant's ideas: a hereditary monarchy existing alongside an elected Chamber of Deputies and a senatorial Chamber of Peers, with the executive power vested in responsible ministers. Thus, although often ignored in France, because of his Anglo-Saxon sympathies, Constant succeeded in contributing in a profound (albeit indirect) way to French constitutional traditions.

Constitutional monarchy

Secondly, Constant developed a new theory of constitutional monarchy, in which royal power was intended to be a neutral power, protecting, balancing and restraining the excesses of the other active powers (the executive, legislature, and judiciary). This was an advance on the prevailing theory in the English-speaking world, which, following the opinion of William Blackstone, the 18th-century English jurist, had regarded the King as head of the executive branch.[ citation needed ] In Constant's scheme, the executive power would be entrusted to a Council of Ministers (or Cabinet) who, although appointed by the King, were ultimately accountable to Parliament. In making this clear theoretical distinction between the powers of the King (as head of state) and the ministers (as Executive), Constant was responding to the political reality which had become apparent in Britain for more than a century: that is, the ministers, and not the King, are responsible actors, and the King "reigns but does not rule". This was important for the development of parliamentary government in France and elsewhere. The King was not to be a powerless cipher in Constant's scheme. He would have many powers, including the power to make judicial appointments, to dissolve the Chamber and call new elections, to appoint the peers, and to dismiss ministers – but he would not be able to govern, make policy, or direct the administration, since that would be the task of the responsible ministers. This theory was literally applied in Portugal (1822) and Brazil (1824), where the King/Emperor was explicitly given "Moderating Powers" rather than executive power. Elsewhere (for example, the 1848 "Statuto albertino" of the Kingdom of Sardinia, which later became the basis of the Italian constitution from 1861) the executive power was notionally vested in the King, but was exercised only by the responsible ministers.

He advocated the separation of powers as a basis for a liberal State, but unlike Montesquieu and most of the liberal thinkers, he advocated five powers instead of three. They were:

  1. the Monarch or Moderator,
  2. the Executive,
  3. the Representative Power of Opinion,
  4. the Representative Power of Tradition and
  5. the Judiciary.

Thus the Moderating Power was a monarch, a type of judge, who was not part of government, but served as a neutral power to the government, the Executive Power was vested in the ministers that the monarch appointed and they were, collectively, the head of government, the Representative Powers were a separation of the Monstesquieu's Legislative power, with the Representative Power of Opinion being an elected body to represent the opinion of the citizenry and the Representative Power of Tradition was a hereditary House of Peers and the judiciary was similar to the Montesquieu's Judicial Power. [23]

Constant's other concerns included a "new type of federalism": a serious attempt to decentralize French government through the devolution of powers to elected municipal councils. This proposal reached fruition in 1831, when elected municipal councils (albeit on a narrow franchise) were created.

Imperialism and conquest

Constant was an opponent of imperialism and conquest, denouncing french colonial policy in the West Indies and elsewhere as racist, unjust, and a violation of basic principles of human equality. He supported an extension of civil and political rights to non-white colonial subjects. He supported the Haitian revolution, and argued that the institutions set up by Haitians were evidence that non-Europeans could found institutions equivalent to those of Europeans. He was a staunch proponent of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. [24]

Comparative religion

Aside from his political and literary output, Constant spent forty years working on religion and religious feeling. His publications demonstrate his desire to grasp this social phenomenon inherent to human nature, which, in whatever forms it may present, is always a search for perfectibility. If its manifestations become rigid, splitting becomes inevitable. Thus, however religious feeling may present, it needs to adapt and evolve.

Constant is adamant that political authority should not meddle in the religious beliefs of the citizenry, even to defend them. In his view it is up to each person to decide where to seek their consolation, moral compass or faith. External authority cannot act upon someone's convictions, it can only act upon their interests. [25] He also condemns a religion that is commonly regarded as utilitarian, since it degrades authentic religious feeling.

He considers that it was necessary for polytheism to decline in line with human progress. The more humans progress in their understanding, the more beneficial the effects of theism. [26] Belief in a god has itself evolved. Christianity, especially protestantism is, he argues, its most tolerant form and an indicator of intellectual, moral and spiritual evolution.


Constant published only one novel during his lifetime, Adolphe (1816), the story of a young, indecisive man's disastrous love affair with an older mistress. A first-person novel in the sentimentalist tradition, Adolphe examines the thoughts of the young man as he falls in and out of love with Ellenore, a woman of uncertain virtue. Constant began the novel as an autobiographical tale of two loves, but decided that the reading public would object to serial passions. The love affair depicted in the finished version of the novel is thought to be based on Constant's affair with Anna Lindsay, who describes the affair in her correspondence (published in the Revue des Deux Mondes, December 1930 – January 1931). The book has been compared to Chateaubriand's René or Mme de Stael's Corinne. [15] As a young man, Constant became acquainted with a literary friend of his uncle, David-Louis Constant de Rebecque. She was Isabelle de Charrière, a Dutch woman of letters with whom he jointly wrote an epistolary novel, under the title, Les Lettres d'Arsillé fils, Sophie Durfé et autres. [27]


The importance of Constant's writings on the liberty of the ancients and of that of his time has dominated understanding of his work, as has his critique of the French Revolution. [28] The British philosopher and historian of ideas, Sir Isaiah Berlin has acknowledged his debt to Constant. [29]

Constant's wider literary and cultural writings (most importantly the novella Adolphe and his extensive history of comparative religion) emphasised the importance of self-sacrifice and effect of human emotions as a basis for social living. Thus, while he pleaded for individual liberty as vital for individual and moral development and appropriate for modernity, he felt that egoism and self-interest were not part of a true definition of individual liberty. Emotional authenticity and fellow-feeling were critical. In this, his moral and religious thought was strongly influenced by the moral writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and German thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, whom he read in reference to his religious history.




Autobiographical writings


Intimate Diary

See also

Related Research Articles

Jacques Necker French statesman (1732–1804)

Jacques Necker was a Genevan banker and statesman who served as finance minister for Louis XVI. He was a reformer, but his innovations sometimes caused great discontent. Necker was a constitutional monarchist, a political economist, and a moralist, who wrote a severe critique of the new principle of equality before the law.

Charles de Rémusat French politician and writer

Charles François Marie, Comte de Rémusat, was a French politician and writer.

François Guizot French historian, orator and statesman

François Pierre Guillaume Guizot was a French historian, orator, and statesman. Guizot was a dominant figure in French politics prior to the Revolution of 1848.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Germaine de Staël</span> Swiss/French author (1766–1817)

Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, commonly known as Madame de Staël, was a French woman of letters and political theorist, the daughter of banker and French finance minister Jacques Necker and Suzanne Curchod, a leading salonnière. She was a voice of moderation in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era up to the French Restoration. She was present at the Estates General of 1789 and at the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Her intellectual collaboration with Benjamin Constant between 1794 and 1810 made them one of the most celebrated intellectual couples of their time. She discovered sooner than others the tyrannical character and designs of Napoleon. For many years she lived as an exile – firstly during the Reign of Terror and later due to personal persecution by Napoleon.

Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire

Jean-Baptiste Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, often styled Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, was a French ecclesiastic, preacher, journalist, theologian and political activist. He re-established the Dominican Order in post-Revolutionary France. Lacordaire was reputed to be the greatest pulpit orator of the nineteenth century.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Raymond Aron</span> French philosopher, sociologist, journalist and political scientist (1905–1983)

Raymond Claude Ferdinand Aron was a French philosopher, sociologist, political scientist, historian and journalist, one of France's most prominent thinkers of the 20th century.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Victor de Broglie (1785–1870)</span> French politician (1785–1870)

Achille Léonce Victor Charles, 3rd Duke of Broglie, briefly Victor de Broglie, was a French peer, statesman, and diplomat. He was the third duke of Broglie and served as president of the Council during the July Monarchy, from August 1830 to November 1830 and from March 1835 to February 1836. Victor de Broglie was close to the liberal Doctrinaires who opposed the ultra-royalists and were absorbed, under Louis-Philippe's rule, by the Orléanists.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Louis de Bonald</span> French philosopher (1754–1840)

Louis Gabriel Ambroise, Vicomte de Bonald was a French counter-revolutionary philosopher and politician. He is mainly remembered for developing a theoretical framework from which French sociology would emerge.

The Ultra-royalists were a French political faction from 1815 to 1830 under the Bourbon Restoration. An Ultra was usually a member of the nobility of high society who strongly supported Roman Catholicism as the state and only legal religion of France, the Bourbon monarchy, traditional hierarchy between classes and census suffrage against popular will and the interests of the bourgeoisie and their liberal and democratic tendencies.

Liberal Catholicism Liberal branch within the Catholic Church

Liberal Catholicism was a current of thought within the Catholic Church. It was influential in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, especially in France. It is largely identified with French political theorists such as Felicité Robert de Lamennais, Henri Lacordaire, and Charles Forbes René de Montalembert influenced, in part, by a similar contemporaneous movement in Belgium.

<i>Delphine</i> (novel)

Delphine is the first novel by Germaine de Staël, published in 1802. The book is written in epistolary form and examines the limits of women's freedom in an aristocratic society. Although de Staël denied political intent, the book was controversial enough for Napoleon to exile the author.

During the Bourbon Restoration (1814–1830) and the July Monarchy (1830–1848), the Doctrinals were a group of French royalists who hoped to reconcile the monarchy with the French Revolution and power with liberty. Headed by Royer-Collard, these liberal royalists were in favor of a constitutional monarchy, but with a heavily restricted census suffrage—Louis XVIII, who had been restored to the throne, had granted a Charter to the French with a Chamber of Peers and a Chamber of Deputies elected under tight electoral laws. The Doctrinaires were a centrist, as well as a conservative-liberal group, but at that time, liberal was considered to be the mainstream political left, so the group was considered a centre-left group.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marcel Gauchet</span> French historian, philosopher, and sociologist

Marcel Gauchet is a French historian, philosopher, and sociologist. He is professor emeritus of the Centre de recherches politiques Raymond Aron at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and head of the periodical Le Débat. Gauchet is one of France's most prominent contemporary intellectuals. He has written widely on such issues as the political consequences of modern individualism, the relation between religion and democracy, and the dilemmas of globalisation.

Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on the rights of the individual, liberty, consent of the governed and equality before the law. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but they generally support individual rights, liberal democracy, secularism, rule of law, economic and political freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, private property and a market economy.

David-Louis Constant de Rebecque

David-Louis, Baron de Constant de Rebecque, seigneur d'Hermenches and Villars-Mendraz, a.k.a. David-Louis Constant d'Hermenches was a colonel and commandant of a Swiss regiment in the Dutch Republic and Maréchal de camp in French service with Swiss regiments. He is also known for his contact with Voltaire and his correspondence with Isabelle de Charrière.

Charles de Villers French philosopher

Charles François Dominique de Villers was a French philosopher. He was mainly responsible for translating the philosophy of Immanuel Kant into the French language.

Rosalie de Constant, was a Swiss illustrator and naturalist.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Julie Talma</span> French dancer

Julie Talma, born Louise-Julie Careau, was a French dancer at the Paris Opera who became a courtesan in the years before the French Revolution. She had three sons by three different fathers. She used the gifts from her protectors to make a small fortune in real estate speculation. She married the well-known tragic actor François-Joseph Talma a few days before giving birth to twin sons. Her husband was unfaithful and ruined her. They separated and eventually divorced. Julie Talma was charming, intelligent, strong-willed, rational and a firm republican. She held an influential salon before and during the revolution and at the start of Napoleon's rise to power, and became a close friend of Benjamin Constant. Their lengthy correspondence has been preserved.

Coppet group 19th century French intellectual circle

The Coppet group, also known as the Coppet circle, was an informal intellectual and literary gathering centred on Germaine de Staël during the time period between the establishment of the Napoleonic First Empire (1804) and the Bourbon Restoration of 1814–1815. The name comes from Coppet Castle in Switzerland.


  1. Renée Winegarten (2008). Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant. Yale University Press. p. 82. ISBN   978-0300119251. He was granted French nationality in 1797 according to a law passed in 1790 to restore their citizenship to French people exiled on account of their religion.
  2. Ralph Raico, Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2012, p. 222.
  3. Garonna, Paolo (2010). L'Europe de Coppet – Essai sur l'Europe de demain (in French). Le Mont-sur-Lausanne: LEP Éditions Loisirs et Pėdagogie. p. 42. ISBN   978-2606013691.
  4. Benjamin Constant: French Liberal Extraordinaire, Mises Institute
  5. Craiutu, A. (2012) A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748–1830, pp. 199, 202–203
  6. Edmund Fawcett, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (2nd ed. 2018) pp. 33–48
  7. "Benjamin Constant: philosophe, historien, romancier, homme d'éta". Ardent Media. p. 38 via Google Books.
  8. "The Cambridge Companion to Constant". Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  9. "Cahier Rouge, p. 122". 11 August 2013. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  10. Their affair resulted in one presumed daughter Albertine.
  11. Étienne Hofmann, Les « Principes de politique » de Benjamin Constant, Librairie Droz, 1980, vol. 1. pp. 187–193. ISBN   2600046747
  12. Wood, Dennis (1987). Benjamin Constant. Ardent Media. p. 222.
  13. "Un journaliste contre-révolutionnaire, Jean-Gabriel Peltier (1760–1825) – Etudes Révolutionnaires". 7 October 2011. Archived from the original on 3 December 2013. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  14. Madame de Stael (1862). Madame De Stael and the Grand-Duchess Louise. p.  24.
  15. 1 2 G. Lanson, P. Tuffrau, Manuel d'histoire de la Littérature Française, Hachette, Paris 1953
  16. Wood, Dennis (2002). Benjamin Constant: A Biography. Routledge. p. 185.
  17. Location: in division 29.
  18. 1 2 3 4 "Constant, Benjamin, 1988, 'The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns' (1819), in The Political Writings of Benjamin Constant, ed. Biancamaria Fontana, Cambridge, pp. 309–328". Archived from the original on 5 August 2012. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  19. 1 2 Rosenblatt 2004
  20. Bertholet, Auguste (2021). "Constant, Sismondi et la Pologne". Annales Benjamin Constant. 46: 65–85.
  21. Furet 1981, p. 27
  22. "The Act Additional 1815".
  23. Culver, John W.; de Oliveira Torres, Joao Camillo (May 1968). "A democracia coroada. Teoria politica de Imperio do Brasil". The Hispanic American Historical Review. 48 (2): 338. doi:10.2307/2510809. ISSN   0018-2168. JSTOR   2510809.
  24. Pitts, Jennifer (2005). A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France. Princeton University Press. pp. 173–183. ISBN   978-1400826636.
  25. Constant. Principes de politique, Livre VIII, chapitre IV
  26. Constant. Polythéisme romain, II, p. 312
  27. Wood, Dennis. Isabelle de Charrière et Benjamin Constant. À propos d'une découverte récente. [Sur Les Lettres d'Arsillé fils, Sophie Durfé et autres, roman écrit par Benjamin Constant et Madame de Charrière.] In : Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century; 215. (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 1982), p. 273–279.
  28. Hofmann, Étienne, ed. (1982). Benjamin Constant, Madame de Staël et le Groupe de Coppet: Actes du Deuxième Congrès de Lausanne à l'occasion du 150e anniversaire de la mort de Benjamin Constant Et Du Troisième Colloque de Coppet, 15–19 juilliet 1980 (in French). Oxford, The Voltaire Foundation and Lausanne, Institut Benjamin Constant. ISBN   0729402800.
  29. Rosen, Frederick (2005). Classical Utilitarianism from Hume to Mill. Routledge. p. 251. According to Berlin, the most eloquent of all defenders of freedom and privacy [was] Benjamin Constant, who had not forgotten the Jacobin dictatorship.
  30. Henriot, Émile. « Benjamin Constant inédit », sur, 20 juin 1951 (accessed 17 February 2020).

Further reading

Other languages