Swiss‐born thinker, politician, author, and activist Benjamin Constant defended freedom in France against the ancien regime, the Terror, and Napoleon.
The French thinker Benjamin Constant was, according to respected Oxford University scholar Isaiah Berlin, “the most eloquent of all defenders of freedom and privacy.”
Constant insisted that individual liberty is a moral principle. “Tell a man,” he wrote, “you have the right not to be put to death or despoiled. You give him an entirely different sense of security and guarantee than if you tell him: it is not useful that you should be arbitrarily put to death or despoiled.”
Before the French Revolution, monarchy was generally considered the big enemy of liberty. After the French Revolution turned into totalitarian terror, and Napoleon introduced the modern police state, Constant became perhaps the first to recognize that the most serious threat to liberty is political power itself. He understood that the key issue isn’t who exercises power or how they acquired it but how much power they have over people’s lives.
“For forty years,” he reflected, “I have defended the same principle: freedom in everything, in religion, in philosophy, in literature, in industry, in politics — and by freedom I mean the triumph of the individual both over an authority that would wish to govern by despotic means and over the masses who claim the right to make a minority subservient to a majority…The majority has the right to oblige the minority to respect public order, but everything which does not disturb public order, everything which is purely personal such as our opinions, everything which, in giving expression to opinions, does no harm to others either by provoking physical violence or opposing contrary opinions, everything which, in industry, allows a rival industry to flourish freely — all this is something individual that cannot legitimately be surrendered to the power of the state.”
Constant was a cosmopolitan man. He moved easily among intellectuals in France, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Britain as well as his native Switzerland. He absorbed the ideas of Baron de Montesquieu about law and the ideas of Adam Smith and Jean‐Baptiste Say about markets. He was a friend of the German political thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt and the German literary geniuses Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. In the French Chamber of Deputies, Constant championed civil liberties with the legendary Lafayette.
Novelist/playwright Victor Hugo believed that Constant was “one of those rare men, who furbish, polish, and sharpen the general ideas of their times.” Lafayette remembered Constant, “Endowed with one of the most extensive and varied esprits which has ever existed…the master of all the languages and literatures of Europe, he united to the highest degree sagacity…and the faculty, especially attributable to the French school, of making clear abstract ideas.”
Constant was an eyeful. “His appearance was striking,” noted biographer J. Christopher Herold, “tall and gangling, in his late twenties; a pale, freckled face surmounted by a shock of flamboyant red hair, braided at the nape and held up by a small comb; a nervous tic; red‐rimmed myopic [blue] eyes; ironic mouth; a long, finely curved nose; long torso, poor posture, slightly pot‐bellied, long‐legged, wearing a long flapping riding coat — a decidedly gauche, unhandsome, yet interesting and attractive figure of a man, certainly somebody altogether out of the ordinary.”
By his 50s, Constant had become a familiar figure as a member of the Chamber of Deputies, the French elected legislative body where he was an outstanding champion for liberty, especially freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Baron de Loeve‐Veimars recalled “His hair was blond and turning white, and on his head he wore an old round hat. He carried under his arm a coat, books, manuscripts, printer’s proofs, a copy of the budget and his crutch. Once he had got rid of all these impedimenta and was seated on his bench, on the far left, he began to write and send off an unbelievable quantity of letters and notes to people.” According to historian Paul Thureau‐Dangin, “he showed great skill in argument, rare presence of mind, he had a way of saying everything, despite legal restrictions, so that even the most intolerant audience understood what he was implying, and he was nimble enough to slip through his opponent’s fingers and to stand up for himself even in the tightest corner.”
As Constant began the story of his life, he wrote that “I was born on 25 October 1767, in Lausanne, Switzerland, the son of Henriette de Chandieu, who was from a formerly French family which had taken refuge in the Pays de Vaud for religious reasons, and Juste Constant de Rebecque, a colonel in a Swiss regiment in the service of Holland. My mother died as a result of giving birth, a week after I was born.”
He had a succession of tutors. He went to the University of Erlangen (Bavaria) where he began learning German and became addicted to gambling. Then he transferred to the University of Edinburgh whose faculty included such distinguished friends of liberty as Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and Dugald Stewart. Constant mainly studied history and Greek. After two years, he went to Paris and studied with the intellectual Jean‐Baptiste‐Antoine Suard whose friends included philosopher Marquis de Condorcet and the freedom fighter La Fayette.
On September 18, 1794, Constant met 28‐year‐old Germaine de Stael on a road between Nyon and Coppet, Switzerland. Her father Jacques Necker was a Geneva banker with considerable influence in France. She was married off to Eric‐Magnus de Stael, impecunious Swedish aristocrat who became ambassador to France. She emerged as the most influential woman in Europe — brilliant, bold, vain and sensuous. “She was not adverse to displaying those physical advantages which she undeniably had,” noted biographer J. Christopher Herold, “her voluptuous arms, which she always left bare; a generous bosom, which she did not cover even when traveling; and a pair of legs whose substantial proportions seemed to assert the presence of the flesh, lest anyone should suspect her of being pure intellect.”
She launched a fabled salon which attracted the leading lights of French life, including Condorcet and Lafayette (who abandoned his “Marquis” title during the Revolution). Constant admired Madame de Stael for operating a remarkable network to help friends escape from the French Reign of Terror. Explained biographer J. Christopher Herold: “No mishap ever occurred. Some of Germaine’s rescue agents were volunteers, but most of them worked for money. This ‘traffic in human flesh,’ as she called it, cost her dearly; one of the rescues set her back by 40,000 francs.” She helped liberate others like Lafayette who was imprisoned by the Austrians.
One of Madame de Stael’s friends, Jean Lambert Tallien, launched the political attack on Maximilien Robespierre which brought his overthrow and execution on July 27, 1794, ending the Reign of Terror. The following year, Constant and Stael ventured to Paris and witnessed the ruins of revolution amidst runaway inflation. There was unrest because of high taxes, forced loans, military conscription and the seizure of gold, silver and art works. Poor people resented greedy government officials who seized their crops and their sons. There were price controls, chronic shortages and endless lines for the simplest things like bread. In once‐prosperous Lyons, an estimated 13,000 out of 15,000 shopkeepers were driven out of business. The government responded by ordering dissidents arrested, suppressing newspapers and deporting editors. On November 9, 1799, the bold and resourceful general Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and proceeded to establish a police state.
To look at least a little like representative government, Napoleon had a Tribunate whose members received a 15,000-franc salary and were expected not to cause any trouble. Constant was appointed a Tribune, but in his first address, January 5, 1800, he presented a case for freedom of speech. Then he denounced Napoleon’s absolute power and was dismissed.
Constant fled with Madame de Stael to Coppet, her family estate near Geneva. Then they travelled to Weimar, Germany where he got to know Goethe (1749–1832) and Schiller (1759–1805). “With Benjamin Constant,” Goethe noted in a memoir, “I enjoyed many hours of the most pleasurable and profitable intercourse…the efforts he made to attune my ideas to his conceptions and as it were to translate them into his own language — all this was of the greatest help to me…”
Constant’s autobiographical novel Adolphe, which chronicled the ups and downs of an affair between Adolphe and a Polish woman named Ellenore, was presumed to be based on Constant’s affair with Stael which ended in 1808. By the time the novel was published in1816, Constant had married Charlotte von Hardenberg who offered him the closest thing he would ever know to domestic harmony.
Meanwhile, Napoleon had emerged as a world‐class monster. As historian Paul Johnson wrote, Napoleon “created the first modern police state, and he exported it. Austria, Prussia, and Russia all learned from the methods of Joseph Fouche, Bonaparte’s minister of police, from 1799 to 1814…Over 2 million people died as direct consequence of Bonaparte’s campaigns, many more through poverty and disease and undernourishment. Countless villages had been burned in the paths of the advancing and retreating armies. Almost every capital in Europe had been occupied — some, like Vienna, Dresden, Berlin and Madrid, more than once. ‘Moscow had been put to the torch…The wars set back the economic life of much of Europe for a generation. They made men behave like beasts, and worse…in Spain, French stragglers were stripped and roasted alive, and in Russia the serfs buried them up to their necks in mud and ice for the wolves to feed on.”
In late November 1813, Constant started writing a pamphlet, De l’esprit de conquete et de l’usurpation [The Spirit of Conquest] which told how a police state crushes private life. The Hanover edition of L’Esprit de conquete appeared on January 30, 1814. This was followed by a London edition (March), and two Paris editions (April, July).
The British and their allies entered Paris on March 31, 1814. On April 6th, the Senate, whose members were nominated by Napoleon, voted to depose him. He found sanctuary on the island of Elba, between Corsica and western Italy. The British favored the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy as the best bet for peace — the Bourbon heir Comte de Province, Louis XVIII, had been an exile in Britain. He issued the Charte, another French constitution, which promised religious toleration, equality before the law, freedom of the press and a two‐chamber legislature.
Ultra‐royalists, led by the king’s brother the Comte d’Artois, were outraged that the king would embrace such liberal ideas. Among those defending Ultra views was Felicite Robert de Lamennais (1782–1854) whose Essai sur l’indifference en matiere de religion (1817) attacked individualism and liberalism as he asserted the supreme authority of the infallible Pope. The Vicomte de Bonald (Louis Gabriel Ambroise, 1754–1840) maintained that sovereignty belonged not to the people but to an absolute monarch. The leading European conservative thinker was Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) who denounced reason, liberty and democracy, insisting that the only alternative to chaos was a Catholic king.
Constant responded to the Ultras by writing pamphlets which emphasized the importance of limiting government power. For instance, in Les Reflexions sur les Constitutions (Reflections on Constitutions and the Necessary Guarantees), he insisted on the primacy of civil liberties. When censors suppressed this pamphlet, Constant wrote another, De la liberte des brochures, des pamphlets et des journaux [Freedom of Pamphlets and Newspapers].
On March 1, 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba and landed on the Cape d’Antibes, near Cannes, with about 800,000 gold francs and 1,100 soldiers, and they marched toward Paris. As they proceeded north, more soldiers joined them. Although Constant had loathed the Bourbon kings, he gave Louis XVIII credit for acknowledging some liberal principles, and he wrote an attack on Napoleon, published in Journal de Paris on March 11th. He followed this with a March 19th attack in Journal des debats. The next day, Napoleon entered Paris, and Constant went into hiding at Angers, about 150 miles southwest of Paris. Napoleon declared a general amnesty, the two men met on April 14th, and Napoleon told him: “I need the support of the nation. In return, the nation will ask for liberty; she shall have it.”
Constant adapted the constitution which had been accepted by Louis XVIII, and on April 24th Napoleon accepted a modified version with a two‐chamber legislature, civilian control of the military, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, freedom of association, free trade and trial by jury. The Acte Additionnel aux Constitutions de l’Empire, known as La Benjamine, was approved in a plebicite and proclaimed June 1st.
Constant had been working on Principes de politique (Principles of Politics), and it was published in May as an analysis of constitutional principles. “The citizens possess individual rights independently of all social and political authority,” he wrote, “and any authority which violates these rights becomes illegitimate…No authority can call these rights into question without destroying its own credentials.”
Constant explained that unlimited power is dangerous whether exercised in the name of a king or the people: “Arbitrary power destroys morality, for there can be no morality without security; there are no gentle affections without the certainty that the objects of these affections rest safe under the shield of their innocence…When sovereignty is unlimited, there is no means of sheltering individuals from governments.” Referring to totalitarian thinker Jean‐Jacques Rousseau, Constant added, “It is in vain…to submit governments to the general will. It is always they who dictate the content of this will, and all your precautions become illusory…What matters to us is not that our rights should not be violated by one power without the approval of another, but rather than any violation should be equally forbidden to all powers alike.”
Before anything could come of the new constitution, the Prussian general Marshal Blucher and the British Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley) gathered 213,000 British, Prussian, Dutch and Belgian soldiers and on June 18th routed Napoleon at Waterloo, near Brussels. Napoleon tried to stay in power, but Lafayette, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, demanded Napoleon’s abdication. He was banished to a shabby pink six‐room house (shared with his top officers and families) on St. Helena, a British‐controlled volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean about 1,140 miles east of South Africa, where he was to die a half‐dozen years later. Allied armies entered Paris on July 7, 1815, and the following day Louis XVIII was back.
Constant settled down with his wife Charlotte. Madame de Stael died of a stroke in Paris, July 17, 1817, at 51. While trying to jump over a garden wall, Constant injured his hip, and for the rest of his life he needed crutches to get around.
In 1817, the liberal‐leaning Minister Elie Decazes pushed through an extension of the voting franchise to every Frenchman over 30 who paid more than 300 francs of taxes — about 88,000 out of an estimated 30 million people. Constant and Lafayette were elected to the Chamber of Deputies from Sarthe, a district in central France. They emerged as leaders of the new Liberal party. Constant edited the newspaper Minerve Francaise.
Constant defied laws which prohibited seditious speech and writing, denied court appeals and required that sentences be carried out within 24 hours. He produced dozens of newspaper articles and pamphlets, and he delivered hundreds of speeches. Nobody was as steadfast a champion of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. He went on to launch a campaign against the African slave trade. He kept attacking slavery for years through articles and speeches.
In 1819, Constant delivered a lecture at the Athenee Royal, Paris, “De la liberty des anciens comparee a cell des modernes” (“On liberty ancient and modern”). He discussed the vision of liberty which developed in England and the United States: “It is for every one 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 the right of each person to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to practice the form of worship they prefer, or simply to fill the days and hours in a way which best suits their inclinations and fancies.”
Constant hailed commerce which “inspires in men a vivid love of individual independence. Commerce supplies their needs, satisfies their desires, without the intervention of the authorities…Every time collective power wishes to meddle with private speculations, it harasses the speculators. Every time governments pretend to do our own business, they do it more incompetently and expensively than we would.”
In 1822, Constant wrote a remarkable essay, Commentaire sur l’ouvrage de Filangieri (Commentary on the work of Filangieri). Gaetano Filangieri was an 18th century lawyer and economist from Naples, author of La scienza della legislazione (Science of Legislation, 1780), who imagined that political power might do good if it were in the right hands. Constant, like Montesquieu, believed laws should be limited to protecting liberty and peace. Therefore, he urged that government policy should be “laissez‐faire, laissez‐passer, and laissez‐aller.”
On December 22, 1825, Louis XVIII died, and he was succeeded by his Ultra‐royalist brother the Comte d’Artois who became Charles X. His policy was to imprison people found guilty of offending Catholic clergymen, to let Catholic clergy appoint all teachers in primary school and forbid anybody to publicly question the legitimacy of kings. Constant, elected to the Chamber of Deputies from a Paris district, led the opposition.
Constant’s health deteriorated seriously during 1830. His legs became swollen. He suffered paralysis in his feet, tongue and other parts of his body. He was confined to his house at 17 rue d’Anjou, Paris. He told a friend: “I have been unable to sustain an hour’s conversation.”
While he was ill, the French people decided they had enough of Charles X, and there was a revolution in July 1830. Lafayette wrote Constant: “A game is being played here in which our heads are all at stake. Bring yours!” He went to the Chamber of Deputies which deposed the king and named the Duc d’Orleans as the successor. Constant helped secure his agreement to protect liberties specified in the Charte of 1814.
On December 8, 1830, Constant faded fast, his wife Charlotte by his side. He died at the end of the day. He was 63. There was a funeral service December 12th at a Protestant church on rue Saint Antoine. As his coffin was brought to the Cemetary of Pere Lachaise, people waved the tricolor flags of the Liberal party. Lafayette told the crowd: “Love of liberty, and the need of serving her, always ruled his conduct.”
The Duc de Broglie, a leader in the Chamber of Deputies, wrote that Constant “was the first to teach republican government to the nation.” Armand Carrel, editor of the Nationale newspaper, commended Constant as “the man who during fifteen years had done the most for the constitutional education of France. He taught to every one the philosophy of Government, which had hitherto been inaccessible to ordinary minds.” And there was this letter to Constant’s wife Charlotte, signed by 13 people in the French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe who expressed sadness at “the loss of a man who was always the staunchest supporter of our rights.”
Constant’s most influential ideological successor was Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859). “The last generation in France,” Tocqueville wrote, “showed how a people might organize a stupendous tyranny in the community at the very time when they were baffling the authority of the nobility and braving the power of kings…When I feel the hand of power lie heavy on my brow, I care but little to know who oppresses me; and I am not the more disposed to pass beneath the yoke, because it is held out to me by the arms of a million men…unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing.”
Although the French liberal journalist Edward Laboulaye brought out an edition of Constant’s works in 1861, collectivism was coming into fashion, and Constant was remembered as an author of French romantic literature (mainly Adolphe). This view continues in some quarters — a 1993 biography of Constant, by French literature professor Dennis Wood, belittles his political philosophy. Elizabeth Schermerhorn’s 1924 biography remains the best in English.
But 20th century government horrors have brought recognition that Constant had fantastic insight. Political theorists F.A. Hayek and Isaiah Berlin helped revive interest in Constant’s political writings during the 1950s, and there was a new Paris edition of his works in 1957. In 1980, the Institut Benjamin Constant got started in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the first English language assessment of Constant’s political contributions was published — Benjamin Constant’s Philosophy of Liberalism by Brown University political science professor Guy H. Dodge. Cambridge University Press published the first English translation of Constant’s major political writings in 1988. New documents have come to light, and since 1993 the prestigious German publisher Max Niemeyer Verlag has issued the first three of a projected 40 volumes of Constant’s publications, memoirs and correspondence. Hopefully more people will discover the genius of this great thinker for liberty.