Liberty in the Shadow of Bonaparte

  • Themes: France, History

Benjamin Constant’s considered response not only to the mass murder inflicted by the French Revolution, but to the attempt to reduce the whole French population to the condition of willing slaves under Bonaparte’s First Empire, provides a diagnosis of the character of many subsequent totalitarian regimes.

Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine were crowned Emperor and Empress of France on 2 December 1804.
Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine were crowned Emperor and Empress of France on 2 December 1804. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

One recurring theme in eighteenth-century discourse in Europe was the idea that society was moving away from an age of war to an age of commerce, an age where trade would replace war as the way in which both individuals and societies would interact with each other. This was perhaps most famously articulated by Adam Smith in his four-stage stadial conception of history, beginning with the Age of Hunters and followed by the Age of Shepherds and the Age of Agriculture, before finally reaching the Age of Commerce. Here, in his words, people ‘would exchange with one another what they produced’ and receive in turn the commodities they could not themselves produce. Crucially, in such a society, individuals were allowed and encouraged to pursue their own route to prosperity. If Smith recognised that the ‘first duty of the sovereign’ was that of protecting society from ‘the violence and invasion of other independent societies’, he also saw that in modern societies the expense of fighting wars was ‘out of all proportion greater than the necessary expense of civil government’ and, moreover, that the fighting of wars encouraged what Smith termed ‘the profusion of government’.

There are many other examples of this type of reasoning that could be cited but one in particular merits attention: namely, the argument confidently advanced by Montesquieu in 1748 in The Spirit of the Laws that as ‘an almost general rule’ commerce cured ‘destructive prejudices’ and ‘the natural effect of commerce was to lead to peace’. As Montesquieu explained, ‘two nations that trade with each other become reciprocally dependent; if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling, and all unions are founded on mutual needs’.

Smith’s own argument was framed in the context of what he referred to as ‘the late war’, namely the Seven Years’ War that had ended in 1763, and the subsequent war in America: wars, in his view, fought in support of the monopoly of colonial trade. Nevertheless, the persistence of wars and of their negative consequences did little to diminish Smith’s faith in his grand narrative of the progress of commercial society and in the ‘revolution of the greatest importance to the publick happiness’ that it would bring.

Adam Smith died in 1790. In the years that immediately followed, Europe would be engulfed, first, in the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s and, then, the Napoleonic Wars, wars that not only revolutionised the manner in which war was fought but also introduced the world to wars fought on a previously unimagined scale. In such circumstances, was it still possible to believe in progress towards a commercial society and, no less importantly, in the possibility of an extension of our individual liberties?

One writer who retained his faith in the emergence and benefits of commercial society was Benjamin Constant. As he was to write in what is now his famous lecture comparing the liberty of the ancients with that of the moderns, if war preceded commerce, so too it followed that ‘an age must come in which commerce replaces war’. That age, Constant asserted, had now been reached. Today, he proclaimed in 1819, commerce is ‘the normal state of things, the only aim, the universal tendency, the true life of nations’. In such an age, Constant further argued, people wanted ‘repose, and with repose comfort, and, as a source of comfort, industry’.

Constant is without doubt a curious figure. Born in Lausanne in 1767 into a Protestant family, he received an education of sorts at the University of Edinburgh. Having initially greeted the French Revolution with enthusiasm (like most at the time), he first arrived in Paris in 1795 and there started to write about politics, fearing the likelihood of both a royalist counter-revolution and a new seizure of power by the remaining followers of Robespierre and the Jacobins. What followed is too complicated to be described here but, suffice it to say, that Constant spent much of the period of the First Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte in internal or external exile. Unfortunately, Constant’s complicated love life and predilection for gambling did little to enhance his reputation as a serious thinker, with the result that, if in later decades he was remembered at all, it was for his novel Adolphe, a roman à clef detailing the love of a disaffected young man for an older woman.

Nonetheless, it was during these years that Constant produced a body of writing that provided a coherent liberal programme for successive generations of French writers. In particular, the question that Constant sought to answer was how and why it had been possible for a revolution that had set out to emancipate people in the name of the rights of man to descend into the Reign of Terror, and then the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Constant’s clearest answer came in a lecture delivered in Paris in February 1819, entitled ‘The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns’. His thesis, in brief, was that the revolutionaries had mistaken the character of modern liberty, with disastrous consequences. This confusion, Constant announced, had been ‘the cause of many an evil’.

When Constant talked of ancient liberty, he had in mind the liberty that had prevailed in classical Greece and Rome. It consisted in the right to participate in the decision-making processes of society, to decide on questions of war and peace, and in voting on laws. It was, Constant argued, a form of ‘collective freedom’, but it was also a form of freedom that countenanced the ‘complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community’. All private actions were subjected to surveillance. No importance was attached to individual independence.

There was no liberty of thought and, in particular, no ‘right to choose one’s own religious affiliation’. As a private individual, the citizen was ‘constrained, watched and repressed in all his movements’. One example was the practice of ostracism, where society had ‘complete authority’ over its members, and where the individual was subject to arbitrary and discretionary power with no right of redress.

Constant further observed that such a conception of liberty was appropriate to societies that possessed three distinctive characteristics: ancient republics were restricted to a narrow territory; as a consequence of their small size, they were inevitably bellicose and obliged to preserve their independence and security ‘at the price of war’; and, finally, ‘by an equally necessary result of this way of being, all these states had slaves’.

By contrast, the foundations of modern states, and therefore of modern liberty, were very different. As moderns, we lived in large states, causing ‘a corresponding decrease of the political importance allotted to each individual’. Second, slavery had been abolished among European nations, thereby depriving individuals of the time to devote themselves to public affairs. Third, the activity of commerce left individuals with little opportunity to devote themselves to ‘the constant exercise of political rights’. Two things had followed from this. As moderns living in an age of commerce we had developed ‘a vivid love of independence’. We had also learned that, when governments sought to act on our behalf, they often did things incompetently and expensively.

What then was the nature of modern liberty? It consisted, Constant told his audience, of the right ‘to be neither arrested, detained, put to death, or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals’. It was, he continued, ‘the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practise it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it, to come and go without permission, and without having to account for our undertakings’. To this, Constant added the right to associate with other individuals and, most importantly, the right to profess a religion of one’s choosing. Henceforth, Constant therefore concluded, ‘our freedom must consist of peaceful enjoyment and quiet independence’. It also followed that we could no longer enjoy the liberty of the ancients.

How did this analysis enable Constant to answer the questions that most troubled him? First, he did not doubt that the aims of those who had initially led the French Revolution were ‘noble and generous’. ‘Who among us did not feel his heart beat with hope at the outset of the course which they seemed to open up?’ he said. However, those same men failed to recognise the changes brought about over 2,000 years in the ‘dispositions of mankind’. By the nature of the education the revolutionaries had received, they were ‘steeped in ancient views which [were] no longer valid’, and this, Constant believed, ‘furnished deadly pretexts for more than one kind of tyranny’. They had believed that everything should give way before the public will and that, in the name of an austere republican and classical virtue, ‘the individual should be enslaved for the people to be free’. In short, they had attempted to turn free men into Spartans and when this failed, as it was inevitably destined to do, they had had no alternative but to resort to coercion and terror. ‘It follows that none of the numerous and too highly praised institutions which in the ancient republics hindered individual liberty is any longer admissible in modern times,’ Constant wrote.

What conclusions followed from this? The first was that, as moderns, we needed to learn that limits had to be placed upon the extent of social power and collective sovereignty over the individual. This included a recognition that unlimited sovereignty, whether it be in the hands of one person, or several, or all the people, was bound to constitute an evil. It was then not a matter of attacking those who held power but of attacking the nature of power itself. As Constant wrote in one of his earlier essays on the principles of politics, there was ‘a part of human existence, which by necessity remains individual and independent, and which is, by right, outside any social competence’. It also followed, as Constant expressed it in his 1819 lecture, that he wanted ‘a liberty suited to modern times’ and, in line with what he had argued, that ‘individual liberty is the true modern liberty’.

Was that the end of Constant’s story? Many – including those who have never quite managed to read through to the end of the lecture – have often thought so. Yet he had another lesson to teach us. If the danger of ancient liberty was that men would attach too little value to their individual rights and enjoyments, the danger in modern liberty was that those very individuals might be so absorbed in the enjoyment of their ‘private independence’ and the pursuit of their ‘particular interests’ that they would all too easily be willing to give up their share in the exercise of political power. Moreover, those who held political authority were only too eager to encourage us to do this. They are, Constant argued, ‘so ready to spare us all sort of troubles, except those of paying and obeying’.

It is at this point in the argument that the shadow of Napoleon Bonaparte became all too evident. Constant thought long and hard about what to make of this remarkable man and what he had visited upon Europe. What Napoleon embodied was the spirit of conquest and, in its name, he had scarred Europe with the brutality of barbarism and the excesses of violence. Constant also saw that to force Europe into a general war of such a massive scale was ‘to commit a gross and disastrous anachronism’. It was, however, the internal repercussions for France of Bonaparte’s regime that interested Constant. The First Empire, he argued, was a novel form of usurpation, a form of arbitrary and illegal power exercised by one man who had slithered onto the throne ‘through mud and blood’.

Its guiding principle was the centralisation of all power. The ambition was to impose uniformity and unanimity. To that end, it employed spies and informers, and sought to silence all opposition and freedom of thought, subjecting all it touched to ‘moral degradation and ever-growing ignorance’. More than this, this regime had sought to destroy all the institutions of civil society, with the express intention of rendering individuals ‘strangers in the place of their birth’, casting them ‘like atoms upon an immense flat plain’, and forcing them to live in a state of isolation and indifference towards their fellows.

But there was a further novel dimension to this regime of usurpation, a dimension that, in Constant’s opinion, made it more to be feared than the traditional forms of absolute despotism that had preceded it. ‘Despotism rules by means of silence, and leaves man the right to be silent; usurpation condemns him to speak, it pursues him to the most intimate sanctuary of his thoughts, and by forcing him to lie to his own conscience, deprives the oppressed of his last remaining consolation.’ The usurper, in short, demanded public approval from those he had enslaved.

And, so, it was with this experience in mind that Constant concluded his lecture with the assertion that, rather than abandoning one or other of the two forms of liberty, we had to learn of necessity ‘to combine the two together’. This was because the individual and civil liberty we now treasured could only be guaranteed through the continued existence of political liberty. It was not to happiness alone but to our self-development that we were called, and political liberty was the most effective means of achieving that end. Political liberty, Constant told his audience, ‘by submitting to all citizens, without exception, the care and assessment of their most sacred interests, enlarges their spirit, ennobles their thoughts, and establishes among them a kind of intellectual equality which forms the glory and power of a people’. Fortunately, the mechanisms of representative democracy now made possible such political engagement in modern, large-scale societies.

Here then was Constant’s considered response not only to the mass murder inflicted by the French Revolution, but to the attempt to reduce the whole French population to the condition of willing slaves under Bonaparte’s First Empire. As already indicated, in setting out these ideas, Constant provided the foundations for a liberal programme that was to be developed by later writers in France and elsewhere. As importantly, he provided, with great insight, a diagnosis of the character of a distinctively modern form of usurpation or dictatorship that can be applied to our analysis of many subsequent totalitarian regimes, warning us, in the process, that we should not allow the power of government to substitute itself for society or allow the authority of society to substitute itself for the rights of the individual. Moreover, in an age where governments in liberal democracies increasingly have resort to the language of crisis, emergency and war to justify the surrendering of the legislative function to executive power, these are arguments that need to be heard clearly. If not, we will most likely see the ever greater infiltration of the power of the state into the lives of individuals.


Jeremy Jennings