Benjamin Constant

This article is about the European writer and politician. For other people and places, see Benjamin Constant (disambiguation).
Benjamin Constant
Born Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque
(1767-10-25)25 October 1767
Lausanne, Switzerland
Died 8 December 1830(1830-12-08) (aged 63)
Paris, France
Occupation Writer, politician
Nationality Swiss French
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
University of Erlangen-Nuremberg
Genre Novel, essay
Literary movement Romanticism
Notable works Adolphe (1816)
Partner Germaine de Staël

Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (French: [kɔ̃stɑ̃]; 25 October 1767 – 8 December 1830), or simply Benjamin Constant, was a Swiss-French political activist and writer on politics and religion. He was the author of a partly biographical psychological novel, Adolphe. He was a fervent liberal[1] of the early 19th century who influenced the Trienio Liberal movement in Spain, the Liberal Revolution of 1820 in Portugal, the Greek War of Independence, the November Uprising in Poland, the Belgian Revolution, and Liberalism in Brazil and Mexico.


Henri-Benjamin Constant was born in Lausanne to descendants of Huguenot Protestants who had fled from Artois to Switzerland during the Huguenot Wars in the 16th century. His father, Jules Constant de Rebecque, served as a high-ranking officer in the Dutch States Army, like his grandfather, his uncle and his cousin Jean Victor de Constant Rebecque. When Constant's mother died soon after his birth, both his grandmothers took care of him. Private tutors educated him in Brussels (1779) and in the Netherlands (1780), and at the Protestant University of Erlangen (1783), where he gained appointment to the court of Duchess Sophie Caroline Marie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. He had to leave after an affair with a girl, and moved to the University of Edinburgh. There he lived at the home of Andrew Duncan, the elder and became friends with James Mackintosh[2] and Malcolm Laing.[3] When he left the city he promised to pay back his gambling debts.

In 1787 he returned, traveling on horseback through England and Scotland. In those years the European nobility with their prerogatives had come under heavy attack by those who were influenced by Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality; Constant's family criticized him when he left out part of his last name.[4] In Paris, at Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard he became acquainted with Isabelle de Charriere, a 26-year older Dutch woman and writer, who later helped publishing the work of Rousseau Confessions and who knew his uncle David-Louis Constant de Rebecque extremely well by correspondence for 15 years. When he stayed at her home in Colombier Switzerland they wrote an epistolary novel together. She acted as a mother to him until Constant's appointment to the court of Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel that required him to move north. He left the court when the War of the First Coalition began (1792).

In Brunswick he had married Wilhelmina von Cramm, but he divorced her in 1793. In September 1794 he met the famous and rich (but married) Anne Louise Germaine de Staël, as a child brought up on the principles of Rousseau. They both admired Jean Lambert Tallien and Talleyrand. Their intellectual collaboration between 1795 and 1811 made them one of the most celebrated intellectual couples of their time.[5]


After the Reign of Terror in France (1793–1794), Constant became a defender of bicameralism and of the Parliament of Great Britain. In revolutionary France this strand of political thought resulted in the Constitution of the Year III, the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients. In 1799, after 18 Brumaire Constant was appointed by Napoleon Bonaparte to the Tribunat, but in 1802 the Emperor forced him to withdraw because of his speeches and of his connections with Mme de Staël.

Constant became acquainted with Julie Talma, the wife of François-Joseph Talma, who wrote him many letters of compelling human interest.[6]

In 1800 the Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise, an act of terror, failed. In 1803, at a time when Britain and France were at peace, Jean Gabriel Peltier argued that Napoleon should be killed.[7] James Mackintosh defended the French refugee against a libel suit instigated by Napoleon – then First Consul of France. The speech was widely published in English and also across Europe in a French translation by Madame de Staël. She was forced to leave Paris.

De Staël, disappointed in French Rationalism, became interested in German Romanticism. Constant moved with her and their two children to Weimar. Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel welcomed them the day after their arrival. In Weimar they met Friedrich von Schiller; Johann Wolfgang Goethe at first hesitated.[8] In Berlin they met with August Wilhelm Schlegel, and his brother Friedrich Schlegel. Then Constant became bored with Germaine in Coppet because of her constant need for attention. In 1806 he lived in Rouen and Meulan and started to work on his novel Adolphe. In 1809 he secretly married Caroline von Hardenberg, a woman who had been divorced twice, (she was related to Novalis and to Karl August von Hardenberg). He moved back to Paris in 1814, where Louis XVIII of France had become king. As a member of the Council of State; Constant defended the constitutional monarchy. He became friends with Madame Récamier and argued with Germaine, who had asked him to pay his debts when their daughter Albertine married Victor de Broglie. During the Hundred Days of Napoleon, who had become more liberal, Constant fled to the Vendée, but returned when he was invited several times at the Tuileries in order to set up changes for the Charter of 1815.

After the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815) Constant moved to London – not in the company of Madame Récamier, who went south, but with his wife. In 1817, back in Paris, he sat in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower legislative house of the Restoration-era government. One of its most eloquent orators, he became a leader of the parliamentary block first known as the Independants and then as "liberals". He became an opponent of Charles X of France during the Restoration[9] between 1815 and 1830.

In 1830 King Louis Philippe I gave Constant a large sum of money to pay off his debts, and appointed him to the Conseil d'Etat.

Political philosophy

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, commercial society. He drew a distinction between the "Liberty of the Ancients" and the "Liberty of the Moderns".[10] The Liberty of the Ancients was a participatory, republican liberty, which gave the citizens the right to directly influence politics through debates and votes in the public assembly.[10] In order 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 societies, in which the people could be conveniently gathered together in one place to transact public affairs.[10]

Painting by Marguerite Gérard, Mme de Staël et sa fille(around 1805)
Charlotte von Hardenberg
Madame Recamier (1777–1849) by Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard

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 commercial society in which there are no slaves but almost everybody must 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 the necessity of daily political involvement.[10]

He chastised several of the aspects of the French Revolution and the failures within the social and political upheaval. He stated how the French attempted to apply ancient republic liberties to the modern state. Constant realized that freedom meant drawing a frontier between the area of a person's private life and that of public authority.[11] He admired the noble spirit of regeneration of the state; however, he stated that it was naïve that writers believed that two thousand years had not wrought some changes in disposition and needs of people. The dynamics of the state had changed: the ancient states' population paled in comparison to that of the modern countries. He even argued that with a large population man had no role in government regardless of its form or type. Constant emphasized how the ancient state found more satisfaction in their public existence and less in their private. However, the satisfaction of modern peoples occur in their private existence.

Constant's repeated denunciation of despotism pervaded his critique of French political philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Abbé de Mably. These writers, influential to the French Revolution, according to Constant, mistook authority for liberty and approved any means of extending the action of authority. Reformers used the model of ancient states of public force and organized the most absolute despotism under the name of Republic. He continued to condemn despotism, citing the paradox of liberty derived from recourse to despotism, and the lack of substance in this ideology.

Furthermore, he pointed out the detrimental nature of the Reign of Terror; the inexplicable delirium. In François Furet's words, Constant's "entire political thought"[12] revolved around this question, namely the problem of explaining the Terror. Constant understood the revolutionaries' disastrous over-investment in the political.[11] The French revolutionaries such as the Sans-culottes were the primary forces in the streets. They promoted constant vigilance and a public person. Constant pointed out how the most obscure life, the quietest existence, the most unknown name, offered no protection during the Reign of Terror. He also stated that each individual added to the number, and took fright in the number that he had helped increase. This mob mentality deterred many and helped to usher in new despots such as Napoleon.

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

Constant believed that if liberty were to be salvaged from the aftermath of the Revolution, then chimerical Ancient Liberty had to be reconciled with the practical and achievable Modern Liberty. England, since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and then 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.[13] 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 made a profound (albeit indirect) contribution to French constitutional traditions.

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 conventional wisdom of William Blackstone, the 18th-century English jurist, had reckoned the King to be head of the executive branch. In Constant's scheme, the executive power was entrusted to a Council of Ministers (or Cabinet) who, although appointed by the King, were ultimately responsible 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 been apparent in Britain for more than a century: that the ministers, and not the King, are responsible, and therefore that the King "reigns but does not rule". This was important for the development of parliamentary government in France and elsewhere. It should be noted, however, that 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 exercisable only by the responsible ministers.

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.

The importance of Constant's writings on the liberty of the ancients has dominated understanding of his work. His wider literary and cultural writings (most importantly the novella Adolphe and his extensive histories of religion) emphasized the importance of self-sacrifice and warmth of the human emotions as a basis for social living. Thus, while he pleaded for individual liberty as vital for individual moral development and appropriate for modernity, he felt that egoism and self-interest were insufficient as 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 preparing his religious history.


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.[9]

Bibliography of Constant's writings

See also


  1. Craiutu, A. (2012) A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748–1830, pp. 199, 202–03
  2. Benjamin Constant: philosophe, historien, romancier, homme d'état, p. 38
  3. "The Cambridge Companion to CONSTANT". Retrieved 2013-09-17.
  4. "Cahier Rouge, p. 122". 2013-08-11. Retrieved 2013-09-17.
  5. Their affair resulted in one daughter Albertine.
  6. Benjamin Constant, p. 222. Retrieved 2013-09-17.
  7. "Un journaliste contre-révolutionnaire, Jean-Gabriel Peltier (1760–1825) – Etudes Révolutionnaires". 2011-10-07. Retrieved 2013-09-17.
  8. Madame De Stael and the Grand-Duchess Louise Door Madame de Stael, p. 24
  9. 1 2 G. Lanson, P. Tuffrau, Manuel d’histoire de la Littérature Française, Hachette, Paris 1953
  10. 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. 309–28". Retrieved 2013-09-17.
  11. 1 2 Rosenblatt 2004
  12. Furet 1981, p. 27
  13. English Text of the Charter

Further reading

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Benjamin Constant.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Benjamin Constant
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 12/1/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.